A's eye strong 2nd half after recent upswing

Improved defense, bullpen key for Oakland over final months

A's eye strong 2nd half after recent upswing

OAKLAND -- The A's gladly put a mostly disappointing first half in the rearview mirror, taking with them a 41-50 record that has them sitting in last place in the American League West.

But Oakland is 27-20 since May 23, having shown signs of life in recent weeks, and the A's continue to believe they're a better club than their overall record would indicate. They have an entire second half to prove as much.

FIVE KEY DEVELOPMENTS

1. The bullpen blunders
The bullpen was one of the A's biggest strengths in 2014, but so far it has cost them several games this year, committing 12 blown saves and recording 17 losses, with 35 home runs allowed. Two of their top setup men from last year -- Ryan Cook and Dan Otero -- have spent time in Triple-A, and their replacements have often struggled to get the ball to closer Tyler Clippard, who has had only 19 save opportunities.

Clippard notches the save

2. The defensive mistakes
The A's have totaled 82 errors -- 14 more than any other team -- that have led to 44 unearned runs, most in the Majors. Shortstop Marcus Semien is responsible for 28 of those errors, already third most in Oakland history with 71 games still to play. The A's even added infield magician Ron Washington to their coaching staff in May to work with Semien, who continues to play through growing pains.

3. The injuries
The A's have been without closer Sean Doolittle for all but three games because of shoulder issues, which has undoubtedly affected the structure of their beleaguered bullpen. They also had to play through lengthy stretches without Ben Zobrist (left knee) and Ike Davis (left quad), and had a healthy Coco Crisp in tow for only the first month before he reinjured his neck. Moreover, rehabbing starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin endured setbacks from Tommy John surgery.

Zobrist's diving stop

4. The close games
The A's went 8-22 in one-run games in the first half -- the worst record, most losses and fewest wins in the Majors in such games. Their bullpen and defensive lapses largely contributed to this trend, as evidenced by their ability to outscore the opposition, 390-346, for a run differential of plus-44 while carrying a 41-50 record.

5. The starting staff
Amid a rough early going, Oakland's starters have been spectacular throughout, entering the break with an AL-leading 3.01 ERA -- much thanks to ace Sonny Gray's AL-best 2.04 mark. Beyond Gray and Scott Kazmir, who has held his own with a 2.49 ERA, there were question marks entering the season about the back end of the rotation. But youngsters Kendall Graveman and Jesse Hahn have been superb of late, and Jesse Chavez, despite a recent rough patch, has mostly been solid every fifth day.

Kazmir's outstanding start

FIVE STORYLINES TO WATCH

1. The Trade Deadline
Last year, the A's added All-Stars Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija ahead of the non-waiver Trade Deadline. This year, they could trade an All-Star or two, should they decide it to be too late to climb out of the AL West cellar. Kazmir, Zobrist and Clippard, all free agents at season's end, could be had for the right deal in the coming weeks.

2. The young starters
Hahn and Graveman helped solidify the A's rotation, but how they hold up over the remainder of the season remains to be seen. Hahn is already hurting, having been put on the disabled list on July 10 with a right forearm strain. He's shut down for at least two weeks, with Chris Bassitt likely to start in his place at least once more. Like Hahn, Graveman and Bassitt have never pitched a full season in the Majors, and while Oakland will take care to give them extra rest when possible, it's hard to predict how each will handle the grind of the second half.

Hahn's six strikeouts

3. The wounded
How much longer will Crisp and Doolittle be shelved? And if and when they return, will they be in the same form that has made them so invaluable to the A's in past years? Switch-pitcher Pat Venditte is also on the disabled list, but he is coming right along in his rehab from a right shoulder strain and could be back in the bullpen by the end of the month.

Venditte's scoreless relief

4. The rookie
Though not the sexiest pick, Billy Burns should receive serious consideration for AL Rookie of the Year Award. The speedster leads AL rookies in several offensive categories, including hits (82) and stolen bases (17). Burns entered the All-Star break with a .303 average and a .340 on-base percentage, and if he keeps up the torrid pace, he'll at least have to be in the conversation with the likes of division foe Carlos Correa of the Astros.

Burns' diving catch

5. The offense
Though the A's offense has probably been better than anticipated, two of their key offseason acquisitions have yet to put up the power numbers expected of them. Billy Butler and Davis combined for only 10 home runs and a .383 slugging percentage in the first half. Their ability to put together second-half power surges in the middle of the order could help carry Oakland back to .500 and beyond.

FIRST-HALF AWARDS

MVP: Stephen Vogt. He's been the driving force of the A's lineup and a steady presence behind the plate.
Cy Young: Gray. Oakland's ace leads the AL in ERA heading into the second half.
Rookie: Burns. The A's sparkplug quietly leads AL rookies in several offensive categories.
Top reliever: Clippard. Clippard's been one of few reliable arms, converting 17 of 19 save opportunities.

Vogt's towering two-run shot

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN SECOND HALF

Burns: Continued production could have Burns in the AL Rookie of the Year Award discussion.
Semien: All eyes will continue to be on the A's shortstop, who is on pace for 50 errors.
Venditte: Once healthy and back in the bullpen, the switch-pitcher will be a sight to see.

Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.