Perhaps I'm just too much of a natural optimist. Perhaps it's watching Bobby Crosby produce in his early-season fortnight of health. Perhaps, compared to last year, this year's A's squad seems reasonably healthy, since they only have three players currently on the disabled list.
I'm not sure why, but I'm finding myself actually peeking at the standings, checking the calendar for upcoming series against contenders, and generally believing that this "rebuilding" squad won't lose 90-95 games, as many prognosticated in February.
Oakland challenging for 85 wins? Sure, I think it's possible. Contending for a playoff spot? Unlikely. Outperforming expectations? Absolutely.
Here's what we know, so far, that might back up my theory of relative success for the A's:
Dana Eveland and Greg Smith, two of the pitchers new to the organization, kept fairly good offenses from stomping the A's. Cleveland and Toronto are pretty good initial tests of a pitcher's effectivness, and though Smith struggled with his command at times in the Rogers Centre, I'll allow a bit of margin for error considering it was his Major League debut. Nerves have to play a small role, even for a pitcher considered to be the most "polished" of all the arms Oakland acquired this winter.
Speaking of pitchers, Oakland's staff is currently second in the American League in strikeouts and ERA. Did anyone expect that after the loss of Dan Haren, from a rotation of Blanton, Harden, Duchscherer, Gaudin and Eveland? I know, I know... small sample size. Still, it's a ray of hope -- assuming the staff remains healthy, the ever-present caveat to any analysis of an A's team.
Even dealing with the health issues has been fairly successful to this point. Jack Hannahan is filling in ably for Eric Chavez, while Chavvy's back/arms/shoulders/everything-else heals at a rate similar to a bristlecone pine's growth. Hannahan's bat has been average to this point, and he's been a tad strikeout-prone, but his defense at third has been, at times, Chavez-esque. It was especially striking on Wednesday night, when Hannahan fielded a deflected ball on the run and bare-handed it on a beautiful throw to a stretching Daric Barton for a key out at first.
Not ten minutes later, former Oakland utilityman and "Clutch Hitter" Marco Scutaro made a terrible throw that sailed wide of catcher Gregg Zaun, allowing two A's insurance runs to score. Sentimentality aside, how many in Oakland still wish Scutaro was on the field instead of Hannahan? Especially after his comments that indicated he's happier in Toronto, away from what he thought was a "Moneyball" offense? (Someone should tell him who Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi studied under...)
Past the immediate big-league issues, there is a ton of talent is waiting in the wings. Carlos Gonzalez and Gio Gonzalez, only related by natural baseball skill, should be up with the team by mid-season, providing a boost. Greg Smith has already demonstrated his ability to step in for a spot start, and Dan Meyer and Joey Devine will be ready to provide fresh arms when the A's inevitably require them.
Perhaps you believe me, and perhaps you don't. Perhaps it's really too early to be making judgments of any scale on how the 2008 season will progress -- Tigers fans will agree there.
I'm going to go ahead with the optimism of April, though. The A's are over .500, and half a game out of first in the West. It's never too early to start rooting.
--- -- ---
And of course, being who I am, I can't resist a couple statistical nuggets that I dug up during Oakland's 6-3 win over les Blue Jays de Toronto, as they say up there in the Great White North.