1. Oakland Athletics
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Watch out, world: The A's are even better than last year. Just ask them
By Tom Verducci
To hear team executives and players tell it, Generation A's is upon us. After getting a taste of the postseason last year -- the Athletics put a five-game scare into the Yankees in the American League Division Series -- the best team $40 million can buy (or rent) wants the whole enchilada.
"The exciting part," says first baseman Jason Giambi, "is we know we're better than we were last year." Giambi, 30, is the team elder who still is young enough to say that one of the high points of his winter as reigning MVP was "hangin' with the guys from *NSync in Vegas." He has improved his RBI output every year since he broke into the big leagues in 1995.
The Oakland franchise has its own impressive growth chart. The team has increased its win total for four consecutive seasons, from 65 wins in 1997 to 91 last year. Losing to New York in the Division Series actually emboldened the A's. "I don't want to say that was the World Series right there," says Tim Hudson, the team's 25-year-old ace, "but [the Yankees] walked out of it wiping the sweat off their foreheads. It might have been different if we'd had a chance to line up our pitching." Hudson and half-season rookie wonder Barry Zito were available for only one start each against New York, because they were needed to hold off Seattle and win the AL West title on the last weekend of the regular season. Gil Heredia, a 34-year-old journeyman, started the deciding game against the Yankees. He didn't make it out of the first inning, and the A's lost 7-5.
Even before that game, Beane had put all of baseball on notice by declaring, "We think this will be our worst club over the next five years. You'd better beat us now." The A's are even better than Beane imagined then, thanks to what may turn out to be a one-year rental of leftfielder Johnny Damon, who led the league in runs (136) and steals (46) with the Royals in 2000. In the three-way trade that brought Damon -- who is eligible for free agency after the season -- to Oakland, Beane shipped outfielder Ben Grieve, who was coming off a 104-RBI season, to Tampa Bay, which then sent closer Roberto Hernandez to the Royals. "We're better because we have Damon for a whole year, Zito for a whole year and [setup man] Jim Mecir for a whole year," Beane says. (Mecir was a July trade acquisition.) "People look at Johnny's speed, but he had a better slugging percentage than Ben."
"Damon's huge," says Giambi. "We haven't had a true leadoff hitter since Rickey [Henderson]."
"Now," Beane says, "I guess we'll have to have a steal sign."
Damon attempted as many stolen bases last year as the entire Oakland team, whose 55 tries were easily the fewest in the majors. The Athletics also attempted the fewest hit-and-run plays, 32, one every week or so. They can, however, bludgeon teams with home runs, many of which follow the walks they bleed out of opponents.
If the A's ascension continues, though, it'll be on the homegrown arms of Hudson, Zito and Mark Mulder. Hudson, a ferocious competitor who rarely throws a pitch above the kneecap, is the only one of the three to have pitched a full year in the majors. Heredia and Omar Olivares fill out a promising but still fragile rotation.
If Jose Ortiz, the Pacific Coast League MVP, nails down the second base job as expected and Adam Piatt platoons in rightfield with Jeremy Giambi, on many days every starter but the resident *NSync fan will be a twentysomething. "That's good," Beane says, "because we can't afford injuries, and young teams don't break down as much as older teams."
Oakland is a young team in a hurry, like that kid in the backseat asking, "Are we there yet?" before the station wagon has left the driveway. This season just might be the A's big arrival. Or haven't you been listening?
Issue date: March 26, 2001