On Wednesday, the Oakland A's completed one of the most improbable regular season runs in recent memory, winning 94 games and erasing a five game deficit in the AL West standings over the final nine games of the season. The feat has earned them an AL West title – the 15th division title in franchise history – and a trip to the American League Divisional Series. The ALDS begins on Saturday in chilly Detroit with two games at Comerica Park before the A's return home to the Coliseum for Game Three (and Games Four and Five, if necessary).
How did a team that finished 74-88 and 22 games out of first place last season wind up a division winner? We take a look at how the Oakland A's were built.
During the A's post-game celebration on Wednesday, Oakland General Manager Billy Beane spoke of how the 2012 A's were almost built from scratch and that there was very little carryover from the A's 2011 regular 25-man roster. Of the position players who appeared in at least 60 games this season, only Cliff Pennington, Coco Crisp, Jemile Weeks and Kurt Suzuki appeared in more than 60 games for the A's last season. Suzuki isn't even with the team anymore, having been traded to the Washington Nationals in August, and Weeks finished the season as a September call-up, having been demoted to Triple-A in August.
On the pitching-side, there was also significant turnover. With Brett Anderson missing much of the year and Dallas Braden missing the entire season, Brandon McCarthy and Tyson Ross were the only 2011 A's starting pitchers to make more than 10 starts for the team in 2012, and neither reached the 20-start plateau.
In the bullpen, there were a few familiar faces. Grant Balfour made 75 appearances to lead the team after appearing in 62 games for the A's in 2011. Jerry Blevins, another returning member of the 2011 squad, made 63 appearances this year, the third most on the team. It was a strong comeback season for Blevins, who yo-yoed between Triple-A and the big leagues last season and appeared in only 26 games for Oakland in 2011. The only other member of the A's bullpen who appeared in a significant amount of games for the A's last season – Brian Fuentes – pitched in 26 games for the A's this season before being released midseason.
The A's front office was busy from the start of the last off-season. The first key contributor to the A's 2012 division title run was acquired on October 25 when the A's claimed reliever Evan Scribner off waivers from the San Diego Padres. Scribner was actually one of two players acquired off waivers by the A's that day (Cedric Hunter being the other). Both Scribner and Hunter would be removed from the A's 40-man roster later in the off-season, but both were invited to spring training as non-roster invitees. Hunter would eventually be traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, but Scribner wound-up playing a key role in the A's bullpen. Despite spending half of the season with Triple-A Sacramento, Scribner still made 30 appearances for the A's, posting a 2.55 ERA with 30 strike-outs in 35.1 innings. He earned the win in relief in the A's division-clinching victory over the Texas Rangers on Wednesday.
Oakland's next "major" acquisition hardly generated any headlines. On November 11, the A's signed reliever Jim Miller to a minor league contract. The hard-throwing right-hander spent some time in Triple-A, but was with the A's long enough to make 33 relief appearances. He struck-out 44 in 48.2 innings and posted a 2.59 ERA. Coming into the season, Miller had 14 games worth of major league experience.
Brandon Moss was another unheralded minor league free agent signing by Oakland this off-season. The former Red Sox prospect inked with Oakland on December 1. Before the season, he was best known to A's fans for hitting a game-tying homer off Huston Street in the ninth inning of the A's Opening Day loss to the Boston Red Sox in Japan in 2008. He would go on to be one of the A's most valuable hitters in 2012 despite not being called up from Triple-A Sacramento until the first week of June. In 84 games with the A's, he hit 21 homers and posted a 954 OPS. Between Triple-A and the big leagues, Moss homered 36 times in 471 at-bats this year.
The first big headline move of the A's off-season came just two days after the Winter Meetings on December 9, when Oakland traded starter Trevor Cahill and reliever Craig Breslow to the Arizona Diamondbacks for three young players with minimal major league experience. This trade was seen at the time as a sign that the A's were punting the 2012 season. Instead, the A's received their 2012 All-Star representative (Ryan Cook) and their playoff game one starter (Jarrod Parker). The third player in the deal, Collin Cowgill, was the A's fourth outfielder until he sustained an injury in late June.
The Oakland front office was quiet for two more weeks before making headlines again with a big pre-Christmas trade. Gio Gonzalez, an All-Star in 2011, was traded along with minor league right-hander Robert Gilliam to the Washington Nationals for a bushel of young talent. While many analysts praised the A's front office for the amount of talent they received from Washington, few believed that talent would impact the 2012 team. Two of those four players acquired from Washington played big roles for the A's – left-hander Tom Milone and catcher Derek Norris. Milone, a member of the A's Opening Day rotation, made a team-high 31 starts and won 13 games while posting a 3.74 ERA. Norris' numbers weren't all that impressive at the major league level (.201/.279/.349) but his work with the A's pitching staff was solid and he had two of the biggest homeruns of the season for Oakland.
