By Jonathan O'Konis, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (91-71) - Second Place (AL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Kiko Calero, RP - Juan Cruz, INF - Keith Ginter, SP - Danny Haren, C - Jason Kendall, SP - Dan Meyer, OF - Charles Thomas, RP - Keiichi Yabu, RP - Esteban Yan
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: SP - Mark Mulder, SP - Tim Hudson, OF - Jermaine Dye, SP - Mark Redman, RP - Arthur Rhodes, C - Damian Miller
PROJECTED LINEUP: Mark Kotsay (CF), Jason Kendall (C), Eric Chavez (3B), Erubiel Durazo (DH), Eric Byrnes (LF), Scott Hatteberg (1B), Bobby Crosby (SS), Nick Swisher (RF), Mark Ellis (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Rich Harden (RHP), Barry Zito (LHP), Joe Blanton (RHP), Dan Haren (RHP), Dan Meyer (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Octavio Dotel (RHP)
MANAGER: Ken Macha
Billy Beane isn't just one of the best general managers in baseball, he's also bolder than most other GMs. After falling one game short of the AL West title what did Beane do? Did he sit back and say we were just unlucky? Nope, he traded two starting pitchers ages 29 and 27 with a combined record of 173-81 for a bunch of prospects. Beane knew the situation he was in and figured there was no way the A's could retain all three of their dominant starting pitchers and be successful in the future due to how much money it would cost the team. So in preemptive strikes he traded Tim Hudson to the Braves for Dan Meyer, Charles Thomas and Juan Cruz. And within 48 hours he also traded Mark Mulder to the St. Louis Cardinals for Danny Haren, Kiko Calero, and Daric Barton. None of these prospects will turn into Hudson or Mulder overnight, but they do give the A's a much better chance to field a competitive team into the next decade.
The other big offseason trade was to bring in catcher Jason Kendall. This was a great move because it allowed the A's to get rid of two pitchers - Arthur Rhodes and Mike Redman - that they wanted nothing to do with and the Pirates are still paying the bulk of Kendall's contract. Kendall is a huge upgrade over Damian Miller and he gives the A's the rare catcher who can get on base. He should bat second behind Mark Kotsay in the A's lineup and score plenty of runs. The A's also hope that his veteran leadership will help stabilize such a young staff.
The A's will continue to add young players from their own farm system promoting Nick Swisher to replace Jermaine Dye in right field. Joe Blanton will step into Redman's spot in the rotation. Both players should produce better than players they're replacing. Fellow rookie Dan Johnson will backup first base.
Without the Big Three intact, this team now belongs entirely to Eric Chavez. Despite a broken hand, Chavez took a huge leap forward last season when he finally managed to both hit lefthanders and take more walks. Chavez posted a career high .397 on-base percentage and improved to 95 walks. His .306 batting average with a .412 OBP against lefties was a gigantic improvement over the .215 batting average and .266 OBP he averaged the previous two years. On top of all that, Chavez is also a Gold Glove-winning power-hitting third baseman, averaging 31 homers with 100 RBI per season the past four years. If the A's succeed this season it will be in large part due to Chavez' continued improvement. He should be considered one of the early favorites for the MVP award this season.
Reigning AL Rookie of the Year Bobby Crosby is the team's shortstop. Crosby lived up to huge expectations replacing former MVP Miguel Tejada at shortstop. Crosby is a good fielder who also possesses a solid bat. His .239 average wasn't great, but his 22 home runs were. Crosby should continue to develop and both his average and power should improve.
Second baseman Mark Ellis is attempting to return from a torn labrum that knocked him out for the entire season last year. If he's healthy he's a solid, if unspectacular, option at second. If he's not healthy the A's acquired Keith Ginter from Milwaukee to back him up. Ginter hits for good power, but is limited defensively.
Scott Hatteberg returns to man first base. Hatteberg set a career-high with 82 RBI last season. He's not your prototypical first baseman, but he does enough things right to keep manager Ken Macha writing his name in the lineup.
The A's brought Kendall aboard to take on their catching duties. Kendall adds the rare ability for a catcher to consistently get on-base. He doesn't have the power or speed he had earlier in his career but his experience behind the plate should help this young pitching staff. Kendall, a three-time All-Star, spent his first nine major league seasons in Pittsburgh. He batted .319 with three homers and 51 RBI last year. Kendall is a career .306 hitter and was the Pirates' all-time leader in games caught.
Kotsay came over from San Diego and turned out to be the leadoff hitter the A's have been looking for since Rickey Henderson left in 1998. Kotsay offers the two things the A's look for in their players: power (37 doubles and 15 homers) and the ability to get on-base (.370 OBP). Throw in the fact that he can steal a base and plays a great centerfield, and it means he should be in an Oakland uniform for a while.
If Eric Byrnes can survive the trade rumors that seem to be following him around, he'll be the A's leftfielder on opening day. Byrnes offers power (20 homers) and speed (17 stolen bases). He's good in the field and he's improving his plate discipline, but his concentration seems to lapse at times.
Beane was so enamored with right fielder Swisher when he was playing at Ohio State that the rest of the A's brass wouldn't let Beane go and see him play in person so other teams wouldn't know how much he liked him. Swisher is a dynamic young hitter who takes walks and hits for power. He's poised for a breakout season this year and has to be one of the favorites to succeed Crosby as the Rookie of the Year.
