"Billy Beane has begun another renovation -- this one massive even by his standards."
About three hours before the San Diego Chargers played the Tennessee Titans in an NFL wild-card playoff on Jan. 6, Eric Chavez was dropping back in the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot and flinging 30-yard passes on post patterns through oncoming traffic. Fellow tailgaters, captivated by the tight spirals and familiar smooth throwing motion, easily picked Chavez out of the crowd even though he was wearing a LaDainian Tomlinson jersey.
While Chavez is recognizable without his name on the back of his uniform, most of his teammates are not. When A's second baseman Mark Ellis -- one of the three other holdovers from last year's Opening Day lineup -- showed up for spring training in Phoenix this year, he scanned the clubhouse for familiar faces. There was Chavez, the Gold Glove third baseman, and who else? "It was like I didn't know anybody anymore," Ellis said. "It felt as though I had been traded too."
Oakland general manager Billy Beane, master of the tear down, has begun another renovation -- this one massive even by his standards. Over the years the A's have lost Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Johnny Damon, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito to richer markets. But this winter was particularly harsh, as the club dealt its best pitcher in 2007 (Dan Haren) to the Diamondbacks, their best slugger (Nick Swisher) to the White Sox and their centerfielder (Mark Kotsay) to the Braves, all for a bunch of players most of their fans had never heard of.
"The more you play here, the more you get used to it," says shortstop Bobby Crosby. "It can be hard losing your friends, but you always have faith in Billy, because he's done this so many times in the past. He always puts us in a position to win."
Usually after the A's have lost or unloaded stars, they remained competitive because they had the prospects ready to step in. But even the Oakland pipeline eventually runs dry. The trades this winter were supposed to replenish a depleted farm system and stockpile for the future. In exchange for Haren, Swisher, Kotsay and pitcher Connor Robertson -- a throw-in in the Haren deal -- the A's netted 11 prospects, six of whom Baseball America ranks among the top 10 in the organization.
Carlos Gonzalez, 22, the centerpiece of the Haren deal, is an outfielder with power who appears ready for the major leagues. Lefthander Gio Gonzalez, 22, the key piece of the Swisher deal, struck out 185 batters in 150 innings in Double A last season and should be in the bigs by the All-Star break. Lefty Brett Anderson, 20, who came from Arizona, as well as righty Fautino De Los Santos, 22, who came from the White Sox, have power arms with good command; they will likely start the season in Class A Stockton, where the A's are grooming one of the most promising rotations in the minor leagues. "Billy Beane knows exactly what he's doing," Gio Gonzalez says. "We just have to go out there as a group and prove him right."
Patience is required. From 1999 through 2006 Oakland finished either first or second in the AL West. Last year the A's slipped to third and, with the Rangers stockpiling young, major-league-ready talent, they could fall into the division cellar over the next few years. But Beane recognizes the reality of small-market baseball: It's sometimes necessary to take a step back before taking two steps forward.
Crosby, however, insists that Oakland can contend now, provided the regulars are able to stay off the disabled list. Last season Crosby, Chavez, starting pitcher Rich Harden and closer Huston Street each missed at least two months of the season with injuries. Alas, Chavez, who's coming off three back surgeries, is likely to start the season on the DL. But even if he fully recuperates... well, then, the A's will probably still be looking up at the Angels and the Mariners. -- Lee Jenkins
Issue date: March 31, 2008