Identifying the biggest area to improve the A's is easy: the bullpen. The hard part for general manager Billy Beane this offseason is finding the right pitchers, at the right cost, while not weakening the team's strengths -- and fitting it into a payroll that probably won't change much from last year's approximate $55 million, a record.
The A's were satisfied with the job closer Octavio Dotel did after they acquired him on June 24. Dotel made $2.4 million last year,
however, and his 36 saves in 45 chances will earn him a substantial raise.
"Octavio filled a need," manager Ken Macha said. "One good thing about him is he doesn't let yesterday affect tomorrow. That's a quality
you need in a closer. You ask me what I will remember about this year. It's the eighth inning."
Notice that Macha didn't say the ninth inning.
"Somebody who can pitch the eighth inning," Macha said. "Where I don't have to worry about if these guys are right-handed or left-handed
and use 3-4 guys to get through the inning."
Arthur Rhodes, who didn't work out as a closer, is an option. It's a role he filled successfully in Seattle from 2000-03. But Rhodes never looked happy in Oakland, even when healthy and pitching well, criticized the team's top two pitchers in June, and might welcome a change of
If the A's trade Rhodes, they'll likely need to eat some of his $6.2 remaining salary or package him with a good player -- as they did with disgruntled outfielder Terrence Long and popular catcher Ramon Hernandez last year to San Diego.
Don't expect Jairo Garcia and Huston Street to become the eighth-inning answer immediately.
They are two of the A's top pitching prospects. Both relievers shot from low-A Kane County to Triple-A Sacramento this year. Garcia reached the majors. Street began the year as the closer at the University of Texas.
"We probably rushed Jairo," Beane said. "I'm not sure it would be prudent for us to expect him to be the eighth-inning guy. If he surprises us, great. And ditto for Huston. He pitched well, moved quickly, but to place him in that role would not be the wisest thing."
--OF Bobby Kielty won't be pushed to hit exclusively right-handed in winter ball if Kielty's heart isn't in it. Kielty will decide in a couple of weeks but is leaning to sticking with switch hitting and not going to winter ball.
--RHP Justin Duchscherer will remain in the bullpen as a long reliever, a critical role the A's took for granted until they saw how valuable he was this year, particular in extra-inning games. Duchscherer said it doesn't matter to him what his role is.
--OF Nick Swisher will get additional work at first base in spring training, but he's still viewed as an outfield prospect who will compete
for a job next spring.
--RHP Rich Harden likely won't get a multiyear deal this offseason, but the A's will look into that next year to avoid the salary arbitration process. The A's did similar contracts with aces Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito.
BY THE NUMBERS: 79 -- Number of games the A's played that were decided by one run or two runs. The A's candidly admit the problems in their bullpen were a byproduct of the 'pen having such a small margin of error so often.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Curt (Young) came into a situation similar to myself, after Art (Howe) being here and us getting to the playoffs three
straight years. If you don't have those pitchers No. 1 in the league, people are going to question your coaching skills. For his first year, I think he did an admirable job. One thing I think he found out is that having (Mark) Mulder, (Tim) Hudson and (Barry) Zito doesn't necessarily mean high maintenance isn't required for those three guys. It's not automatic you throw the switch on those guys and they go out there and pitch." -- A's manager Ken Macha, on pitching coach Curt Young.
Every offseason is busy for the A's, whose payroll dictates that any player with a big salary is in jeopardy of getting traded. It's also a byproduct of the creative mind of GM Billy Beane. On the surface, it looks as if this year could be different because there are only a couple players who are free agents and create a hole that needs filling: catcher Damian Miller and right fielder Jermaine Dye. Beane will need more dependable relievers, however, and acquiring them could mean trading from one area of the team's strength.
STARTING ROTATION: The A's strength is their rotation, and it will be again next year even though the team's famed Big Three won only a combined three games after Sept. 1. There's plenty of depth in the rotation and Joe Blanton is ready in the minors, so that could lead to a trade of LHP Mark Redman.
RHP Tim Hudson missed six weeks because of a strained oblique, an injury that's hindered him in the playoffs the previous two seasons. When
healthy, Hudson was again one of the league's best pitchers. Hudson will change his offseason workout routine to strengthen that area and try
to avoid repeated pain.
LHP Mark Mulder was on his way to the Cy Young award, before a minor slump in late summer, then he ended the season in the worst funk of his
career. Nobody in the organization knows why it happened and why it got so bad. The A's will cross their fingers that Mulder will again be one of the best starters in baseball next season, but they can't count on that as easily as they could in previous years.
