Clubhouse Chatter: A's Off-Season Report Card

It isn't often that you can trade two All-Star starting pitchers in one off-season and still come out ahead, but that's exactly what General Manager Billy Beane accomplished during this year's trading season according to The Chattering Fool.

Oakland A's fans have become used to this by now: since 2000, the off-season has meant saying good-bye to familiar faces for A's fans. The typical reaction usually involves initial sadness, followed by gradual acceptance and then the ultimate realization that the good-bye was a prelude to something better. This off-season for A's fans was no different. It began by saying hello to a new All-Star and ended by saying good-bye to two homegrown superstars. In between, the A's managed to build a team that is better equipped to handle the rigors of the 162-game season than the 2004 version and will be far more likely to be a World Series contender two years in the future.

Many experts have written the A's off as prohibitive trading season losers. These experts generally look only at the big names involved in transactions and rarely take a closer examination of what the net gain of the off-season really was. Consequently, the A's and Beane have been labeled off-season losers. This has happened before; most recently during the off-season following the 2001 season when the A's lost Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen and Johnny Damon and only acquired Scott Hatteberg, Billy Koch (who was coming off of a bad season) and a seemingly washed-up David Justice. The Seattle Mariners, coming of off a record-setting season, were the prohibitive favorites to run away with the division title. As we all know, the result of the 2002 season is why they play the games on the field and not in the newspapers.

I know what many of you are thinking. Back in 2002, the A's were able to withstand the losses of Giambi, Isringhausen and Damon because they had three pitchers named Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. And now with only one of those three left on the roster, the A's will have a bigger void to fill then they did in 2002. Whether that is true remains to be seen, but I think that most people who watched the A's causally would have thought that it was a crazy notion that the A's could downgrade from Giambi to Hatteberg offensively or downgrade from Damon to Terrance Long defensively and still survive. Yet they did. So there is a historical precedent for the A's overcoming these types of losses.

More pragmatically, I believe that Oakland has done a sufficient enough job improving in areas other than the starting rotation that they very well may be able to overcome the initial downgrade in the rotation. There were three primary reasons the A's missed the playoffs by one game in 2004: 1) a wildly inconsistent bullpen, 2) an inability to drive runners in from scoring position, and 3) a lack of depth in the starting rotation and the offense that was exposed by a rash of mid-season injuries. As a result , when the off-season began, it was clear that Beane had three primary objectives 1) improve the talent and depth in the A's bullpen, 2) add some run-producers, preferably from the rightside of the plate, and 3) increase the depth of the roster both at the major league and AAA level. Four trades and a few signings later, Beane has accomplished almost all of those objectives.

The Bullpen: Improving the bullpen this off-season proved to be a multiple step process. First, Beane improved the bullpen with addition by subtraction when he sent erstwhile closer Arthur Rhodes to Pittsburgh and then let middle relievers Chris Hammond and Jim Mecir walk. All three relievers are veterans who have had plenty of success over their careers and all three had stretches of effectiveness last season. However, all three were limited by one factor or another, which put strain on the rest of the bullpen. Rhodes had trouble working back to back days, reacted poorly to a bad stretch of appearances in mid-May and then went on the DL for over two months. Hammond struggled with injuries for much of the season and also appeared to lose the confidence of Manager Ken Macha early on in the season and was rarely used in tight situations, making him essentially a mop-up man. Mecir got a bad rap, as he was effective more often than not, but he had a number of very visible blow-ups on the mound, and it seemed unlikely that the A's and their fans could go another season with Mecir coming into type games.

Once the A's had jettisoned those veterans, they had to decide how to fill their spots. Here Beane made a clear departure from his approach to last season's bullpen. By re-signing closer Octavio Dotel (despite his relatively high price tag) and trading for Kiko Calero and Juan Cruz, it is clear that the A's were looking to add younger and hard-throwing arms in the bullpen. Last season, Oakland tried to get by with a bullpen filled with crafty veterans. Now Oakland will have a nice collection of fire-ballers at the back-end of their bullpen who can get hitters out with pure stuff, not just craftiness.

The A's also added Japanese pitcher Keiichi Yabu, who can pitch in both the bullpen and the starting rotation. If Yabu winds up in the bullpen, it will give the A's five out of six of their bullpen pitchers who are capable of going more than one inning at a time (everyone except lefty specialist Ricardo Rincon). Last season, the A's starting rotation was over-worked because the bullpen wasn't capable of giving the team three to four innings a night. This bullpen should be more than capable of doing just that, which should help the A's young rotation avoid pitching in situations in which they would be most vulnerable (i.e. after 100 pitches or after six "stress" innings). And with as many as three former starters in the A's bullpen at a time (Justin Duchscherer, Yabu, Cruz, Joe Blanton, or Seth Etherton – depending on who fills out the rotation), the A's will have plenty of pitchers on the 25-man roster who can step into the rotation if one of the starters was to go down with injuries or ineffectiveness like Hudson and Mulder did last season.

