Five Questions: Oakland Athletics

What lies ahead for the boys in white cleats, in handy Q&A format…

Who are these guys?

With the trades of the productive (and cheap) Nick Swisher and Dan Haren, and the purging of dead weights like Mark Kotsay and Jason Kendall and Bobby Kielty, this team bears little resemblance to the club that went to the ALCS just two years ago. It’s clear that the A’s are in rebuilding mode, and that means fresh faces sporting green and gold caps.

Some of these names are thoroughly uninspiring: Mike Sweeney? Keith Foulke? They might have been something to get excited about five years ago, but certainly not today. The good news is, they’re only stopgaps. The real story, and one that’s been told many times by now, is the bevy of prospects the A’s picked up in the Swisher and Haren trades. Partner that with some home-grown talent coming down the pipeline, and the A’s look to be aiming to compete in 2010. Just eyeballing the various top prospect lists should warm at least one of the cockles in any fan’s heart.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason to watch these A’s. By FIP, Huston Street is just a notch below the Rivera-Papelbon-Putz level, and he’s younger than all of them. He’s already quite polished, so it’s tough to say whether he’ll get any better, but if he does he would be among the best, if not the best, closer in baseball. Joe Blanton has posted a 4.04 FIP in 625.2 innings over the last three years, and he’s improved his control every year he’s been in the majors. And Mark Ellis is one of the most underrated players in baseball.

As for the new A’s, Daric Barton immediately becomes one of the best young on-base threats in the game; according to the THT projections, only Prince Fielder projects to have a higher OBP among under-25 players. Chris Denorfia, acquired last year but only now making his Oakland debut, has one heck of a minor-league resume and none of the tools to match. And while they may not be future aces, one of Dana Eveland, Greg Smith or Gio Gonzalez may make a mark in the big leagues this year and will be solid contributors in the future.

These A’s may not be sexy, but there’s a broad base of talent from which the A’s have to build. The 2008 season won’t be a 100-loss snoozefest, because some of that talent is in the majors right now and some of that talent is knocking on the door.

Will Rich Harden stay healthy?

A pony express mail carrier is riding his horse in the dead of night. Rain is pouring down. He’s completely soaked, but desperate to shave time off the precious delivery schedule. He urges his horse to gallop as fast as it can, but he’s not sure if he’s staying on the trail or even headed in the right direction.

FLASH!

A bolt of lightning lights up the sky, and for one brief moment, everything is clear. He sees the mountains to the west and knows that he’s traveling in the right direction. He glimpses the edge of the trail and spurs his trusty steed toward the center. The sky is lit for only a fraction of a second, but it seems like a lifetime for the beleaguered rider.

CRACK!

Only seconds later thunder rolls across the valley. The sound moves the earth itself. The horse is scared and rears up on its hind legs, throwing the rider off the saddle and onto the ground below. The rider gathers himself, calms his horse, and continues.

A short while later, lightning again illuminates the sky and again reassures the rider of his path. But, as before, the accompanying thunder frightens the horse and the rider is thrown off. And so it goes, on and on, through the endless night. The lightning is the only thing keeping the rider going; the thunder is the only thing stopping him.

After a particularly bad spill, the rider gets on his knees, looks to the sky, and pleads, “Dear Lord, if it’s all the same to you, could I have a little more light and a little less noise?”

Is Jack Cust for real?

As many have noted before me, Jack Cust is the cartoon version of the take-and-rake batting approach. He takes a ridiculous number of pitches (4.4 pitches per plate appearance, second most in the majors), including strikes (he took a third of pitches for a called strike). And when he finally does offer at a pitch, he has a silly uppercut swing that is designed purely for power, not contact. He never seems to change his approach, either—runners on, bases clear, sac-fly situation, whatever.

But when he makes contact, look out. Last year, he hit .437 AVG/.861 SLG on contact. A third of his flyballs became home runs. This approach, while not for everybody, works for him. Credit the A’s for sticking him the lineup and leaving him alone. Let the man do his thing.

Is the lack of contact a bad thing? Almost a third of his plate appearances ended in a strikeout, including a maddening number of called third strikes (71, by far the most in MLB) and he probably would shatter the single-season strikeout record given a full season’s worth of plate appearances. In and of themselves, the strikeouts aren’t a bad thing—an out is basically an out—but there is a practical limit to what Cust can do on contact. He’s already in Jim Thome territory. Will he sustain it, much less get any better?

Our projection in the THT Preseason Preview has him at .378/.714 AVG/SLG on-contact. If he repeats his GB/LD/FB distribution of last year, the projection suggests that a quarter of his fly balls will go for home runs. This kind of on-contact production, while still excellent, is certainly more reasonable than last year’s. And it would still make him one of the better DHs in the AL. That he was just lying around the minors and acquired for a song is testament that the undervalued baseball commodity still exists.

Will people ever stop talking about Moneyball?

If the A’s struggle… no. If the A’s succeed… no. Sorry.

Will you be crying inconsolably this fall?

This question was submitted by my wife, whom I met in the fall of 2000.

With the exception of last year, every year since 2000 has seen Oakland eliminated in spectacularly heart-rending fashion. Terrence Long losing a fly ball in the sun. Baserunning gaffes by Jeremy Giambi, Miguel Tejada and Eric Byrnes. The hapless Darin Erstad doubling off of Ricardo Rincon in game 161. Billy freakin’ Koch. Coming back from 15 games under .500 only to fall short. Magglio Ordonez vs. Huston Street.

And so it has been, since we’ve known each other, that September and October have brought only tears. And every year, my lovely wife helps me get through those dark days. Her commitment to me is both absolute and inexplicable.

Last year brought tears as well—the good kind. With the A’s well out of contention, our first child was born at the end of September. Just in time for the offseason!

This year, I’d like nothing better than to have my heart broken in October, since that would mean that the stripped-down A’s are competing for a playoff spot until the end.

I don’t see it happening, however. The A’s won’t be 90-loss terrible (unless they shed Blanton, Street, Ellis and Eric Chavez), but they won’t be pennant contenders either. Here’s a decent bet: the A’s finish around last year’s 76-win mark.

Last year’s club was a veteran-laden squad designed to contend, so the season registered as a disappointment. Nobody expects much out of this year’s model, and some might even consider 76 wins a pleasant surprise. It will be a middling year, with the most important markers for success being the continued development—and health—of the players who will make up Oakland’s core over the next few years: Barton, Carlos Gonzalez, Gio Gonzalez, Travis Buck, Kurt Suzuki, Faustino de los Santos and Trevor Cahill (among many others).

Still, this team has the chance to crack .500 if everything breaks right. Here’s a crazy scenario: Let’s say Harden is healthy, Chavez and Bobby Crosby bounce back, Barton and Buck are solid, and the Gonzalezes force the A’s hand and end up producing for the big club.

Unlikely, I know. But stick with me: If the A’s go into the All-Star break with everything clicking and are within four games of a playoff spot, wouldn’t it make sense for them to bring Barry Bonds on board for an unlikely stretch run? The volatile combination of the Barry Bonds-destroyed-our-national-innocence and Moneyball-killed-baseball memes would make the mainstream media explode in a cloud of sanctimony and ignorance. Now wouldn’t that be fun?

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