LHP Barry Zito endured an inconsistent first half, then was dependable in the second half. But one issue that stayed consistent with Zito's
propensity for high pitch counts, which knocked him out of games in the fifth and sixth innings quite often. In late summer, it wouldn't have
been a shock of Zito was dangled in trade talks this offseason. But the inexplicable struggles of Mark Mulder probably assured that Zito won't
RHP Rich Harden showed in his first full season why there was so much hype about him in the minors. Harden has the tools to become a superstar in baseball. The final three months of the season, Harden was Oakland's best and most reliable starter. He's only 22 years old and five years away from free agency, which is beautiful for the A's and their fans.
LHP Mark Redman experienced a bizarre pattern all year of pitching terrible at home, yet he won some of the team's biggest games on the
road. Redman might not return for next season, however, if history is any indication. Cory Lidle and Ted Lilly were both traded the past two offseasons, and Redman occupies their spot in the rotation.
BULLPEN: Unquestionably the weak link in the A's in 2004, this will be the area that needs to be addressed most. For any low-revenue team like the A's, the bullpen is the hardest area to provide depth. So this won't be easy. The A's have two outstanding prospects in Jairo Garcia and Huston Street, who both finished the year at Triple-A Sacramento, but the A's don't want to rush them. That means the A's will need to use free agency or trades to fill holes.
RHP Octavio Dotel wasn't perfect after joining the A's in a late
June trade, but he was better than what the A's had earlier in the year at the closer spot. Dotel struggled against left-handed hitters and ended the year with tendinitis in his right elbow. The way Dotel slings the ball from the side will always make his arm prone to injuries. Dotel is eligible for salary arbitration, and the A's will probably bring him back next year.
LHP Arthur Rhodes was a colossal bust for the A's. He was unsuccessful as the closer, complained about the umpires and teammates, and
missed two months with back spasms. The A's would love to trade Rhodes and tried to trade him during the season. But the $6.2 million remaining on his contract and his ineffective season will make that difficult. If the A's are stuck with him, they will hope Rhodes can return to success as the eighth-inning setup guy.
RHP Jim Mecir was the target of boobirds throughout the season. His overall numbers were respectable, but Mecir's biggest failures tended
to happen in the biggest game and were hard to forget. Mecir, who is a free agent, will most likely retire. His teammates will remember him as a courageous man who pitched in severe pain every day from a childhood disability.
LHP Ricardo Rincon epitomized the A's bullpen this year. He was terrible in the first half. He had some stretches where he was one of the
best lefty relievers at getting lefties out. But he gave up crucial hits in crucial games. Rincon is signed for another season and will most
RHP Chad Bradford wasn't the dependable groundball machine that he was the previous two seasons. Bradford missed most of spring training
with a back injury and also missed time during the season with back problems. His submarine delivery doesn't help those back problems. Bradford, one of the stars of the best-selling book "Moneyball" because he was so undervalued two years ago, is now commanding a higher salary.
RHP Justin Duchscherer was the most versatile and arguably the most valuable reliever the A's had. While the Duke gave up a couple costly
game-ending home runs (and a game-ending balk), his ability to pitch three or more innings was valuable -- especially during the numerous
extra-inning games the A's played. Around the league, some teams still view Duchscherer as a starter, and he has value, but the A's are likely to bring him back as a nice weapon in their bullpen.
CATCHING: The A's didn't miss Ramon Hernandez the way most fans feared they would. The duo of starter Damian Miller and backup Adam Melhuse
contributed nearly the same offensive numbers. Whether or not Hernandez was missed by the pitching staff, particularly the Big Three, is
impossible to compute. Miller is a free agent, and this is an area in which the A's will have to make a decision on.
C Damian Miller faded in the second half, particularly in September, after a surprisingly good offensive first half. Miller brought
professionalism, a good throwing arm, and the excellent ability to block balls in the dirt. But he didn't always follow the game plan on hitters, and it led to some crucial hits by the opposition that had the A's coaching staff shaking their heads.
C Adam Melhuse greatly improved his defense, particularly calling games, and added an offensive spark when he played. If you play around with his numbers and project them over 500 at-bats, you see all-star numbers. But the A's don't think Melhuse is an everyday catcher and would be exposed if he played more. Still, the A's liked the job Melhuse did and view him as one of the best backup catchers in the league.
INFIELD: Despite the departures of former Most Valuable Players Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada over the last three years, the A's continue to fill the holes and keep this as a strength of the team. The outlook for the future is positive for the A's in this area as well.
3B Eric Chavez missed six weeks with a broken hand but still posted the best home run to at-bat ratio of his career. He was also among the
league leaders in walks and could add a fourth Gold Glove to his resume. But his late season slump was a disappointment, and his body language sometimes gives the impression that he feels as if there's no way he will get a hit off a pitcher. Signed for the next six years, Chavez is the face of the franchise.