The trade has worked out swimmingly for the Nationals, as well, as Gonzalez won 21 games for the NL East division-winning club and is a NL Cy Young candidate. A true assessment of that trade won't be made for a few more years, as the two players from the trade who didn't make their debuts with Oakland yet (Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole) project to be contributors in the A's rotation in the coming years.
Five days after the A's dealt Gonzalez, Oakland traded yet another All-Star, this time closer Andrew Bailey, as well as a former starting outfielder (Ryan Sweeney) for Josh Reddick, Miles Head and Raul Alcantara. Unlike with the Gonzalez deal, the Bailey deal was met with muted enthusiasm from analysts, many of whom thought the A's could have gotten more for Bailey. Those assessments proved to be faulty, as Reddick wound-up leading the A's in WAR, homers and RBIs and played outstanding defense in right-field. Head (.333/.391/.577 in 124 games in High-A and Double-A) was the A's best minor league hitter in 2012. Alcantara was inconsistent in his first crack at full-season ball, but he has a promising right arm and is only 19 years old.
Up until January 5, the A's off-season had a distinct "sell for the future" feel to it. Then the A's surprised everyone when they re-signed free agent Coco Crisp to a two-year deal. That signing was only the beginning for the A's, who would spend the rest of the month trading for or signing veteran players. During the month of January, the A's acquired Crisp, Seth Smith, Bartolo Colon and Jonny Gomes. All four of those players would play huge roles for the A's in 2012, although Colon's role would be both as a contributor and as a source of adversity when he was suspended late in the season for violating baseball's performance-enhancing drug policy.
Smith was acquired from Colorado on January 16 for two pitchers who, up until that point in the off-season, were expected be a part of the A's 2012 starting rotation: Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman. Both Moscoso and Outman struggled with the Rockies, while Smith posted a 754 OPS with 14 homers in 383 at-bats for the A's.
Colon signed with the A's eight days later (January 24). He was brought in to anchor the Oakland rotation and eat innings. Colon did both things well for the A's until he was popped for the drug violation. In 152.1 innings, Colon went 10-9 with a 3.43 ERA. He walked only 23. His suspension left a big void in the A's rotation, but also opened a permanent spot for rookie A.J. Griffin, who went 7-1 with a 3.06 ERA in 15 starts for the A's.
Gomes joined the A's two days later on January 26. He would assume the role of the defacto captain of the A's clubhouse while also providing a solid right-handed platoon option. In only 279 at-bats, Gomes homered 18 times and posted an 868 OPS. His grip-and-rip style of hitting seemed to rub off on the A's, who set an AL record for strike-outs but also finished among the league leaders in homeruns. Gomes had a 974 OPS versus left-handed pitching.
Many assumed the A's were done with their biggest off-season moves once February rolled around. However, only days before pitchers and catchers reported to Papago Field in Phoenix for the start of spring training, Oakland made its biggest signing of the off-season. On February 13, the A's surprised everyone by inking heralded Cuban free agent Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year contract. Cespedes was considered a raw talent when the A's signed him, but he proved to be much more than that. In any year that didn't include Mike Trout or Yu Darvish, Cespedes would be the front-runner for the AL Rookie of the Year. He hit .292/.356/.505 with 23 homers and 16 stolen bases and he posted a 3.4 WAR.
The A's added another high-profile player exactly one week later, but he proved to be only a footnote in the A's storybook 2012 regular season. Future Hall of Famer Manny Ramirez signed with Oakland to a minor league deal on February 20. Ramirez began the year serving a 50-game suspension for a second violation of the performance-enhancing drug policy the previous season. He was eligible to return on May 30 and spent a few weeks in May and June "rehabbing" with the Sacramento River Cats, but the A's decided not to recall Ramirez on May 30 and Ramirez eventually asked and was granted his release. The A's decision to let Ramirez go cleared the way for the A's to cycle a number of key contributors through the DH/LF position the rest of the way, including Gomes, Smith, Moss and Chris Carter, all of whom finished the season with double-digits in homeruns.
The A's would make one more move before the start of the regular season, acquiring shortstop Brandon Hicks off of waivers from the Atlanta Braves on March 13. Hicks didn't play much with the A's, despite spending nearly half the season on the roster, but he did hit one walk-off homerun and made several key defensive plays.
During spring training, one of the biggest position battles in camp was at the first base position. The A's had four first basemen on their 40-man roster and all of them had some major league experience – Brandon Allen, Kila Ka'aihue, Daric Barton and Chris Carter. Barton began the year on the DL as he continued his recovery from off-season surgery and Carter wasn't given much of a chance to make the team out of camp. Allen and Ka'aihue – both out of options – landed on The Opening Day roster.
