Under general manager Billy Beane, the A’s have had an interesting odyssey this last decade. When they first won the AL in 2000, they were 3rd in runs scored, and 3rd in runs allowed. By 2003, they 9th in runs scored and 2nd in runs allowed. That was their last postseason appearance until 2006, during which time the team has been substantially rebuilt. This past year they were 9th in runs scored and 3rd in runs allowed. But rather than doing it with the acclaimed “big three” pitchers of Hudson, Mulder and Zito, the statistical wisdom is that in 2006 they did it with stellar defense behind merely decent pitching.
The A’s are a strangely built team, with very few bad players but also very few great players. Even their marquee pitcher Barry Zito seems to be built for the long haul, but in any given game he can be very erratic, as he strikes out a lot of guys but also walks a lot of guys, and consequently throws a lot of pitches, which can lead to short exits. Meanwhile the offense this year consisted of a bunch of solid contributors and Frank Thomas.
Here’s how their off-season is shaping up:
- Ken Macha, manager (fired)
- Barry Zito, SP (free agent, unsigned but probably not coming back)
- Frank Thomas, DH (free agent, to the Blue Jays)
- Jay Payton, OF (free agent, to the Orioles)
- D’Angelo Jimenez, 2B (released)
- Scott Sauerbeck, RP (released)
- Bob Geren, manager
- Mike Piazza, C/DH (free agent, 1 year, $8.5M, from the Padres)
- Erubiel Durazo, DH (free agent, minor league contract)
- Alan Embree, RP (free agent, 2 years, $5.5M)
Macha was fired more for political reasons (reportedly he and Beane didn’t get along so well), and Geren’s skills are not known. However, Beane tends to hire managers who will follow his plan and they tend to be relatively faceless characters who push the right buttons and don’t overwork the pitchers. Geren is likely cut from the same cloth.
The big losses are of course Zito and Thomas. Zito is a genuinely good pitcher, and while he has the limitations I mentioned, he’s not going to be easy to replace. Thomas was lightning in a bottle, signed to a one-year deal after a few disappointing years, and the only all-around great hitter in the lineup (Mark Swisher is a good hitter, but until he can consistently bat in the 275-or-better range he’s not going to be a great one), but Toronto plucked Thomas out from the A’s nest.
Thomas will be replaced by Mike Piazza, who had a fine year for the Padres, but isn’t a great bet to repeat it. More likely his 2007 will look a lot like Swisher’s 2006. So he’ll have value, but he won’t truly replace Thomas.
The A’s are well-known competing on a “small market” payroll, but because of that they’re unlikely to bring in any additional impact free agents to replace Zito. The A’s real problem is the lack of impact players: Eric Chavez has never really developed into the star he’d looked like in his youth, and Bobby Crosby is both injury-prone and has not been able to sustain a high batting average (with essentially two full seasons under his belt, he’s a 244 hitter). Swisher, as I said, needs to boost his average to become a star. The rest of the line-up are unlikely to get any better, and some might get worse.
On the pitching side, Dan Haren and Joe Blanton are decent enough pitchers, but have not turned into stars. Haren might yet break through, but Blanton looks doubtful. Esteban Loaiza is another solid contributor. Rich Harden has ace potential, but he’s been through such a morass of injuries lately that it’s hard to know what to expect from him.
The A’s went 93-69 in 2006, winning the AL West by 4 games over Anaheim, but beating their third-order wins projection by about 11 games. That probably means that they got pretty lucky in 2006, and a regression in 2007 is in order. My guess is that they’ll just clear the .500 mark next year, and will be beaten by the Angels and maybe even the Rangers in a fairly weak division.
That said, one thing I haven’t mentioned is Beane’s ability to get good value in trade, and I wouldn’t put it past him to trade for an impact bat or an overlooked but exciting young pitcher. I’m not sure who he’d trade (Loaiza? Bradley? Chavez?), but Beane is one of the craftier GMs in baseball, and he’s certainly got the skills to be able to radically improve the team with a single stroke. So unlike the Giants, who I think have almost no hope for 2007, we won’t truly know where the A’s stand until opening day.