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Grade A's
An off-season overhaul has not only set up Oakland for a terrific future, it'salso made for an intriguing 2008

EVEN BILLY BEANE,the longtime gold standard for small-market success, didn't envision the superbstart of the 2008 A's, who are more anonymous than athletic. Beane has shed bignames before, but never as drastically as he did last winter, when he unloadedhis best pitcher (Dan Haren) to the Diamondbacks and his best everyday player(Nick Swisher) to the White Sox, and reduced an already modest payroll by 40%(from $79 million to $47 million). And yet, despite that downsizing andinjuries to Eric Chavez and Rich Harden, the 16--10 A's were tied with theAngels for the best record in the American League at week's end. It was not asoft 16--10 either: Their April schedule included road trips to the Far East(Japan) and the AL East and only eight dates against clubs that had losingrecords last season.

Nonetheless,Beane insists that he's "more interested in where we're headed than wherewe are now." If he has a regret about his off-season fire sale, he says,it's that it came a year late. "After 2006 I thought we had had a prettygood decadelong run and that we had pretty much exhausted all ourresources," he says. However, Oakland's surprise advancement to the '06ALCS against the Tigers led him to ignore his better judgment.

The trades ofHaren and Swisher were unusual because both players were young (27) and underteam control for a reasonable price through 2010. Beane leveraged those factorsinto a nine-prospect haul that included four of the top eight minor leaguersfrom Arizona's farm system, regarded as one of baseball's best. The most toutedDiamondbacks imports were centerfielder Carlos Gonzalez, 22, who through Sundaywas hitting .348 at Triple A Sacramento, and Brett Anderson, 20, ahard-throwing lefthanded starter who had a 3.08 ERA at high Class A Stockton.The more immediate dividends, however, have come from a pair of less-heraldedlefties: Dana Eveland, 25, whom manager Bob Geren likens to David Wells, and24-year-old Greg Smith. Those two were a combined 5--1 with a 2.67 ERA atweek's end for an Oakland staff that had the league's lowest ERA (3.22) by halfa run.

For all hisexcitement about the future, Beane offered a strong clue that he's intrigued bythe possibilities for this season when he brought back Frank Thomas, whomToronto released on April 20. (The Thomas signing should put to rest anylingering belief that Oakland could be a landing spot for Barry Bonds.) Thomas,39, is off to a woeful start, but he's had poor Aprils in each of the last twoseasons before finishing strong, particularly in '06, when he hit 39 homers andwas fourth in the MVP voting. At $337,000 for the remainder of '08, Thomas is aworthwhile pickup.

Even if the A'sremain in the race, Beane still might go back to shedding top assets. "I'mnever at a point where we're not considering trading anyone," Beane says.Don't be surprised if, by July, he unloads veteran starter Joe Blanton (theReds offered Homer Bailey but balked at Oakland's request for Johnny Cueto) andcloser Huston Street. It's always been impossible to label Beane as strictly abuyer or a seller. This season, he has the look of both.

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TALKING BIG Beane (inset) is rebuilding, but his signing of Thomas suggests that he's playing to win now.



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