Oakland Athletics face many challenges as page turns

By Roger Rubin, The Sports Xchange  |  July 26, 2017 at 12:02 PM
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It became clear that the Oakland Athletics were turning the page on this season quite a while ago.

It began unfolding last month when Trevor Plouffe was dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays and highly regarded Matt Chapman was called up to become the starter at third base. Then, catcher Stephen Vogt was released to make way for Bruce Maxwell's call-up. And a little over a week ago, bullpen mainstays Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle were traded to the Washington Nationals, primarily for prospects.

Yet the A's soldier on, with a fire sale happening around them and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaching.

"Everyone on this team is coming here to win a game, so in that way nothing has changed," said rookie center fielder Jaycob Brugman, who now splits time with veteran Rajai Davis. "Are there some players who are young and still working on their craft? Absolutely. But are there players who come in after the game and check in what's happening with trades? We have that, too."

That is no simple dynamic to carry through the heart of a season. Regulars are de-emphasized, dealt or cut. Young players are forced into new roles. Veterans see hopes of contending dashed. There is uncertainty.

Ace Sonny Gray may have made his last start for Oakland on Tuesday night when he allowed four unearned runs over six innings of a 4-1 loss at Toronto. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that seven different suitors had scouts on hand for the game at Rogers Centre. With two more seasons of arbitration eligibility left, Gray is coveted and knows it. He may be dealing with uncertainty now, but all the odds say he will be pitching in a playoff race soon.

Second baseman Jed Lowrie, in the final year of his contract, seems a likely trade target as well. There is still time, but there has been little buzz about him. He could end up playing out a season for an overmatched team, or worse, have to yield playing time to young talent on said team.

"You handle (trade talk) as best you can. Certain guys are immune to it," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said last weekend in New York, where the team dropped two of three to the Mets. "Certain guys maybe are more in tune to it, whether they've bought in ... or not.

"But if you've been here with us, there's been some turnover and there continues to be. So, at this time of year, it's not new that there are guys rumored to be traded. So, you do the best, insulate in the game and your performance and try to win for your team."

Melvin is fortunate in that he has players with good character. Circumstances like the one that surrounds the A's can get ugly. A season starts with veterans heading the clubhouse and the young talent following the lead. Then the club changes directions. Suddenly the young talent has more job security and, therefore, sees it as their team.

"It becomes two camps, that's just the way it is," Melvin said. "I don't think it affects either one on this team. The young guys are just out here playing. And we're lucky enough to have some veteran guys who are good resources."

"Could we break up into two teams? It could happen in some places, but not here. We're a tight group and everyone is professional," said first baseman Yonder Alonso, who is another potential trade target with a .264 average and 21 homers. "It would be very unprofessional for the veterans to come here resenting the rookies, just as it would be for the rookies to come here thinking that what the veterans think doesn't matter because they only have a few days left. We never think that way."

Maxwell said, "I was humbled they'd let (Vogt) go and give me this chance. They tell you all along that baseball is business, and maybe that's what's happening now. For me, I want to do everything I can to win games and show the club I belong. ... I will play to win with whoever is playing next to me."

This will mostly be over in less than a week when the trade deadline passes. There still could be some deals, via waivers, in the month that follows, but with so many teams in the hunt, the upside for such trades will be smaller and less appealing to Oakland.

You often hear players say that baseball is a hard game. And yes, the best hitters fail 70 percent of the time.

But appreciate for a moment that there are some challenges to the day-to-day grind, even for a team that is out of the running. The challenges are different, but the season can be just as hard as it is for the contenders.

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