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MANAGER BOB GEREN
first season with A's
Even at 38, Piazza remains a formidable power threat at the plate and has been a welcome veteran presence in one of the game's loosest clubhouses. Harden arrived in midseason form, hitting 98 mph in his first outing and striking out five of the seven Padres he faced. "Tremendous," says Geren of the pair. "They're making me a happy man."
Tremendous efforts from Piazza and Harden are a necessity if this club is to make the playoffs. Signed as a free agent after spending last year with the Padres, Piazza must replace the power of the departed Frank Thomas, who hit 39 HRs, then jumped to the Blue Jays. Harden moves to the top of the rotation following Barry Zito's exit to accept a rich offer from the Giants. If Piazza doesn't deliver or Harden gets hurt again, Oakland will be in trouble.
Both men realize this, and for the 25-year-old Harden, in particular, it is a sensitive subject. In his four-year career he has gone 30--16 with a 3.67 ERA and averaged nearly a strikeout per inning, acelike numbers if only he could reach acelike inning totals (average starts per year: 18). Harden maintains that his injuries are the "fluke type," not related to his power pitching. The muscle strain in his lower back that sidelined him in 2006 occurred while he was trying to knock down a comebacker off the bat of the Rangers' Phil Nevin. And a sprained right elbow ligament later in the year was the result of turning over his hand too much on his changeup. "I've never had any trouble throwing a fastball; it's just a matter of being aware of what my arm is doing on a changeup," he explains. "I'd never even thrown one until the minors, so I was forcing myself to do it more and overdid the motion."
If Harden stays healthy all season, he could better Zito's 16--10 record and 3.83 ERA of 2006. Still, after Harden and Dan Haren (whose 3.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio was fourth in the AL last season), the rest of the rotation is unpredictable. That puts the onus on the offense, and with only one other significant pickup ( Stewart) in the off-season, Piazza must do better than last year's 22 HRs and 68 RBIs. Two reasons to think he will: leaving cavernous Petco Park (box, below) and giving his body more rest as a DH rather than catching 100-some games. "Mentally it was always a relief for me to get out from behind the plate in June for the interleague games," says Piazza, who has hit .304 with 10 homers in 191 DH at bats. Finally, in Nick Swisher, Milton Bradley and a healthy Eric Chavez, Piazza should have better lineup protection than he had last season. ( Geren says he's "99 percent sure" Piazza will hit fourth.)
Another plus to having Piazza on the roster is his experience. He's already giving batting tips to Swisher, speaking up during hitters-only meetings and working with catching prospect Kurt Suzuki on blocking the plate. "If he wants to," says Geren of Piazza, "he'd make a good manager someday."
Perhaps, but for the A's to have a chance at winning the West, he needs to make a good DH right now.
a modest proposal ...
A year ago, in an effort to upgrade at DH, the A's invested a guaranteed $500,000 in 37-year-old Frank Thomas, a future Hall of Famer nearing the end of his career. The move proved to be a steal as Thomas led Oakland in homers, OBP and slugging, and was fourth in the MVP voting. (Even after meeting incentives, he made only $3 million.) After Thomas took off for Toronto, A's G.M. Billy Beane tried his luck again by signing Mike Piazza, 38, to a one-year deal worth $8.5 million. Piazza's numbers with the Padres last year--.283 average, .342 OBP, .501 slugging with 22 homers in 399 at bats--weren't eye-popping, but remember that he played home games in Petco Park, the toughest hitting yard in the majors. On the road Piazza (left) tore up the NL to the tune of .332/.372/.564. If manager Bob Geren gets Piazza more than 500 at bats, he'll be one of the best hitters in the AL.