Give self-styledefficiency expert Billy Beane an extra $10 million to play with--which A'sowners did this winter--and he can roll the dice as well as a flush big leaguegeneral manager. Beane, in his ninth season as Oakland's G.M., enjoyed thefirst off-season in memory in which he lost no player worth keeping and insteadmade key additions to his club.
So where did themoney go? To a 34-year-old journeyman pitcher (Esteban Loaiza) who embellishedhis slacker reputation by showing up late for his first day in an A's uniform;a 27-year-old outfielder (Milton Bradley) whose act grew tired in three otherorganizations; and a 37-year-old DH (Frank Thomas) who was pegged by his formerG.M. as "an idiot" and "selfish." It may be the clubhouseequivalent of a sodium-nitrate stockpile, but Beane is unconcerned."Chemistry," he says, "is a by-product of winning."
O.K., so maybeLoaiza merely was unlucky when, as he told Oakland officials, the cellphone heuses as an alarm clock failed to work on the first day of training camp. In2005 Loaiza parlayed only the second 200-inning season of his career into athree-year, $21.4 million jackpot. Maybe, too, Bradley really is misunderstood,though the Expos, Indians and Dodgers all gave up on him.
Thomas ($500,000guaranteed plus up to another $2.6 million in incentives) brings his ownbaggage to the A's clubhouse. When Thomas lamented in February that the WhiteSox cut him loose without proper respect, Chicago G.M. Kenny Williams unloadedhis pent-up anger, saying, "We don't miss the attitude; we don't miss thewhining. Good riddance." More problematic for Oakland is likely to be thehealth of a 275-pound man who turns 38 in May. Thomas missed two thirds of histeam's games over the past two years with fractures in his left ankle and wasunable to run all off-season. Thomas said he plans to be ready for Opening Dayand will hit "between .285 and .305," though he hasn't batted betterthan .271 since 2000. He's been a .257 hitter over the last five seasons.
As he has aged,however, Thomas has grown into more of a pure power hitter. In those five yearshe averaged 30 dingers for every 125 games--numbers that would be acceptedgladly by a club that last year had the fewest home runs (11) and total bases(199) out of the DH position in the league.
The disclaimer toBeane's experiment is that the team should not revolve around Loaiza, Bradleyand Thomas. The G.M. views them more as complementary players with thepotential to have big seasons. Loaiza, for instance, is ensconced in the No. 4spot in the rotation behind 20-something studs Rich Harden, Barry Zito, DanHaren and Joe Blanton (who went a combined 27-16 after the All-Star break lastyear).
Far more importantto Oakland's success are Harden, the toughest starter to hit in the league lastyear (.201); budding superstar shortstop Bobby Crosby; and closer HustonStreet, the AL Rookie of the Year who has a filthy repertoire of pitches.
So deep are theA's that Beane assigned assistant G.M. David Forst to run a statisticalanalysis to figure out how a full season of plate appearances (about 6,000) canbe divided among so many frontline-caliber players. Each game Oakland will haveto sit two players from among Bradley, Mark Kotsay, Nick Swisher, Jay Payton,Bobby Kielty, Dan Johnson and Thomas. (Some combination from the seven willfill the outfield, first base and DH spots.) The A's also have Kirk Saarloos,Joe Kennedy and Jay Witasick as starting-pitching insurance. "If we stayhealthy," catcher Jason Kendall says, "this team is as good as anybodyelse."
Oakland should winat least 88 games for a seventh consecutive season, a run only the Swingin' A'sfrom 1969 through '75 have accomplished in franchise history. Unlike thosethree-time world champions, though, these A's have yet to win a postseasonseries, losing all nine games when they were one win away from advancing. Hangon to your safety goggles--this edition appears better built for a longer, ifnot more chaotic, run.
Oakland DHs were last in the AL in home runs with 11, in 656 plate appearances.As a DH with the White Sox last year, Frank Thomas hit 11 home runs in just 118trips to the plate.
a modest proposal
The play of catcher Jason Kendall (right), obtained from the Pirates inNovember 2004, was one reason the A's missed the playoffs last year. Among histransgressions: grounding into nearly as many double plays (26) as he hadextra-base hits (29) and allowing more steals (101) than any catcher inbaseball. Now Oakland could upgrade the position by making another trade withPittsburgh, which is flush with young backstops: Ryan Doumit has a subpar armbut 20-homer potential, Ronny Paulino hit .315 at Triple A, and Neil Walker isthe organization's top prospect. A live arm like righthander Santiago Casilla'scould tempt Pittsburgh.
projected roster with 2005 statistics
second in AL West
fourth season with Oakland
MILTON BRADLEY[New acquisition]
FRANK THOMAS [New acquisition]
ANTONIO PEREZ [New acquisition]
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
LH Barry Zito
RH Rich Harden
RH Dan Haren
RH Esteban Loaiza [New acquisition ]
RH Joe Blanton
RH Huston Street
RH Justin Duchscherer
RH Kiko Calero
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 59)
coming to a ballpark near you this summer...
The youngest player in Oakland's camp for the second year in a row, 20-year-oldDaric Barton has a lefthanded bat that appears to be major-league-ready. Aquintessential A's player, Barton, who was moved from catcher to first baseafter being acquired from St. Louis in the Mark Mulder deal before last season,is a doubles-hitting machine with a career OBP of .431 in four minor leaguestops.
FRESHSTART - After a bitter departure from the White Sox, Thomas, 37, is eager toprove he still has some pop in his bat.
GREG TROTT/WIREIMAGE.COM (KENDALL)
MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (BARTON)