The art of doing more with less is one the Oakland A's have mastered to quite a bit of acclaim over the years and particularly the past two, when they overcame distinct payroll disadvantages to win back-to-back American League West titles.
It's an art the Cleveland Indians were also prompted to adopt years ago, when the Progressive Field sellout streak and a run of AL Central titles came to a close and market realities began to set in. And last year's claim of the AL's top Wild Card spot one year after losing 94 games was downright A's-like, in terms of the roster-maximization mind-set that went into the rise.
The A's and Indians are, therefore, properly paired at the outset of a 2014 season in which fiscally frugal contention is again the expectation.
Their Opening Night meeting at the O.co Coliseum tonight will be a matchup of right-handed studs Sonny Gray and Justin Masterson, for sure. But it will also feature just the first of many lineups employed by managers Bob Melvin and Terry Francona, who have each, in their own way, created a clubhouse culture in which bench players are counted on as key contributors and versatility has enormous value.
"It's probably a manager's dream to have so much versatility," said Tribe first baseman Nick Swisher, an A's player from way back when. "We've got a lineup where we all feel confident in each other and know each other's ability. We've got average guys, power guys, speed guys, and one through nine, guys are going to give you a quality at-bat."
Cleveland, with three switch-hitters (Swisher, Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera), and Oakland, with a plethora of platoons, ranked first and second, respectively, last season in terms of number of plate appearances with the platoon advantage (left-handed hitters vs. right-handed pitchers, and vice versa).
That trend is likely to continue in 2014.
"We match up at the start of games," Melvin said. "We match up in-game. … We have a few guys that play every day, and the other spots we try to match up and get our best lineup we can at the start of a game. But just because you don't start a game doesn't mean you might not be an impact player in a game."
And it's not just the lineups where these clubs try to put themselves in the best position to succeed, each and every plate appearance.
Barring a complete game from Sonny Boy or the Nasty Masty (and we don't put it past them), the opener will be the first test of the A's and Indians' reconstructed bullpens.
In the wake of releasing closer Chris Perez and losing key bullpen pieces Joe Smith and Matt Albers to free agency, the Tribe traded for Josh Outman to join Marc Rzepczynski, last year's Trade Deadline acquisition, as a late-inning lefty, and John Axford was acquired to close. The A's also have a new closer after letting Grant Balfour walk and taking on Jim Johnson's rising arbitration salary from the Orioles, and they supported Johnson by trading for setup man Luke Gregerson.
"The bullpen," Johnson said, "is the separator between playoff teams and winning playoff teams."
That's an important distinction that both these ballclubs have in mind as 2014 begins. The A's have become the kings of an increasingly complicated AL West, but they've come up empty in successive AL Division Series Game 5s against Justin Verlander and the Tigers.
The Indians were also vexed by the Tigers last year, winning just four of their 19 meetings and, ergo, finishing second to Detroit by just a single game. That put them in the uncomfortable position of a Wild Card Game, which they lost to the Rays.
You could say, then, that both parties have something to prove, as they have an eye not just on getting back to the October stage but advancing within it. The "Unfinished Business" T-shirt Swisher passed around in Cleveland's clubhouse this spring applies to both sides.
What also applies to both sides is the mind-set that a ballclub in today's game -- given the greater reliance on youth, the decline of offense and the increase of parity -- doesn't necessarily need superstars to survive but does need to avoid having any holes. With that in mind, the A's and Indians both, with a payroll in the lower third among Major League Baseball's 30 teams, will try to make the most of what they've got.
In Monday's opener, we'll begin anew in seeing what they have.
Indians: Masterson motivated in contract year
Cleveland had the opportunity to lock up its ace on what can only be described as a team-friendly length of terms, given that Masterson, entering his walk year, was willing to do a three-year deal.
So why didn't the Indians do it?
Well, a variety of factors went into the breakdown of talks, but first and foremost was the acceptance that Masterson has had uneven output in the course of his career. Per Baseball-Reference.com, his ballpark-adjusted ERA for both his career and over the past three seasons is exactly league average.
Masterson did, however, have a strong 2013 season (a 3.45 ERA and a career-best 1.202 WHIP) before a September left oblique injury. And now that he's fully healthy and entering a contract year, he has all the incentive in the world to build on those numbers in 2014, and he has said he's not completely closing the door on the Indians just because things didn't work out this spring.
"If we go win a World Series," Masterson said, "I think things could work out pretty good."
A's: Hot corner, hot bat
The Indians have a catcher transitioning to third base in Santana, and they can only hope the experiment goes half as well as it went for Josh Donaldson, who finished fourth in the AL MVP Award voting last year.
Donaldson has not only proven himself as a capable defender at the hot corner, but the move freed his body from the grind of catching and allowed him to maximize his potential at the plate.
"It's just the whole comfort factor," he said. "Moving from catcher to third base, I'm going to be in the lineup more, so I'm able to ride those good feelings longer. When you're catching, you're not able to play every day, and when you do, you get beat down. It's more demanding on your body."
Donaldson broke out in a big way in 2013, batting .301 with an .883 OPS, 24 homers and 93 RBIs.
• This will be Gray's first appearance against the Indians.
• Masterson, meanwhile, has a 1-1 record with a 3.68 ERA in two previous starts against the A's. He is the first Tribe pitcher to start three consecutive Opening Days since Oakland-area native CC Sabathia (2006-08).
• This will mark the first season-opening meeting between these two clubs since 1997. The Indians won that game, 9-7, at the Coliseum, with Charles Nagy starting opposite Ariel Prieto. Nagy is now a pitching instructor in Cleveland's system, while Prieto is a coach on Melvin's staff.