The athletics are well known for ignoring conventional statistics in evaluating players, but giving the cleanup spot to a hitter who had a .172 average with four homers and 20 RBIs last year seems a bit radical even for general manager Billy Beane. What is this, Moneyball II?. Is there some algorithm that tells Beane that this is a wise move?
The idea does make some sense when you look at the hitter's name instead of his numbers. Rightfielder Jermaine Dye will bat fourth for Oakland because, in the A's estimation, his puny 2003 stats were an aberration. Beane and manager Ken Macha, among others, believe that Dye will be the kind of run producer he was before a succession of injuries derailed him the last two seasons. If they're right, Oakland should have just enough offense to contend for its fourth AL West title in five years. If Beane and Macha are wrong, third baseman Eric Chavez probably won't have much protection in the No. 3 spot in the order, and the A's could be so challenged offensively that even their holy trinity of starting pitchers—Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito—might not be able to get them back to the postseason.
"I don't think there's any question," says Beane, "that we need Jermaine to be his old self."
Dye's old self, the one who was an All-Star and a Gold Glove outfielder, was last seen in 2001, when Oakland acquired him from Kansas City in a midseason trade. He contributed 13 homers and 59 RBIs in 61 games, helping the A's put together a second-half charge that earned them the AL wild card. But in the playoffs Dye fouled a ball off his left leg and shattered the tibia. He started the following year on the disabled list, and it wasn't until late in the season that he was near full strength again.
Dye's 2003 season brought more suffering, beginning with torn cartilage in his right knee in April (he was sidelined for a month) and a separated right shoulder in July (on the shelf until September). He played in only 65 games, and his .172 average was the lowest in the majors among players with at least 200 at bats.
"That was like another player who put up those numbers," Dye says. "That wasn't me. A lot of people around here have told me you just have to throw out last year, and that's what I'm trying to do."
Oakland's optimism about Dye, 30, stems partly from the fact that, for the first time in two years, he was able to use the off-season for conditioning rather than rehabilitation. Although he is 6'5" and weighs 220 pounds, Dye has never had the kind of upper body that would make anyone confuse him with a BALCO customer, but after spending the winter working out at Athletes' Performance in Arizona, he feels stronger than ever.
"I haven't felt this good since my last full year in Kansas City," asserts Dye, who hit .321 with 33 homers and 118 RBIs in 2000 with the Royals. "Being stronger should help me stay away from injuries, and when I can stay on the field, I know I can produce."
His spring performance bears him out. Dye was one of Oakland's most impressive hitters during camp, driving the ball with his old authority. "He's raking," Chavez said during the preseason. "He's got that confident look in his eye again."
The rest of Oakland's lineup doesn't look quite so robust. The offense took a massive hit—the latest in what is beginning to seem like an annual series of departures for economic reasons—when shortstop Miguel Tejada left for Baltimore as a free agent. The A's believe they have a more than adequate replacement for Tejada in prized rookie Bobby Crosby, but even if Dye bounces back and Chavez, who signed a six-year, $66 million extension during spring training, supplies his customary power, Oakland isn't likely to improve much on last season's 768 runs scored, which ranked ninth in the league.