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Series preview: Oakland Athletics

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Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The Athletics have won six of their last seven, but are still among the AL's weaker teams. Here's a look ahead to this weekend's series in Oakland.

Game times and probables

Friday, 10:05: Jeff Locke vs. Sonny Gray
Saturday, 10:05: Chad Kuhl vs. Rich Hill
Sunday, 4:05: Francisco Liriano vs. Daniel Mengden

The 35-43 A's haven't been particularly strong in any phase of the game this year, and their rotation -- which has required the use of 11 starting pitchers -- is no exception. Nonetheless, two of the Athletics' starters this series have gotten good results this season, and probably not the ones you're thinking. Sonny Gray is the Athletics' nominal No. 1 starter, but he's had easily the worst year of the three hurlers the Pirates will face, with a 5.03 ERA thus far. He does retain an excellent ground-ball rate and his peripherals are better than his results, but his control has been worse this season than last, and even before 2016, his underlying numbers weren't consistent with those of an ace.

36-year-old lefty Rich Hill, Oakland's Saturday starter, is as effective now as he has been at any point in his career. He walks a few too many batters and is unlikely to sustain his 0.28 HR/9 rate, but his curveball is a force to be reckoned with, and his 10.4 K/9 is legit. Not bad for a pitcher who was in the independent leagues just last season. Hill, by the way, went to the A's on a cheap one-year deal last winter and is the sort of pitcher who would have made a much better target for the Pirates than Ryan Vogelsong.

The 23-year-old Mengden earned his first call to the big leagues a few weeks back, and he's gotten good results so far. He's a righty with average velocity and a funky delivery (and an old-school moustache to match). The A's acquired him last season when they traded Scott Kazmir to the Astros.

Position players

C Stephen Vogt, Josh Phegley
1B Yonder Alonso
2B Jed Lowrie
SS Marcus Semien
3B Danny Valencia
LF Khris Davis
CF Billy Burns
RF Josh Reddick
OF Coco Crisp
OF Jake Smolinski
DH Billy Butler

The Athletics' position players have been well below average both offensively and defensively. Valencia, Semien, Vogt and Reddick have been among the best of the bunch. And former Brewers slugger Khris Davis continues to hit lots of home runs, albeit with low on-base percentages.

On the flip side, Butler's acquisition prior to the 2015 season was baffling at the time and looks like a disaster now, as the hefty righty is batting just .250/.293/.371 while offering next to nothing defensively. Alonso and Crisp have also been well below average. Perhaps the player most to blame for the Athletics' hitting struggles, though, is Pirates fan favorite Chris Coghlan, who batted just .146/.215/.272 in 172 plate appearances before being shipped to the Cubs earlier this month. Here's hoping he'll continue to do damage in Chicago, and not to other players' knees.

Bullpen

Ryan Madson
Sean Doolittle
John Axford
Liam Hendriks
Marc Rzepczynski
Ryan Dull
Fernando Rodriguez
Zach Neal

The A's invested heavily in Madson, Axford and Hendriks last offseason (with Hendriks arriving in a trade, and the other two coming via free agency). Unsurprisingly, though, given the way bullpens work (and given that Axford wasn't good in the first place), their two best relievers by fWAR this season have been Rodriguez and Dull. Doolittle has already had a good season, although it's not yet clear when he'll return from a shoulder problem that's the team is characterizing as minor. Nonetheless, it's Madson who will close. The bullpen brings good velocity, with Axford, Doolittle, Madson and Hendriks all in the mid-90s.