A’s Rebuild on the Fly
Trading Dan Haren allowed the A’s to restock their farm system, but opened a huge hole in the rotation. (AP)
Kudos to the Oakland A’s for immediately recognizing that their great run of eight straight winning seasons – including five post-season appearances – was coming to an end last season.
Instead of throwing good money at bad money, this team stripped itself of key assets like 15-game winner Dan Haren, Nick Swisher and Mark Kotsay, bringing in a boatload of quality prospects who immediately provided a much-needed refresh of what was becoming a moribund farm system.
GM Billy Beane proved he can manage a loser as well as a winner, as despite the fact that the A’s plummeted from 93 wins and the AL West Crown in 2006 to 76 wins last year, this team looks poised to bounce back to at least .500 if not contention in the near future.
It wasn’t just the moves the A’s made that helped turn things around; it was the moves they didn’t make, i.e., not doing what everyone assumed they would and signing Barry Bonds, something that could have altered the entire chemistry of the organization.
Here are the key ingredients Oakland needs to combine to help rebound from its first losing season since 1998:
- Last year, Mark Ellis stayed healthy and enjoyed a career year with the stick. Imagine if Bobby Crosby, who has failed to reach 100 games in any year since taking home AL ROY in 2004, were to stay healthy and contribute offensively. You’ve got to figure at the very least that Crosby will bounce back from the worst season of his career and that will sure help a team that was among the worst offensive clubs in the AL, ranking 13th in hitting last year. Combined with their usual lack of speed (dead last in steals), that was a deadly combo for the A’s. Making matters worse, if Crosby’s or Ellis’ health is again an issue, Marco Scutaro is no longer around to help pick up the slack.
- Promising youngster Travis Buck also needs to stay healthy. He looks like he can rake, and if he gets a full season under his belt, he’ll surprise some people.
- The A’s pitching was decent last year, finishing third in the AL in BAA, and the loss of Haren will certainly hurt here. But with Justin Duchscherer back at full health after hip surgery cost him most of 2007 and now shifted to the rotation, that may help take some of the sting out of Haren’s departure.
- How about a healthy Eric Chavez for once? His back is bothering him this spring, an issue that will prohibit him from traveling to Japan for the games next week, but what a boost he’d provide if he can return to form after enduring the worst season of his career. Time is ticking on this dude as the A’s patience must be wearing thin.
- How about Rich Harden? How much better would the A’s be if the Canadian boy can take the mound 30 times this year?
- Chris DeNorfia in centrefield is unproven, but the A’s have other options on the way, including Carlos Gonzalez, one of the top prospects in the game. Of course, it’s far more likely that when the A’s summon Gonzalez, currently nursing a hamstring injury and expected to begin the year in Triple-A, it will be to replace the underwhelming Emil Brown in left field. Ryan Sweeney, battling to stick around as an extra outfielder, could get his shot as an everyday player at some point as well.
- The fifth starter battle is among the most interesting competitions in camp, pitting Lenny DiNardo, the incumbent who has pitched well enough to retain the gig; Dallas Braden; Dan Meyer; and Dana Eveland, part of the Haren booty and the surprise of spring so far, earning the support of manager Bob Geren. Put Eveland on your sleeper list as he’s been knocking on the door for a while.
- Don’t forget about Daric Barton, part of the fruit of the Mark Mulder trade a couple of years back. This top prospect, who it seems we’ve been hearing about forever, is ready to make some noise. Is this his breakthrough season? He sure made a splash in September, but how will he perform over the course of a full season, especially defensively?
- Many believe closer Huston Street, another key player who missed substantial time last season, will be the next to go in the payroll purging process. If that happens, Joey Devine, another piece of the future added this offseason, seems the likeliest replacement. For now, however, that apprenticeship must wait. Back spasms slowed Devine this spring, and he’s now been optioned to the minors in a numbers game, with both Andrew Brown and Santiago Casilla being out of options. Devine’s departure likely means a job for Fernando Hernandez in the Oakland pen to begin the season. Still, put Devine on your radar for an in-season pickup.
- Still in the bullpen, another key will be Kiko Calero. A very dependable reliever throughout his career, injuries ruined Calero’s season last year, causing him to be very ineffective before he was finally shut down. The A’s are counting on Kiko to be a valuable set-up man, especially with Duchscherer now in the rotation. The now unretired Keith Foulke will also be asked to help out here.
- The A’s need projected No. 4 starter Chad Gaudin to bounce back from hip and foot surgeries. He looked good in his spring debut, but is behind schedule so can’t afford any setbacks if he’ll be ready to take the mound in mid-April as expected.
- Joe Blanton, projected as the Opening Day starter, is yet another veteran who could soon find his way out of Oakland in the great A’s purge. Keep an eye on this, as some of those names mentioned above in the fifth starter battle stand to gain the most should Blanton be jettisoned.
- Finally, the club will need further development from young catcher Kurt Suzuki, who took over as the main man behind the plate after Jason Kendall was sent packing last season. Suzuki has offensive potential, but must do a better job of shutting down opponents’ running games.
Oakland likely has some growing pains in store, but this team has positioned itself to rebound very quickly, especially if veterans like Harden, Chavez and Crosby can stay healthy enough to play large roles. By decade’s end, I expect the A’s to again be challenging for American League titles.