Sunday, March 2, 2008

Know Thy Enemy: Oakland Athletics

"Know Thy Enemy: Oakland Athletics" is third in a twenty-eight part series of season previews. Today our resident A's expert, Jesse Ducker, stops by to give us his thoughts on Oakland's 2008 season.

Yeah, this is a last place team.

Oakland Athletics' GM Billy Beane is world renowned for being the smartest GM in baseball. Back when Theo Epstein was parking Kevin Towers' car in San Diego, Beane was putting together a strategy for putting together winning teams on the cheap. You might have read a book about it. First, draft players out of college (not high school) that most scouts haven't heard of, and that do things like walk a lot or not throw a fastball very fast. Second, stock your roster with cast-offs from other teams that fill essential "roles." You get one or two good years out of the cast-offs and eventually replace them with your homegrown talent. And suddenly, a few years removed from looking absolutely pathetic, you're back in the playoffs. Well, generally the first round of the playoffs, but you get the point.

So this worked out pretty well for the A's between 1999 and 2006, but Beane again has gotten antsy. After merely toying with the idea of dealing from the bottom over the last few seasons, Beane decided to embrace it whole-heartedly this off-season, and commenced with the scorching of the Earth.

Beane took a wrecking ball to the roster under the guise of "going young," standard code for any GM who wants to say, "We weren't going to make the playoffs this year anyway." I mean, it's not like he could say, "We're shedding salary," because none of these guys get paid much anyway. All of this fine and dandy, except that Dan Haren and Nick Swisher, the best pitcher and hitter on the team, were already young. Mark Kotsay was the only player over 30 that the A's shipped out. Haren, Swisher, and Kotsay were traded for players who probably won't be ready until 2009 or 2010. So, for the 2008 season, the A's will be looking up at the Texas Rangers in the standings. The humanity.

The A's roster is a scary and disturbing place. The pitching rotation, under the absolute best circumstances, consists of Joe Blanton, Rich Harden (still injured), Chad Gaudin (also injured), Justin Duchscherer, and either Lenny DiNardo or Dallas Braden. Doesn't really hearken back to the 2001 or 2002 season rotations, does it? Also, if Blanton and Harden pitch with any sort of competence (and the latter stays healthy), they'll be gone by July.

The top off-season acquisitions were Mike Sweeney, Keith Foulke, and Emil Brown, all of who are decidedly not young. Sweeney hasn't played more than 125 games since 2002, but was really ahead of the Rockies' curve when it comes to loving Jesus. So he's got that going for him. He'll be better than John Jaha in 2000, but not as good Mike Piazza last year. If it wasn't for that minor thing of being part of a World Championship team, Foulke probably wishes he never left Oakland in the first place. He'll be sharing time as the set-up man with Alan Embree, who's also old and slightly useless. Brown has never hit more than 20 HRs or had more than 90 RBIs in a season, yet he'll be the starting center fielder.

As for players actually on the roster last year, Bobby Crosby is likely still hurt, so there will be lots of Donnie Murphy. Joining Emil Brown in the outfield is the returning Jersey kid Jack Cust. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he hit 26 HRs last year in only 124 games. He also managed to strike out 164 times in only 124 games. Oh, and he can't field and is in all likelihood mildly retarded. Eric Chavez is still around, but still hurt, and still basically a $10 million a year glove, which he's been ever since Miguel Tejada left town. And to put a big red cherry on top, the Moneyball poster-child, Jeremy Brown (no relation to Emil), decided to retire after only racking up five games in his major league career; the A's replaced him with Matt LeCroy. Yerp.

There are a few bright spots on the roster. Left-fielder Travis Buck looks legit. He only played half a season due to injuries, but the second-year player put up respectable numbers and is good with the glove. There's a chance catcher Kurt Suzuki might turn into a respectable player. Mark Ellis is still the best fielding second basemen that gets absolutely zero respect. Huston Street, if he can remain healthy, has as good stuff as most of the closers in the league. And we have finally arrived at the point where Daric Barton gets to show if he's any good. The A's got the highly touted prospect back in 2006 in a trade that brought them Milton Bradley. They've been bringing him up slowly in the minors since. The question is whether he's a 25 to 30 HR kind of guy, or a 15 to 20.

I guess we A's fans should feel somewhat lucky, as this is the first time in about a decade that you can't feel any optimism about their chances. Some teams have scrapped and rebuilt their rosters two or three times in that timespan. But unless you're a diehard fan of the Oakland Athletics, or you really want to see what Ground Zero looks like for Beane, there's nothing to see here. In 2008, the A's win 72 games and like it.

Jesse Ducker was born and raised in Oakland, California, and has been going to A's games since 1982. He has been in the stands to witness some of the team's highs (sweeping the Red Sox in the 1988 ALCS) and the lows (getting swept by the Reds in the 1990 World Series). He makes his living writing about music for various local and national publications.

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