2004: Different and Loving It

With opening day less than a month a way it is time to take a step back and brace ourselves for what is sure to be a wild ride. The 2004 Oakland Athletics are taking the field with a team most die hard A's fans would claim is an improvement upon last years underachieving model, while most skeptics and sports writers see this team as an underdog destined to finish in 3rd place.

The critics of Billy Beane and his original methods of piecing a team together, will say that losing an All Star Closer, and a league MVP is too much of a blow to overcome. Yet, the A's have proven year after year, that they have the intestinal fortitude to bear down and give it their all. No matter who is lost, there is always a player that steps it up and shocks us all.

So the A's lost the 2002 MVP Miguel Tejada and we lost All Star Closer, Keith Foulke. Could it be the end of the world? According to most pundits it is. But according to the fans of this low budget team, that continuosly defies all odds, it is merely an annual offseason occurance that seems to be getting more routine by the year. In 2002, it was to be the end of the A's. MVP Jason Giambi had sold his soul to George Steinbrenner, denying a chance to stay with the team he supposedly loved. He passed up the opportunity to play on the same team as his own brother Jeremy, who when under pressure, sometimes forgot how to slide into home. Johnny Damon, who it has been said currently resembles Jesus, went to the other big market east coast team in Boston. Jason Isringhausen left for St. Louis, where journalists both cringed and rejoiced, for they had a great closer but had to figure out how to spell his last name. What came next was a cloud of doubt the size of Steinbrenners wallet, which was cast over Oakland. How did the A's respond? They won 103 games and made it to the playoffs. Before the season started, not many people would have predicted that outcome.

It is my opinion, that this years off season will not be much different. The A's lost another MVP, another great closer, and another solid outfielder in Jose Guillen. Yet, they gained so much more. The rebuilding process began when Billy Beane traded Theodore Rosevelt Lilly III to Toronto for an outfielder named Bobby Kielty. An alarming trade for some A's fans, as Lilly became possesed at the end of the season, and was virtually unhittable. Kielty is a switch hitter who is known for his tremendous patience and ability to get on base. He plays left field and in all regards should be a huge upgrade over Terrance Long. Step one of the offseason make over was now complete. Shortly there after All Star Catcher Ramon Hernandez and dissapointing left fielder Terrance Long, departed for San Diego in exchange for center fielder Mark Kotsay. Kotsay is a tremendous defensive center fielder, and a career .281 hitter, with an excellent throwing arm and fantastic speed, not to mention great patience at the plate. Finally, the A's once again have a lead off hitter who plays center field. More importantly he can hit and field the ball with the best of them. He completes what will become a tremendous upgrade to the outfield. Assuming Jermaine Dye remains healthy and plays like his former self, it is almost like the A's picked up a 100 rbi slugger via free agency. Everyone knows about Jermaine Dye's potential. He has had more than one season in which he had over 110 RBIs. He used to be a pitcher in college, so he boasts one of the best outfield cannons in the game today. For a man of his size, he is remarkably agile out in right field.

One improvement, many are overlooking, is the quality of the backup outfielders. Should one of the starters get hurt the A's now have Eric Byrnes, who practically carried the A's for the first half of 2003 ready to go, and Billy McMillon who was the best pinch hitter in the majors last year. This situation is an obvious improvement over another dissapointing player who never lived up to his potential, Adam Piatt.

The pitching staff recovered from the loss of Ted Lilly almost instantly when the A's traded Rule 5 draftee Mike Neu to the World Champion Florida Marlins for Mark Redman. Redman is a left handed pitcher who outshines previous number 4 starter Ted Lilly in just about every category. He had an ERA of 3.59 last year, with 14 wins and 3 complete games. He also has a World Series ring on his finger now. In the number five slot will be rookie phenom, Rich Harden, who gained 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason. Harden gained a great deal of experiance from pitching in the second half of the season. He also received a vast amount of knowledge from "The Big 3 Starters", who took him under their wing. In the five spot, he will be under less pressure to perform. He will also be a bit calmer, having already made some starts in the big leagues and seen action in the post season. Rich Harden will be the best number five starter the A's have had in many years. Last year John Halama,Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly got the ball every five days. This year it will be Redman and Harden. Thats a huge improvement. Then there is Damian Miller who came over from Chicago. Although it can be said that when in the batters box he isnt entirely effective, neither was Ramon Hernandez, until last year. What Damian Miller brings to the A's, is an amazing defensive prowess, a World Series ring, and the experiance of working with some of the best pitchers in the big leagues today (Mark Prior, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Kerry Wood). With this experience, Miller will surely handle The Big 3 in a manner that will not disappoint. Damian Miller had a rough year at the bat last year hitting .233 with 36 RBI. However, he is a former All Star, with a career average higher than Ramon Hernandez. He also provides veteran leadership and will surely teach backup catcher Adam Melhuse a thing or two about defense.

In the bullpen the A's traded for Chris Hammond, a left handed middle man who had an ERA of 2.86 last season, and an ERA of 0.95 the year before that. They also re-signed left handed specialist and set up man, Ricardo Rincon. and settled their arbitration case with Chad Bradford. Arthur Rhodes, formerly of the division rival Seattle Mariners, has been brought on board to close out games. Although Rhodes has never been a closer, and comes in as a questionable replacement for Keith Foulke, all scouting reports suggest Rhodes has the pitches and velocity to succeed at the job. He joins the list of recent closers the A's have had in the last four years, all of whom have started the season with a question mark following their name. Another improvement to the bull pen can be credited to the Atkins diet. Jim Mecir, who has chronically bad knees, has dropped an estimated 15-20 pounds. He is supposed to be in much better shape than last year, when almost every batter bunted the ball off him, hoping he wouldnt be able to chase it off the mound.

The last roster move Beane made, was when he signed first basemen, Eric Karros. Karros will provide depth at the first base spot and share time with Scott Hatteberg in a platoon type roll. This will give the A's more options should Hatteberg or Erubiel Durazo fall into a slump or get hurt. Karros also hit .366 against left handed pitching, while Scott Hatteberg hit only .255 against lefties. Karros is also a veteran ball player who has made it past the first round of the playoffs before. He is also a very skilled first baseman, when it comes to the defensive aspect of the game.

All in all, the A's improved their defense, improved their pitching staff which was already the best in the American league last year, and completely rebuilt the outfield, so that it is no longer a dissapointment to Billy Beane or the Oakland fans. They have gained depth off the bench and a boost in power and ability to hit for average at firstbase. They also have added more depth in the bullpen. Most importantly, they added several players with playoff and World Series experience. Will the roster shake ups and additions be able to make up for the annual losses? It is my opinion, as a baseball enthusiast and A's fan, that all of these roster changes, should be more than enough to get the A's back to the post season for the 5th year in a row.

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