SS Bobby Crosby is the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award. He filled in admirably in the shoes of Miguel Tejada, but the growing
pains were evident throughout the year. Crosby had extreme highs and extreme lows. The A's hope he can cover the outside part of the plate
better, cut down on his strikeouts and do a better job turning double plays next year.
2B Mark Ellis missed the entire year with a separated shoulder and torn labrum, the result of a freak spring training collision with Bobby
Crosby when they both dove for a grounder. Ellis should return next year and the A's will reap the benefit of his leadership and baseball
1B Scott Hatteberg turned in the best offensive year of his career, despite being yet another A's hitter who faded down the stretch.
Hatteberg's improvement defensively has been incredible, too. The converted catcher is signed for the 2005 season, but Pacific Coast League most valuable player Dan Johnson is knocking on the door for the job.
INF Mark McLemore provided leadership and a veteran's savvy. He's about 95 percent sure he will retire. The A's know there will be a long
line and McLemore might want to stay closer to his Texas home, but they would love to keep McLemore in the organization as a coach. Many view him as a future manager.
INF Marco Scutaro took advantage of the injury to Mark Ellis and proved he deserves to be in the majors. The return of Ellis could mean
that Scutaro gets shifted to a utility role, but he remains a solid backup if Ellis isn't healthy. Scutaro doesn't walk much, so the A's hope he does that better and doesn't swing for so many home runs. His defense is above average.
OUTFIELD: An area of weakness in 2003 became an area of strength in 2004, but it wasn't how the A's drew it up. They will face a challenge to keep it a strength because right fielder Jermaine Dye will become a free agent, once the A's officially decide they won't exercise his $14 million mutual option. A power bat from the right side will be needed.
LF Eric Byrnes began the season as the fourth outfielder but earned his way into the starting lineup. Byrnes was never a golden child in
the A's organization, but he's a huge crowd favorite for his all-out style of play and changed some opinions on whether he can play every day.
Byrnes has the ability to play all three outfield positions, a plus, but the A's need him to hit the cutoff man more often and take better
routes to some balls.
CF Mark Kotsay was the most valuable player on the team. He was the team's best defensive center fielder since Dwayne Murphy, saving the
A's a huge number of runs chasing down balls in the gap. After a tough six weeks to begin the season, Kotsay was the sparkplug the A's were
seeking at the top of the batting lineup. He's signed for two more years, at $7 million each year, so that could make him trade bait. But the A's saw his value and would be hard-pressed to replace him.
RF Jermaine Dye answered doubts about his ability to be productive with a mostly healthy season. A badly sprained thumb caused him to miss two weeks in September and endure a couple stretches of unproductive at-bats in August. But overall, a healthy Dye was a productive Dye. He
displayed Gold Glove-caliber defense and hit for power. But he will only return to the A's if he accepts a much lower salary. The A's won't pick
up their portion of the $14 million mutual option in his contract, making him a free agent.
OF Bobby Kielty was a disappointment in his first year with the A's. Acquired in a trade for All-Star pitcher Ted Lilly, Kielty got off to a
bad start, lost his starting job, struggled mightily from the left side, and was a non-factor the final two months of the season. Kielty considered giving up on switch hitting but is leaning toward sticking with it.
OF Billy McMillon missed two months of the season with back spasms and didn't contribute much except for a one-week stretch when Jermaine
Dye's thumb kept him out of the lineup. McMillon wasn't as good pinch-hitting in 2004 compared to the year before, but he's a good guy, well
liked, and could return next year as a cheap backup.
DESIGNATED HITTER: DH Erubiel Durazo, a disappointment in his first year with the A's,
lived up to his "Holy Grail" mantra. That's what GM Billy Beane called Durazo after getting him in a four-team trade, but Durazo took too many
pitches in 2003 and didn't hit for the power the A's were seeking. This year, Durazo was more aggressive, consistently in the league's top 10
in hitting, and added more power than the year before. If the A's want to give Dan Johnson a look, they could trade the one-dimensional Durazo, who could net a top reliever, and have Johnson be the DH. If not, Durazo should continue getting better in the A's lineup.
MEDICAL WATCH: 2B Mark Ellis will continue his rehab from a separated shoulder and torn labrum through the offseason. He will play in instructional league games and perhaps in winter ball. He should be cleared by spring training of next year. RHP Kirk Saarloos will have some type of surgery on his right elbow. One of three options is "Tommy John"
surgery, which requires a rehab of 12-15 months. Saarloos could compete for a fifth starter/long reliever role in the majors next year if it's
only a cleanup surgery. No other A's players have significant injuries that will require surgery. However, since over 15 players had either back spasms or oblique strains, the A's will need to re-evaluate their offseason conditioning programs and spring training plans to negate a similar rash of the same injury.
Oakland A's Inside Pitch: Week of October 11
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