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A's must continue first-half success in close AL West

Pitching depth, improvement needed from Cespedes and Donaldson to stay on top

A's must continue first-half success in close AL West

OAKLAND -- The A's are on pace for their third consecutive American League West title, finishing first-half play on Sunday with their Major League-best 59th win.

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Fifty-nine wins is Oakland's most in franchise history, and the most by any team since the Tigers compiled 59 wins before the All-Star break in 2006.

Not that 59 wins guarantees the A's anything, though. Oakland has stiff competition in the West, setting up an intriguing second half.

Five key developments in the first half

1. The blockbuster
The A's altered the look of the AL West by pulling the trigger on their biggest trade in years. Oakland reeled in frontline starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs on July 4, to bolster an already enviable rotation.

2. Doolittle's ninth-inning dominance
Following the failed $10 million Jim Johnson experiment, the A's didn't have to look far for a closer, anointing Sean Doolittle as their ninth-inning guy. The southpaw has struck out 63 batters and walked just two in 42 2/3 innings. Doolittle has racked up 14 saves in the first half of his first All-Star season.

3. Three-headed catching monster
Oakland's catching trio of All-Star Derek Norris, John Jaso and Stephen Vogt combined for a .309 average, 19 homers and 82 RBIs in the first half -- proving just how effective a platoon system can be. Vogt's also held his own at first base and right field, showcasing the versatility of this deep A's roster.

First-half awards
MVP: Scott Kazmir
No other member of the A's, position players included, proved as consistent as Kazmir, who assured them stability on the mound every fifth day.
Top starter: Kazmir
There's a reason Kazmir was named an All-Star. He won 11 games for the A's and lost just three, posting a 2.38 ERA, 108 strikeouts and 27 walks in 117 1/3 innings.
Top reliever: Sean Doolittle
There's a strong case to be made for Dan Otero, too, but Doolittle's ninth-inning presence helped round the bullpen into form. It's hard not to be wowed by Doolittle's 63:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

4. Chavez, The Starter
In the wake of spring injuries to Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, the A's moved Jesse Chavez from the bullpen to the rotation, and they have gotten more than they could have ever hoped for. The righty has amounted seven wins, with a 3.14 ERA through 114 2/3 innings spanning 19 starts.

5. Scott Kazmir, The Ace
General manager Billy Beane risked $22 million on this reformed lefty, and now, Beane looks like a genius. Kazmir exited the first half with a 2.38 ERA, good for second in the AL. He's 11-3 with 108 strikeouts in 117 1/3 innings, along with a .206 opponents' average and 0.980 WHIP.

Five storylines to watch for in the second half

1. The wild, wild West
As good as the A's were in the first half, the Angels remain just 1 1/2 games back of first place, with the Mariners trailing by eight games in third place. If the postseason began now, all three teams would be in thanks to the two-Wild Card format, a nod to the game's best division. Expect this race to remain lively through the end of the regular season.

2. Trade talk
Despite already adding Samardzija and Hammel, the A's may not be done tweaking their roster in advance of the non-waiver Trade Deadline on July 31. A middle-infield upgrade could be in the works, following a disappointing first half from second basemen Nick Punto and Eric Sogard, who hit .213 and .186, respectively. The A's could always go the shortstop route and move Jed Lowrie to second base.

Second-half players to watch
Josh Donaldson
Donaldson has 20 homers, but he also has a .238 average. The A's will need more production from their All-Star third baseman in the second half.
Yoenis Cespedes
If history repeats itself, Cespedes' second half will be better than his first half. He's a career .290 hitter in the second half, compared to hitting .245 in the first.
Stephen Vogt
Vogt hasn't stopped hitting since his June promotion, and his versatility is sure to keep him in the lineup. Don't be surprised if Vogt is again a big factor in this club's postseason push.

3. The rotation
The A's have seven proven starters for five rotation spots, though all could come into play in the second half in an attempt to keep each arm fresh. Tommy Milone ended the first half at Triple-A Sacramento, but he's sure to be back in the big league rotation before year's end. Drew Pomeranz, too, could just as quickly return to the active roster in a long-relief role at a moment's notice. Bottom line: The A's have pitching depth and plenty options in deciding how to use it.

4. The heart of the order
Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson combined for 34 home runs and 121 RBIs in the first half, but they both went through prolonged slumps, too. Cespedes is hitting just .246, Donaldson only .238, and the A's need both bats working after the break to maintain their first-place standing.

5. What does the future hold for Lowrie
Lowrie's average slipped all the way to .217 just a couple of weeks ago, though he's since brought it up to .239. His continued production is not only paramount to the A's lineup but also to his future, considering he is a free agent at season's end. Could the A's be interested in re-signing the infielder? Perhaps, but Lowrie is likely to test the market, too.

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

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