Erubiel Durazo enters the season as incumbent DH after putting up his best season to date last season. Durazo improved his OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage) going from .804 in 2003 up to .919 in 2004 as well as setting a career high with 22 homers and hit a career high .322 in a full season. Long sought after by Beane, Durazo has yet to hit for the power that many people (including myself) have predicted for him. Durazo had been a notorious streak entering last season but he was very consistent last season hitting .300 with OBP over .359 every month after April.
Barry Zito is the sole member of the "Big Three" returning to the Oakland Coliseum. Many people thought that if any of the A's starting pitchers were going to be traded it most likely would have been Zito, the 2002 Cy Young Award winner. Zito, who set career highs in 2002 going 23-5 with an ERA of 2.76, regressed for the second year in a row and ended up going 11-11 with an ERA of 4.48. There are essentially two factors why the A's kept Zito instead of Hudson or Mulder: 1) The market was higher for both Hudson and Mulder. 2) Zito is the only one of the three pitchers to have never spent time on the DL.
The A's knew they no matter what they did they would not have been able to retain all three of their starting pitchers so they went out and got the best return he could for two of them to build with. From a business standpoint, if you want the best return on your investment you need a pitcher that is almost guaranteed to make 35 starts a season. Of the three pitchers, Zito offered the best chance of that. With a young staff, he will be looked at to mentor and lead the other pitchers in the rotation. One pitcher who shouldn't need any help is Rich Harden who proved to be the A's best pitcher down the stretch going 11-7 with an ERA of 3.99 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of roughly 2:1 (167-81). Giving a full season in the rotation, he's capable of winning 17-18 games.
Blanton, selected in the famed Moneyball 2002 draft, turned in a solid season in the minors going 11-8 with an ERA of 4.19 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better then 4:1 (143-34) for the A's last year. The ERA was a bit high, but the PCL is an offensive league which routinely produces high ERAs.
Haren also spent time in the PCL last season an put up similar numbers to Blanton, going 11-4 with an ERA of 4.15 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost 5:1 (150-33). Haren was called to St. Louis towards the end of the year and went 3-3 with an ERA of 4.50 with a strike-to-walk ratio of 2:1 (32-17). Haren played an important role for the Cardinals in the playoffs by pitching in five games and holding opponents to a 2.16 ERA.
Meyer was also a dominating pitcher in the minors last season going 9-6 with an ERA of 2.50 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of roughly 4:1 (146-37). All three of these pitchers share some important traits that attracted Beane to them: 1) They're cheap. 2) They strike batters out. 3) They limit walks.
In 2004 Mulder, Hudson and Redman had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.77:1 (345-195). The three pitchers replacing them Haren, Meyer and Blanton had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.9:1 (471-121). If you're wondering what statistic Beane was looking at when he decided to make these moves, it can be suggested this was it. This is ultimately what Beane's legacy in baseball will be. If it doesn't work, we're talking a career mistake comparable to David Caruso leaving NYPD Blue after the first season. If it does work, expect to see teams making similar trades within the near future. Either way, it's still Beane who is creating a path for other GMs to follow.
Fireballer Octavio Dotel enters the season as the closer. although for how long remains to be seen. Acquired in the Carlos Beltran trade from Houston, Dotel was supposed to be the lights-out closer the A's knew they were lacking. However, down the stretch Dotel was anything but automatic, blowing six saves after becoming the A's closer. Dotel did have a good season overall, going 6-6, 36 saves, an ERA of 3.69 and an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost 4:1 (122:33). Because he was such a dominating setup pitcher for the Astros the previous two seasons before last year, it's inevitable that some will question if he has the mental toughness to close. If a trade were to occur, another rookie Huston Street may be expected to fill the closer role. Last season Street went 1-1, with eight saves and an ERA of 1.38 with strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost 4:1 (30-8) in the minors.
The bullpen overall is much improved. The additions of Kiko Calero, Juan Cruz and Keiichi Yabu give Oakland depth that it was clearly lacking. Calero was an important piece of the NL Champion Cardinals' bullpen last season going 3-1, an ERA of 2.78, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost 5:1 (47-10). Cruz played a similar role coming out of the bullpen for the NL East Champions, the Atlanta Braves, going 6-2 with an ERA of 2.70. Yabu, a 36 year-old Japanese import, went 6-9 with an ERA 3.02 with the Hanshin Tigers last year. Justin Duchscherer returns as the long man after sporting an ERA of 3.27 in 96.1 innings. Set-up man Chad Bradford recently had back surgery and is expected to be out until late June.
Charles Thomas and Bobby Kielty are set to back up the outfield. Thomas hit well last season, putting up an OPS of .812 in 83 games. Kielty once seemed to be a rising star, but seems to have fallen on hard times after batting .214 with seven home runs last year. If Byrnes is dealt, expect Thomas to see most of the playing time in left and for Kielty to back up all three outfield positions. Keith Ginter backs up at second and third and offers a power bat off the bench. Marco Scutaro is the backup shortstop. Johnson is an affordable alternative at first and DH after hitting .299 with 29 homers in the PCL last season.
Everyone appears to be down on the A's for the moves they made in the offseason. What these people don't understand is that Beane had to make these moves to keep this team in the playoff hunt for the next decade. The offense is improved with a healthy Chavez and the presence of Kendall. Crosby should improve on his rookie season and Swisher should put up better numbers than Dye did last year. The A's won't be relying on their starters to pitch nine innings with a much better bullpen this year. Expect the A's to win around 85 games this season, but it likely won't be enough for the division title.