Jason Giambi (cont.)
Despite incessant roster changes, nearly every baseball clubhouse maintains a certain identity. The Yankees have a corporate one. The Rockies have a religious one. The A's have a rollicking one. This dates back to Reggie, Catfish and Rollie in the 1970s, Rickey and the Bash Brothers in the '80s, but for today's players it is all about Giambi. "He is the definition of an Oakland A," says Gallagher, 23. "He created the whole persona." To prove his point, when Gallagher was traded from the Cubs to the A's last season, he grew his hair out, a la Giambi. And when he saw a few Cubs coaches this spring at Las Sendas Golf Club in Mesa, Ariz., they shouted to him, "Oh, now you're doing it the Oakland way."
The A's have only one player who was with Giambi his first time around, 31-year-old third baseman Eric Chavez, but the new pledges are in place. During the past two years, while the A's were losing games and shedding veterans, they quietly amassed the most impressive collection of young pitchers west of Tampa Bay. When the A's acquired Holliday for the middle of their batting order, he did not understand why a noncontender would want him, since he is entering the last year of his contract. But during the first week of spring training, he watched some of Oakland's young pitchers throwing bullpen sessions and saw in them the keys to contention. "It makes sense now," Holliday says.
Coming from Colorado, Holliday may be in for a bit of culture shock. But he ingratiated himself with his teammates this winter when he texted Bobby Crosby and asked the Oakland shortstop if he wanted to work out at UC Irvine -- with former A's first baseman Mark McGwire and second baseman Mike Gallego. Crosby and Holliday took turns in the batting cage while Gallego pitched and McGwire critiqued their swings, reminding them to be short to the ball. It's unlikely that Holliday, the crown jewel of the 2009 free-agent class, will be persuaded to sign an extension with the A's, but he will almost certainly accomplish one of two goals for them. Either he keeps them in the hunt and leaves after the season (in which case the A's get two first-round picks as compensation, assuming they offer him arbitration) or he is traded before the deadline (in which case the A's could get prospects who are better than the players they gave up).
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After the 2007 season, members of the A's front office had informal conversations about the nation's economy and whether it was headed for a downturn. Coincidentally, the A's were coming off their first losing season in nine years. To stay competitive, they had plundered their farm system and neglected Latin America, abandoning the emphasis on player development that made them the fourth-winningest franchise in the previous 10 years, behind the Yankees. It was time for a massive rebuilding, the kind that many small-market teams talk about but few have the stomach to implement.
Just as American Indians used to set fire to chaparral so the landscape would grow back stronger and healthier, the A's scorched their roster to make it more bountiful for the long run. Last winter they traded first baseman Nick Swisher to the White Sox and pitcher Dan Haren to the Diamondbacks in packages that netted nine prospects. Then the season started, and the A's still won. Heading into July, they were eight games over .500, 31D 2 back of the Angels in the American League West. Players believed they had a chance. Beane was skeptical. In July he traded pitcher Rich Harden to the Cubs and Joe Blanton to the Phillies in packages for seven more prospects. In the span of eight months, an entire minor league system was replenished. Three of the youngsters obtained in those deals are among Baseball Prospectus's top 100 prospects.
"Now you have a great farm and you have financial flexibility because you've cut payroll," Beane says. "You're in position to take advantage of the changing financial environment."
Because of their reliance on statistical analysis, Oakland's front office is often depicted as cold and calculating, but the atmosphere in the executive suite is, in fact, about as casual as the clubhouse's. Sitting in his office at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, Beane fiddles with a Blackberry while his border collie, Taggart, curls up under his desk. Beane wears a baseball cap, not from the A's but from Kenyon College, where his daughter, Casey, is a freshman. In the past two years Beane has gained a great deal of attention for his keen interest in professional soccer. It was inferred that he had grown frustrated with all the losing by the A's. In fact, he says he was as energized as he had been in some time. He made three trips to the Dominican Republic last year to court 16-year-old Michel Inoa, a 6'7" pitcher who has touched 94 mph on the radar gun. Inoa signed with the A's in July for $4.25 million, more than double the richest signing bonus ever given to a Latin American amateur pitcher.