First base figured to be a position that would be in flux throughout the season for the A's and that held true. On April 9th, the A's made their first move involving the position, designating Allen for assignment and activating Barton off the DL. Barton was also demoted early in the season, sent back to Triple-A on June 2. On June 6th, the A's would designate Ka'aihue for assignment and promote the hot-hitting Moss from Triple-A. Although Moss' experience at first base was limited, the A's threw him into the fire defensively, hoping to take advantage of his hot start with Sacramento. That turned out to be one of the key decisions made by the Oakland front office this season.
Third base was also a position in flux for the A's during spring training after incumbent starter Scott Sizemore tore his ACL on the first day of camp. Converted catcher Josh Donaldson won the job out of camp, but he struggled badly at the plate in April and was sent back to Sacramento on April 23rd. The A's claimed infielder Luke Hughes off of waivers from the Minnesota Twins on April 22nd, but he would only be with the big league team for a few days. On April 30th, the A's signed veteran third baseman Brandon Inge, who had been granted his release by his longtime team, the Detroit Tigers.
Inge made an impact almost immediately, hitting several dramatic late-inning homeruns. While his overall offensive numbers weren't great, Inge provided stability at the third base spot and some key hits in tight situations. In 74 games with the A's, he hit 11 homeruns and drove-in 52 runs. Inge would finish the year on the DL and it was his shoulder injury that opened the door for Donaldson to return to the big leagues (more on that later).
The A's pitching staff would see its first major change on April 21, when Graham Godfrey was sent back to Triple-A and reliever Pedro Figueroa was recalled from Sacramento. Godfrey's rotation spot would be filled on April 25 by rookie Jarrod Parker, who would put together a standout debut season. In 181.1 big league innings, Parker posted a 3.47 ERA and struck-out 140 while winning 13 games. April 25 was also the date that the A's added Miller to the 40-man roster and recalled him to Oakland for the first time.
On May 15th, the A's made another under-the-radar waiver wire pick-up that would have a major impact on the team's fortunes. Oakland claimed left-hander Travis Blackley from the San Francisco Giants. Blackley would split his season between the A's bullpen and the rotation, pitching several important innings for Oakland. In 102.2 innings for Oakland, he had a 3.86 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP. Blackley's ability to fill several roles on the A's pitching staff helped Oakland deal with the injuries to several starters and relievers throughout the year.
June 4th would be the next date of arrival for a major contributor to the A's 2012 run. Left-handed reliever Jordan Norberto was placed on the DL with shoulder fatigue on that date and rookie Sean Doolittle was recalled from the minor leagues to make his debut. Doolittle's rise to the big leagues has been well-documented, but it is still worth remembering that he spent only two months in the minor leagues as a pitcher before making his major league debut (Doolittle began his career as a first baseman/outfielder before injuries forced him to switch to be a pitcher, a position he last played in college in 2007).
Doolittle finished the year as one of the best set-up men in the major leagues. He struck-out 60 and walked only 11 in 47.1 big league innings and he posted a 3.04 ERA. Including his time in the minors, Doolittle struck-out 110 and walked only 19 in 75.1 innings in his first season as a professional pitcher.
The A's made a surprising move on June 21st, recalling catcher Derek Norris from Triple-A. Although he was ostensibly replacing Donaldson as the back-up catcher at the time of his recall, Norris' promotion was really a major sea change for the A's behind the plate. Before Norris' arrival, incumbent starter Kurt Suzuki played nearly every day, but once Norris was on the roster, he began to share time with Suzuki on a regular basis. Suzuki would eventually be traded to Washington on August 3rd for minor league catcher David Freitas.
On June 24, the A's suddenly found themselves down two starting pitchers as Brandon McCarthy landed on the DL with a shoulder issue and Colon was placed on the DL one day earlier with an oblique strain. To fill one of those gaps in the rotation, the A's recalled rookie A.J. Griffin from Triple-A. Griffin's rise to the big leagues was a quick one, as the 2010 13th round pick spent less than two seasons in the minor leagues before his debut. Griffin was expected to be with the team only while McCarthy and/or Colon were out, but he pitched well enough to remain in the rotation for the rest of the season (save his own DL stint in August). The rookie went 7-1 with a 3.06 ERA and a 64:19 K:BB ratio.
Five days after Griffin's arrival (June 29), Carter would make his 2012 debut for the A's. The perennial top A's prospect had struggled during his first two shots in the big leagues in 2010 and 2011. This time, Carter took full advantage of the opportunities he was given. Although he didn't have regular playing time with Oakland, Carter still managed 16 homeruns in only 218 at-bats (864 OPS). He struggled in September but still managed four homeruns in the month. For the season, he posted OPSs above 830 against both right-handers and left-handers.