The Offense: On the offensive front, the A's improved in subtle ways. Most were looking for the A's to acquire a righthanded hitting power-hitter (probably a corner outfielder), but that never materialized. In fact, that is probably the only major flaw in the A's off-season thus far. However, Oakland certainly improved their offense this off-season, even if they haven't found that righthanded number four hitter yet.

The first acquisition of the off-season was the biggest upgrade, as well. On Thanksgiving weekend, the A's traded Rhodes and disappointing fifth starter Mark Redman for All-Star catcher Jason Kendall. While Kendall's contract might be inflated, his ability to change an offense is not. Kendall, who regularly gets on-base at a .400 clip, will give the A's a formidable top of the order. Whether he hits lead-off or second behind centerfielder Mark Kotsay, the A's should feature four hitters at the top of their line-up who will get on-base at a better than .370 clip (Kotsay, Kendall, Eric Chavez and Erubiel Durazo). That will mean that the A's will have to find an effective number five hitter to clean up all of those baserunners, but the A's have a number of candidates for that role.

In fact, one of those candidates might be Kendall himself, who could move down in the line-up if rookie Nick Swisher hits well enough to be at the top part of the order. Kendall may be the A's best hitter with runners in scoring position, and although he won't hit for power, he could drive in close to 100 runs if he is in an RBI position in the line-up. If he hits second, Kendall will be a tremendous upgrade over the parade of second place hitters the A's featured last season and should force pitchers to pitch to Eric Chavez because there won't be many open bases when Chavez steps into the box.

The A's offense should be upgraded at second base, as well. Marco Scutaro and Mark McLemore filled in admirably for the injured Mark Ellis last season, but neither player had much impact offensively. While Ellis' ability to hit will be a question mark until he can prove he is healthy, Ginter's hitting should be a real boon. Ginter hit 19 homers last season in limited playing time and is a run-producer at an offensive position not always known for run-production. At the very least, Ginter should go a long way towards replacing the power that left with Jermaine Dye when he went to Chicago.

Speaking of Jermaine Dye, the A's outfield offense should be improved, as well. By letting Dye go, the A's have opened a spot in the outfield for Nick Swisher. Swisher was impressive during his late-season call-up and after a season split between AAA and the majors that saw him hit 31 homers, Swisher is in a good position to make a run at Rookie of the Year. At the very least, Swisher should be able to get on-base at a much higher clip than Dye, who last season was a drain on the A's offense at times with his .329 OBP.

Team Depth: Oakland's main weakness was exposed last season down the stretch, when a tired and battered A's squad stumbled to a losing record in September. I already touched on the improved depth in the pitching department. That depth not only extends from the starting rotation to the bullpen, but also goes to AAA. By adding major league relievers like Cruz, Calero and Yabu, the A's won't have to rush minor league relief prospects Jairo Garcia, Chris Mabeus or Huston Street. That trio will also likely be joined by former Rockie reliever Tim Harikkala, who will provide good veteran depth in AAA if the A's have injuries at the big league level.

In the starting rotation, the A's will be deep, as well. The A's acquired two starters in the Hudson-Mulder trades, both of whom are very young and very talented – Dan Haren and Dan Meyer. Haren has more major league and AAA experience than Meyer and, therefore, has a much stronger claim on a rotation spot than Meyer. However, Meyer will be given golden opportunity to win a rotation spot in the spring. If he fails, the A's will have at least three candidates to take his place in the rotation: Cruz, Etherton and Yabu. The A's rotation should also be less likely to face the injury struggles they did last season, as they have gotten younger and more durable through their acquisitions.

On the position player-side, the A's will be deep, as well. The infield is fortified by Ginter, who can play second and third, and the return of Ellis, who can play second and short. Scutaro will add further depth if he makes the roster. The outfield will be similarly deep, as the A's will carry five outfielders capable of being major league starters. The addition of left fielder Charles Thomas (acquired in the Hudson deal) will also give the A's another pinch-running option late in games and an excellent outfield defensive replacement.

Summary: In short (okay, not that short), I think the A's had a mighty fine off-season. They not only made improvements in the areas I detailed above, but they also got younger and deeper, which should only help them remain competitive in the future. In addition, by shedding the salaries of Hudson and Mulder, they were able to retain Durazo, Dotel and Byrnes, all of whom should have a major impact on the A's season this year.

What is most amazing about this off-season is that I've gone through all of these acquisitions and haven't even mentioned the last player the A's acquired this off-season: prospect Daric Barton, who may be the best player the A's picked up. The 2005 A's could still use a bona-find middle of the order righthanded hitter, but other than that, their off-season shopping list is pretty much complete.

Grade: A-

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