The Oakland Athletics had their first losing season since 1998 as injuries paralyzed a team that has been a model of consistency throughout this decade. As the A's look ahead to next season, getting their injured players healthy is the priority number one.
But they also need to compliment the roster with some additional players, including another right-handed power bat and maybe some more relievers.
Despite losing Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and a year ago Barry Zito, the A's rotation is still a strength. But it can be even stronger if Rich Harden returns from a strained right shoulder that limited him to only seven games (four starts) in 2007. Harden has the talent to be an ace pitcher, but he's pitched in only sixteen games in the last two seasons. The A's will have him throw in the Instructional League and are encouraged Harden will be ready to go next March.
With Harden gone, Danny Haren has emerged as the new Oakland ace pitcher. Haren was 15-9 in 34 starts with a 3.07 ERA. He's averaged 14 wins and 220 innings in the past three seasons. And Joe Blanton doesn't get much credit, but he too has become a solid starter averaging 14 wins and 208 innings in his first three seasons in the big leagues.
Chad Gaudin emerged this past season as a decent starter after being a journeyman reliever in his career. Gaudin was 11-13 in 34 starts and pitched in 199 innings. He'd be a perfect number four starter if Harden is able to return.
The A's will have several candidates to round out the rotation next spring including former Braves' prospect Dan Meyer. The lefty sent to Oakland in the Hudson deal came back after missing time with arm trouble the last two seasons. Meyer was 0-2 in six games (three starts) and had an ERA of 8.82. The former James Madison star had 22 starts in the minors this past season and was 8-2 with a 3.39 ERA. It was a huge step forward and now Meyer should be ready to compete for a starting role next March.
Lenny Dinardo is a former Red Sox' prospect that made 20 starts this season for Oakland. He was 8-10 with a 4.11 ERA in 131.1 innings. He may have the edge, even though Dallas Braden will also be in the mix. Braden was 1-8 with the A's in 20 games (14 starts) and had a 6.72 ERA. But in the minors the southpaw was 3-3 with a 2.84 ERA in 13 starts with 87 strikeouts in 76 innings.
The bullpen was tenth in the American League with only 36 saves, but it was mainly due to the loss of Huston Street for two months, who pitched in 48 games and had 16 saves. Street had an irritated ulnar nerve in his elbow, but he showed he was healthy when he returned in late July. Veteran Alan Embree was outstanding as Street's replacement, saving 17 games.
Justin Duchscherer pitched in seventeen games before having hip surgery in July. If he's healthy, that will be a big boost to the Oakland bullpen. ‘The Duke' was one of the best setup men in the game before his injury.
Kiko Calero had an off year, with a 5.75 ERA in 46 games. Calero also missed time with inflammation in his right shoulder. Jay Marshall pitched in 51 games, but his ERA was a sky-high 6.43 ERA. Santiago Casilla was decent in his rookie season, striking out 52 in 50.2 innings in 46 appearances.
Former Braves' prospect Andrew Brown (traded by Atlanta to the Dodgers in the Gary Sheffield trade) came over from the Padres' organization and struck out 43 in 41.2 innings. The tall right-hander pitched in 33 games and had a 4.54 ERA. He'll compete for a bullpen job next spring with Former Tampa Bay pitcher Ruddy Lugo, who pitched in 27 games for the A's. Colby Lewis (26 games) and Jerry Blevins (acquired from the Cubs in the Jason Kendall trade) will also get a look.
With Kendall gone, Kurt Suzuki took over behind the plate for the A's and was effective. He hit .249 in 61 games with 7 home runs and 39 RBI. He'll get the edge as the starter over Rob Bowen and Adam Melhuse.
First base could be interesting, as the A's really want Daric Barton to take over as the starter. Barton hit .347 in 72 at bats for the big leagues A's with four home runs. He had hit .293 in Sacramento with 9 home runs and 70 RBI in 516 at bats.
Dan Johnson is the incumbent at first, but he may be used in a deal to help the club. Johnson hit .236 with 18 HR and 62 RBI. Nick Swisher also saw time at first base, but the A's prefer him in the outfield.
Second baseman Mark Ellis was perhaps Oakland's MVP this past season after he hit .276 with 19 home runs and driving in 76. Plus, Ellis played great defensively at second base. His double-play partner, Bobby Crosby, broke his left hand in July and missed the rest of the season. He was struggling before he was injured, with a .226 average, 8 home runs, 31 RBI, and 10 stolen bases.
Eric Chavez also missed significant time. He played in only 90 games and hit .240 with 15 home runs and 46 RBI. Chavez had shoulder surgery in September and then a procedure on his back last week, but the A's are confident Chavez will be ready for spring training.
The outfield should be interesting next spring. Oakland hopes Mark Kotsay will return after having back trouble at the beginning and then at the end of the season. The A's are still paying Kotsay a lot of money, so they need him to provide value to the lineup.
Travis Buck played 16 games in left field and 56 games in right, but the A's really want him to take over left field next season. He hit .288 with 7 home runs and 34 RBI in 285 at bats in the big league level.
Nick Swisher played at first and in both center and right field this past season, but if Kotsay comes back the A's hope Swisher can settle in at right field and stay there. Swisher is one of the best bats in the Oakland lineup, and a little consistency in where he plays may make him even better. Swisher hit .262 with 22 home runs and 78 RBI in 2007.
Mike Piazza took over for Frank Thomas as the A's designated hitter and showed why he's really slowing down in his late-30s. Piazza hit .275 with 8 home runs and 44 RBI in 309 at bats. He'll probably be replaced by Jack Cust, who finally reached some of his potential at 28 when he hit 26 home runs and 82 RBI.
Oakland is facing a tough offseason of not exactly knowing whom to count on of their injured players for next season. But expect the front office to try and simply supplement the current talent base with additional players. There's no real need to make significant changes, although finances are always a concern for this franchise.
The Braves may be tempted to ask Oakland about Haren or Blanton, as has been suggested by the AJC's David O'Brien. But the price might just be too high, especially with some of the Braves marquee prospects now in the Texas organization. The A's would probably ask for Yunel Escobar in such a deal, and that's unlikely.
Eligible for Free Agency: Jeff DeVanon, Lou Merloni, Mike Piazza, Shannon Stewart
Eligible for Arbitration: Huston Street, Kiko Calero, Justin Duchscherer, Colby Lewis, Marco Scutaro, Chris Snelling
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at email@example.com.
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