On July 4, Colon would return to the rotation and he would take the active roster spot of veteran reliever Brian Fuentes, who never go on-track this season. Fuentes would be released seven days later. At this point, Doolittle started to see many of the important innings that had previously gone to Fuentes.
The A's were relatively quiet around the trade deadline. Their only move came on July 28, when they acquired catcher George Kottaras from the Milwaukee Brewers for reliever Fautino De Los Santos. Kottaras would initially take Norris' back-up catcher spot, but the A's would deal Suzuki on August 3, opening the door for Norris and Kottaras to share time behind the plate for the rest of the season. Kottaras provided a nice offensive boost at a spot where the A's struggled to find offense all season. In 27 games with the A's, he posted a .471 SLG and homered six times in 85 at-bats.
August would be a busy month for the A's on the transaction front. On August 2, Adam Rosales was recalled from Triple-A, taking Brandon Hicks' spot on the roster. Rosales' role with the A's would gradually increase the remainder of the season and by September he was playing regularly at second base against left-handed pitchers.
On August 3, the A's acquired reliever Pat Neshek from the Baltimore Orioles for cash considerations. Although Neshek is a major league veteran, he had been with the O's Triple-A affiliate for the entire year up until that point. Used mostly against tough right-handed hitters late in games, Neshek was dominating at times for the A's. He posted a 1.37 ERA and an 0.81 WHIP in 19.2 innings spread over 24 appearances.
August 3rd also marked the arrival of rookie Dan Straily. Straily went from a relatively unknown prospect to being one of the top pitching prospects in baseball in one season's time. He struck-out 190 in 152 innings for Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento while posting a 2.78 ERA. Straily made seven big league starts in August and September. He alternated good and bad outings and finished with a 3.89 ERA and a 32:16 K:BB ratio in 39.2 innings. Norris also returned from Sacramento on August 3rd to take Suzuki's spot.
The A's would play a 15-inning game on August 3 and then their pitching staff took another hit on August 4 when Griffin would leave his start early with shoulder pain. On August 5, the A's placed Griffin on the DL and brought back Scribner and Figueroa to bolster the bullpen. Figueroa would split the rest of the season between the big leagues and Triple-A, but Scribner would be a key performer for the A's for the rest of the season.
McCarthy returned to the rotation on August 10 after a stint on the DL, but the A's would lose Brandon Inge to a shoulder injury five days later. On August 15, the A's placed Inge on the DL and brought Donaldson back to fill the third base spot. At the time, this seemed like a significant blow to the A's chances given Donaldson's struggles early in the year. Instead, it proved to be a key moment in the A's season. Donaldson posted an 845 OPS after being called up, hitting eight homeruns in 176 at-bats while also playing excellent defense.
On August 20, Brett Anderson was reinstated from the A's 60-day disabled list. He had missed the entire season up until that point recovering from Tommy John surgery. His arrival was a big boost for the A's, who would lose Colon and McCarthy for the season only a few days later. Anderson missed the final two weeks of the season with an oblique strain, but when he was healthy, he was dominant. In six starts, he had a 2.57 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP.
August 20 was also the day the A's acquired shortstop Stephen Drew from the Arizona Diamondbacks for minor league shortstop Sean Jamieson. The A's were linked to Drew in trade rumors before the non-waiver trade deadline, but the A's and Diamondbacks didn't pull the trigger at that point. Drew became the A's everyday shortstop after the trade. He got off to a slow start at the plate but finished with a 793 OPS and five homeruns in September.
Drew's arrival had a big impact on the A's roster, as he displaced Jemile Weeks off of the roster. Weeks was the A's best infielder last season but he struggled during his sophomore season. Despite those struggles, he played every day until the A's acquired Drew. Weeks would spend the rest of the regular season in Sacramento and re-joined the A's in September, although his playing time has been very limited since coming back to the team.
On August 22, the A's rotation took a big hit when MLB announced that Colon would be suspended for 50 games for violating baseball's performance enhancing drug policy. He was replaced for one start by Ross, but his spot eventually was filled by Griffin, who returned on September 1.
On September 5, the A's had to absorb yet another tough blow to their rotation when staff ace McCarthy was struck in the head with a line-drive. He suffered a skull fracture and required emergency surgery. McCarthy was lost for the rest of the regular season, although there is a chance he will be available at some point in the post-season. McCarthy's injury led to the recall of Straily on September 7 and Straily would fill McCarthy's spot for the rest of the season.
On September 19th, the A's rotation would absorb yet one more blow when Anderson went down with a strained right oblique. Blackley would fill Anderson's spot in the rotation for the rest of the season, struggling in his first two starts in that spot, but excelling in his final start of the season versus Texas.
The A's roadmap for the division title wasn't a simple one and isn't likely to be repeated by any other team any time soon.