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CNN/SI Preview: Oakland Athletics

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Posted: Friday March 19, 1999 02:59 AM

  Stairs wants to resemble Babe Ruth in home run numbers only. Otto Greule Jr./Allsport

By Dan George, CNN/SI

Player to Watch: Matt Stairs, DH

The last couple of seasons, Matt Stairs looked more like a guy who'd won a lifetime pass to Shoney's breakfast bar than one of the best hitters in baseball.

No more. Even after averaging 24 homers and 77 RBIs with a .293 batting average the past three years, Stairs, 31, felt something was holding him back. So after a tough offseason diet and workout program, the 5-foot-9 Canadian reported to spring training nine pounds lighter than in '98, with his remaining 209 pounds rippling with muscle.

With his new and improved physique, the A's cleanup hitter wants to steal at least 20 bases this season, something he hasn't done since he played in the Eastern League in 1991. And after spending most of last year at DH because of a bad shoulder, Stairs hopes to play 120 games in the outfield in '99.

Manager Art Howe and the A's will be happy if Stairs simply repeats his performances of 1997 and '98. But the once-chunky slugger has bigger ambitions -- he hopes less will be more.

1998 Recap (74-88, 4th place, AL West)

Despite a sixth straight losing season, the A's emerged from 1998 with plenty of hope for the future. Although never really in the AL West race, they improved 11 games from '97, finishing just 14 games behind the first-place Rangers.

Rejuvenated by his departure from New York, ace lefty Kenny Rogers returned to form in the more low-key environs of the Coliseum, posting a 16-8 record with 3.17 ERA. And Rickey Henderson, at age 39, became the oldest player to lead the AL in stolen bases, swiping 66.

But youth was the main reason for optimism. The A's finished the season with four rookies in the starting lineup. Leading the way was right fielder Ben Grieve, who hit .288 with 18 homers and 89 RBIs, giving Oakland its first AL Rookie of the Year since Walt Weiss in 1988.

1999 Outlook

An intriguing mix of youth and experience, Oakland figures to be of the AL's more entertaining teams of the season. Henderson is gone, but the A's have replaced him with two -- that's right, two -- other 39-year-old left fielders: Tony Phillips (who's also expected to play second) and Tim Raines. Then there's reliever Doug Jones, 41 (and with his sixth team since 1993), closer Bill Taylor, just 37, and catcher Mike Macfarlane, a mere 35.

All are expected to add leadership to a team that boasts six starters 26 or younger. Twenty-one-year Eric Chavez, Oakland's top draft pick in 1996, will start at third, and his bat (.327, 33 homers, 126 RBIs at three levels last season) makes him an early Rookie of the Year favorite. Chavez's glove, however, is less than stellar, making the left side of the infield a potential trouble spot since shortstop Miguel Tejada, another youngster, committed 26 errors a year ago.

Roster roundup
Who's new
IF-OF Tony Phillips, OF Tim Raines, P Doug Jones, 1B John Jaha

Who's gone
OF Rickey Henderson


Other questions: Can Grieve, after failing to get a long-term deal from the A's, avoid the sophomore jinx? Can catcher A.J. Hinch keep his job after hitting just .231 as a rookie and raising suspicions he was rushed to the majors? Can John Jaha, signed to a minor league deal over the winter, finally shake the injury bug and help the A's at first and DH?

Finally, will the A's build their pitching staff around Rogers or deal him to a contender if they fall out of the race early? Lefty Mark Mulder, the first amateur player drafted after J.D. Drew in 1998, may be ready by midseason, but otherwise the quality of the rotation -- Tom Candiotti, Jimmy Haynes and Gil Heredia -- drops off sharply after Rogers.

But you heard it here first -- the A's will be major players in the 1999 AL West chase. No, Oakland probably won't turn the expected duel between the Angels and Rangers into a three-way race. But with six games against the two contenders in the final 10 days, the unheralded but dangerous A's could certainly help determine who wins.

Related information
CNN/SI Baseball Preview: Anaheim Angels
Postcards from Spring Training: A's
CNN/SI's Spring Previews
Oakland Athletics Roster
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