Spring Postcard: A's have found other overlooked skills to value
Oakland general manager Billy Beane has started focusing on run prevention
The A's have had Rickey Henderson give their players base-stealing tips
Dallas McPherson is healthy and likely to get a chance to play everyday
This spring, SI.com's baseball writers will be filing postcards from all 30 camps. To read all of the postcards, click here.
1. Billy Beane has changed his tactics
"Listen," says Beane, 47, now entering his 13th season as the A's GM, and his 21st in the franchise's management. "When we started putting our clubs together in Oakland, we built them on three-run homers and walks. That's no longer a skill that we can afford. My first choice to build an offensive club would be a bunch of guys who hit homers and get on base. That's my first choice. As people start to pay for that skill, then we have to keep going down the list."
"Down the list" translates to an increased focus on run prevention, as opposed to the pricier run production, a focus shared by a number of other mid- to small-market teams, most notably the Mariners. But Oakland's payroll projects to be among the league's five lowest, around $55 million, to Seattle's $90-plus million, so Beane, as usual, had to be more creative than most in his effort to assemble a competitive team. That will mean relying on a rotation stocked with young pitchers with the potential to far outperform their salaries, the best of whom should be 22-year-old lefty Brett Anderson, the second-year No. 3 starter who went 6-4 with a 3.48 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning during last season's second half. All that cheap youth allowed Beane the room in his meager budget to sign four-time All-Star Ben Sheets to a one-year, $10 million deal on Jan. 26, after falling short in his pursuit of other free agents including Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro, Jamey Carroll and, most significantly, Cuban phenom Aroldis Chapman (for whose services the A's were the runners-up to the Reds).
Beane's focus on run prevention also led him to assemble a group of fielders that should rank among the league's best, particularly in the outfield, which will feature a trio of starters who have all been significantly above-average defensive center fielders. Rajai Davis will play left, free agent acquisition Coco Crisp center and Ryan Sweeney right. "When me, [Jacoby] Ellsbury and J.D. Drew were together in Boston, that was a pretty good outfield," says Crisp, whose season as a Royal ended with a torn shoulder labrum in June but who signed a one-year, $5.25 million deal with Oakland in December and is now all but recovered. "In saying that, though, this outfield could be a really fun outfield to watch."
Davis, Crisp and Sweeney, however, combined to hit just 12 home runs last season -- every other outfield in baseball contains at least one player who by himself exceeded that total -- but Beane isn't overly concerned about his lineup's lack of power. "At the end of the day, if you score 500 runs in a season and your opponents score 400 runs in a season, it's the same as scoring 1000 and giving up 900," he says. "It's still ultimately a zero-sum game. You try to use some equation, and some combination, that allows you to succeed. For us and the Mariners, it's defense."
2. Oakland's bullpen is an overlooked strength
Despite being required to work the second-most innings (559.1) of any bullpen last season, A's relievers, rather impressively, ranked third in the majors, and first in the AL, in combined ERA (3.54). They were particularly good during a late-season stretch in which Oakland won 16 of 20 games between Sept. 5 and Sept. 26 -- they had a 1.98 ERA and allowed a .211 batting average against in those three weeks -- before a deflating, season-ending seven-game losing streak. It wasn't just AL Rookie of the Year closer Andrew Bailey (26 saves, 1.84 ERA), either. Right-handed set-up man Michael Wuertz had a 2.63 ERA and stuck out 102 batters in 78.2 innings thanks to a nasty slider that helped him lead all pitchers in the rate at which he produced swings-and-misses (batters whiffed when they swung at his offerings more than 40 percent of the time). Southpaw Craig Breslow had a 2.60 ERA in 60 games with the A's, who picked him up after the Twins cut him. Sidearmer Brad Ziegler, though not as untouchable as he was as a rookie in '08, still finished with an ERA of 3.07.
"If we were ahead after six innings, we felt really good about winning that game," says manager Bob Geren. "And if we were close after five or six, we really felt like we could hold them, and have a chance at coming back."
Bailey, Breslow, Wuertz and Ziegler will all return in 2010. So will Joey Devine, who was probably the best middle reliever in baseball in '08 (he had a 0.59 ERA in 42 appearances then) and was set to become the A's closer in '09 before Tommy John surgery forced him to miss the entire season. Of Devine's chances to be ready for Opening Day, Geren says, "I'd say 50/50. But if it's a week or two into the season, fine. If it's 162 games or 150, whatever. I just want him back in there." Devine's return to the bullpen, plus the reduction of stress upon it due to the starting staff's maturation and improvement, means that the A's pen should be even better this year.
3. The A's are another AL West team on the rise.
Since 2006, when they went 93-69 and advanced to the ALCS, the A's have won 76, 75 and 75 games. The 2010 A's, though are a very different club than they were four years ago, not only in personnel -- the only holdovers are second baseman Mark Ellis, 1B/3B Eric Chavez and starter Justin Duchscherer -- but in style. They are now a running team -- they stole 133 bases in '09, 45 more than in any other season during the decade -- and Crisp should help them increase that total. Rickey Henderson was invited to camp to hold a four-day clinic on the art of stealing bases, and also, presumably, on the art of talking about oneself in the third person. (If you start reading things like, "'Cliff Pennington is the greatest of all time,' says Cliff Pennington," you'll know why.)
Beane's reimagining of his club into one based on young pitching, fielding and speed seems to be nearing completion, although he could still be a few power hitters -- some of which might be on the way (see items below) -- away from again challenging for the division's title. Still, even in a seemingly stacked AL West, a half-dozen win improvement over last season seems manageable. By 2011 -- even without Sheets, who will likely have signed elsewhere, or, even more likely, will have been traded elsewhere before this season's end for yet more young and cheap prospects -- the A's should be contenders once more.
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