Contender or pretender? A’s walk fine line

OAKLAND — The walls of baseball’s economic reality are creeping closer, boxing the A’s into a space too small for waffling or indecision.

It is the second week of May, but a reconstructed roster with high expectations has already started covering itself with dirt. And the A’s literally cannot afford to pay someone to dig them up.

The money is not there for that. Not with an Opening Day payroll of $80.8 million that can’t rise unless the team is making drastic win-now moves later in the year, mirroring what general manager Billy Beane did last summer in acquiring Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija.

At this point, the A’s are not a contender. Nor are they a terrible team. The players, manager and GM know this, as do sensible fans. Though they have the worst record in the American League at 13-22. Before Tuesday, they had been 10 games below .500 for the first time since 2011 and are 1-11 in one-run games. Dumb luck can play a role in those tight outcomes. They snapped a six-game losing streak Tuesday with a 9-2 win over the Boston Red Sox, but the team still has a ways to go.

“Perpetual frustration,” A’s catcher Stephen Vogt said.

But losses are losses. And as they pile up, they force the survivalist A’s to address a dilemma: Wait out the early stumbles and hope for better fortunes or accept this as a throwaway season and start selling high for younger, cheaper talent that allows for more contractual control, which is sometimes the organization’s way to remain relevant.

“It’s already a topic of conversation among scouts and their front offices,” a National League executive said last weekend. “Are the A’s going to start selling sooner or later? They are being watched, like a lot of teams off to slow starts.”

Beane has gone on the record saying injuries are partly to blame for the team’s wretched beginning. That is a legitimate reason considering utility man Ben Zobrist, outfielder Coco Crisp, closer Sean Doolittle and right-handers Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin have been hurt for some or all of this year. Also, based on Bill James’ Pythagorean winning percentage, which measures a team’s expected record based on run differential, the A’s should be a .500 team. Based on Fangraphs’ BaseRuns standings, which uses context-neutral values to measure expected record, the A’s should be 18-16. So to expect a turnaround in a division that has yet to leave them behind is reasonable.

“We’ve been in a lot of games,” manager Bob Melvin said. “We’ve just been on the other side of too many one-run games.”

Woulda, shoulda, coulda, right? Vultures are catching whiff of the stench in the East Bay, and players like Zobrist, Vogt and Scott Kazmir could be scavenged for the proper price. Particularly Kazmir, who is in a walk year and who has a sub-3.00 ERA when teams like the Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals are looking for starting pitching.

Timing is everything, though, and because of the A’s financial place in the baseball world, they usually have less of it to make such critical decisions. They have to sell high on assets in order to sustain future success, much like they did before the 2012 season, when they traded All-Stars Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey before proceeding to win consecutive division titles and make three straight postseason appearances.

The men in uniform this season, as expected, do not think they are buried. Nor do they think their early losses should force Beane’s hand.

“Referring to when do you look to do things differently because of our record, we’re not at that point,” Melvin said. “We just need to be urgent about what we’re doing.”

Working in favor of waiting out this slow start is that the other expected divisional contenders — the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners — are also under .500. Plus, it is highly believable that the first-place Houston Astros won’t play .625 ball the next 4½ months.

Considering the division’s landscape and their early injuries, the A’s still can afford to have postseason expectations. For now.

“I think it’s more so how the team was built and what expectations were at the beginning of the season. We have expectations here,” Melvin said. “Just because we’re off to a slow start at this point, we’re not looking in the direction of [personnel changes].”

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