Oakland’s 483-326 regular-season record from 2000-04 ranks second to the Yankees' 487-319. The A's are 644-489, the fourth-best record in baseball, since Billy Beane took over as GM after the '97 season. This record has been boosted largely by the A’s home record, which is 315-171 since 1999 -- the best in the big leagues. The A’s 91 victories last year were the most by an Oakland team that did not reach postseason play.
When Erubiel Durazo hit .321 and Mark Kotsay batted .314 last year, it marked only the second time that the A’s had a pair of .300 hitters since the franchise moved from Kansas City to Oakland in 1968. Jose Canseco (.307) and Dave Henderson (.304) set the standard in 1988.
Despite an ordinary 10–8 mark against NL opponents last year, the A’s own the majors’ best overall interleague record (85–55), beating out the Yankees (82–56). Last season also was a banner year for one-run victories, as the A’s set an Oakland mark with 33.
The lineup includes three players whose fathers played in the majors. Shortstop Bobby Crosby’s dad, Ed, was an infielder from 1970-76; catcher Jason Kendall’s father, Fred, spent 12 years behind the plate from 1969-80; and outfielder Nick Swisher’s dad, Steve, caught from 1974-82.
If Keith Ginter starts at second base on Opening Day, he’ll be the eighth different player to begin the season in that spot in as many years. Scott Spiezio (1997-98) was the last A's player to open the season at second base in consecutive years. He was followed by Tony Phillips (1999), Frank Menechino (2000), Jose Ortiz (2001), Randy Velarde (2002), Mark Ellis (2003) and Marco Scutaro (2004).
Payroll limits force the A’s to remake themselves every year. Their latest facelift is the most dramatic yet. The departure of Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder in trades robbed the club of its heart and soul, not to mention a large portion of its talent. Players obtained in those moves and others could revive the A’s collective energy, but they’ll have little margin for error as they try to compete with the Angels.
The A’s could have one of baseball’s youngest rotations with Rich Harden and Dan Meyer, both 23, and 24-year-olds Dan Haren and Joe Blanton. Harden, the only known quantity, could emerge as the ace. His fastball and toughness impressed observers during his first full big league season. Japanese veteran Keiichi Yabu will compete with the youngsters, and likely will earn the No. 3 spot. Barry Zito remains from Oakland’s fabled ‘Big Three,’, but he was erratic last year. The left-hander must regain the consistency and confidence that made him the AL’s Cy Young Award winner in 2002. Oakland has plenty of faith in its newcomers, even if A's fans don’t. Yabu was Japan’s Central League Rookie of the Year in 1994. Meyer, obtained from Atlanta in the Hudson trade, has a decent fastball and a treacherous slider; Haren, who came from St. Louis in the Mulder deal, has displayed an impressive fastball; and Blanton, a leading prospect, has shown a veteran’s polish in mixing pitches.
Improvement is imperative from the group that blew an AL-high (tied with Cleveland and Detroit) 28 saves last season, Oakland’s most since the statistic was created in 1972. Fortunately for the A’s, they should get better with Octavio Dotel serving as the closer all season. Dotel arrived in a trade from Houston last June and helped solidify the bullpen, though he was pounded mercilessly when his fastball lacked movement. Much of the setup help should come from Juan Cruz, who also came in the Hudson deal, Kiko Calero, part of the Mulder package, and Chad Bradford, who struggled with back problems through most of last year. Ricardo Rincon, the lefty specialist, looks solid. The A’s hope to rely less on Justin Duchscherer, who was frequently effective in long relief. As is the case in the rotation, the A’s will call upon rookies — namely, Huston Street and Jairo Garcia.
Shortstop Bobby Crosby makes this an area of strength. The reigning AL Rookie of the Year needs to refine his knowledge of the strike zone and his approach to breaking pitches, but his power and strong arm make him a potential All-Star. Crosby’s intensity and maturity serve as the foundations of what should be a long career. Crosby’s double-play partner likely will be Keith Ginter, who posted personal bests in nearly every offensive category last year. The A’s obtained Ginter from Milwaukee as insurance in case Mark Ellis, who missed last season with a dislocated right shoulder, isn’t completely healed. Marco Scutaro, last year’s primary second baseman, hurt his chances to reclaim his spot by recording a .297 on-base percentage — a no-no by the A’s Moneyball standards.
A broken right hand limited Eric Chavez to 125 games and prevented him from developing into the unquestioned team leader he vowed to become before last season began. Maybe this will be the year that he joins the game’s elite. Chavez’s ability to hit for power to the opposite field separates him from most hitters, and he has won four straight Gold Gloves with quick, soft hands and a strong, accurate arm. Originally a catcher, first baseman Scott Hatteberg keeps improving defensively and set career highs in most offensive categories last year. But Hatteberg may receive a challenge from rookie Dan Johnson, who hit 29 homers while earning Pacific Coast League MVP honors a year ago.
Center fielder Mark Kotsay truly is in the middle of everything. His performance in the leadoff spot made him the team’s MVP by the end of last season. Defensively, his powerful arm, range and ability to make acrobatic catches earned raves. Left fielder Eric Byrnes may have shed his label as a platoon player by appearing in 143 games, though he performs with such energy and fervor that he occasionally needs a day off. Nick Swisher, an organization favorite, will inherit right field from Jermaine Dye, who fled in free agency. The A’s love Swisher’s power and plate discipline. Charles Thomas, another acquisition from the Hudson trade, displayed competence in 83 games with Atlanta last year and is expected to push Byrnes and Swisher for playing time.
Jason Kendall doesn’t hit home runs, but the A’s just want him to get on base, which he did with admirable efficiency during his nine years with the Pirates. Kendall committed an NL-high 10 errors last year but recorded just two passed balls and threw out a respectable 36 percent of basestealers. Backup Adam Melhuse, who continued to gain trust among Oakland’s pitchers, appeared in a career-high 69 games last year but might play less if Kendall stays healthy.
With a career-best season, Erubiel Durazo began to fulfill expectations heaped upon him when he joined the A’s before 2003. A left-handed batter, Durazo hit a respectable .278 against southpaws, preventing him from being platooned, and he batted .300 or higher in every month except April. His on-base percentage rose from .374 to .396, which further pleased the stat-conscious A’s. Thomas, if he doesn’t win one of the outfield jobs, will be a valuable commodity off the bench.
GM Billy Beane took plenty of heat from fans and the media after the Hudson and Mulder trades. But Beane’s impressive track record suggests that he made the best deal he could for players the A’s couldn’t afford to sign long term. Impatient after the A’s missed the playoffs last year, Beane set out to assemble a younger, more energetic club that might not compete this season but could be a force in the future. It’s foolish to bet against Beane, whose foresight has kept the A’s among the AL’s best despite significant payroll restrictions. Manager Ken Macha often has to bend to Beane’s whims, but he’s a capable game tactician who treats players with respect.
Unless Chavez emerges, the A’s will function without a star in the lineup for the second year in a row. That’s OK if Zito pitches at or near his peak, Harden continues to progress, the other young starters pitch at least .500 ball and the bullpen provides stability. But none of that is a given, and the A’s face plenty of questions. How will Kendall cope with changing leagues? Can Crosby become steadier at the plate? Have Kotsay, Byrnes and Hatteberg maxed out? The A’s dislike the term “rebuilding,” but they may rethink their strategy as they get more answers.