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Jon Heyman
May 05, 2008
Grade A's An off-season overhaul has not only set up Oakland for a terrific future, it's also made for an intriguing 2008
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May 05, 2008

Baseball

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Grade A's
An off-season overhaul has not only set up Oakland for a terrific future, it's also made for an intriguing 2008

EVEN BILLY BEANE, the longtime gold standard for small-market success, didn't envision the superb start of the 2008 A's, who are more anonymous than athletic. Beane has shed big names before, but never as drastically as he did last winter, when he unloaded his best pitcher ( Dan Haren) to the Diamondbacks and his best everyday player ( Nick Swisher) to the White Sox, and reduced an already modest payroll by 40% (from $79 million to $47 million). And yet, despite that downsizing and injuries to Eric Chavez and Rich Harden, the 16--10 A's were tied with the Angels for the best record in the American League at week's end. It was not a soft 16--10 either: Their April schedule included road trips to the Far East ( Japan) and the AL East and only eight dates against clubs that had losing records last season.

Nonetheless, Beane insists that he's "more interested in where we're headed than where we are now." If he has a regret about his off-season fire sale, he says, it's that it came a year late. "After 2006 I thought we had had a pretty good decadelong run and that we had pretty much exhausted all our resources," he says. However, Oakland's surprise advancement to the '06 ALCS against the Tigers led him to ignore his better judgment.

The trades of Haren and Swisher were unusual because both players were young (27) and under team control for a reasonable price through 2010. Beane leveraged those factors into a nine-prospect haul that included four of the top eight minor leaguers from Arizona's farm system, regarded as one of baseball's best. The most touted Diamondbacks imports were centerfielder Carlos Gonzalez, 22, who through Sunday was hitting .348 at Triple A Sacramento, and Brett Anderson, 20, a hard-throwing lefthanded starter who had a 3.08 ERA at high Class A Stockton. The more immediate dividends, however, have come from a pair of less-heralded lefties: Dana Eveland, 25, whom manager Bob Geren likens to David Wells, and 24-year-old Greg Smith. Those two were a combined 5--1 with a 2.67 ERA at week's end for an Oakland staff that had the league's lowest ERA (3.22) by half a run.

For all his excitement about the future, Beane offered a strong clue that he's intrigued by the possibilities for this season when he brought back Frank Thomas, whom Toronto released on April 20. (The Thomas signing should put to rest any lingering belief that Oakland could be a landing spot for Barry Bonds.) Thomas, 39, is off to a woeful start, but he's had poor Aprils in each of the last two seasons before finishing strong, particularly in '06, when he hit 39 homers and was fourth in the MVP voting. At $337,000 for the remainder of '08, Thomas is a worthwhile pickup.

Even if the A's remain in the race, Beane still might go back to shedding top assets. "I'm never at a point where we're not considering trading anyone," Beane says. Don't be surprised if, by July, he unloads veteran starter Joe Blanton (the Reds offered Homer Bailey but balked at Oakland's request for Johnny Cueto) and closer Huston Street. It's always been impossible to label Beane as strictly a buyer or a seller. This season, he has the look of both.

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