Will Frank Thomas Come to A's?
Paul Konerko will be out there, for instance, but he’s priced beyond the A’s budget; the latest reports have him leaning toward the Angels, whose hitting is at least as suspect as the A’s. Carlos Lee was an intriguing possibility, but the Milwaukee Brewers picked up his $8.5 million option and would trade him only for a young front-line pitcher like Dan Haren. Since pitching has been the strength of the A’s, that’s not going to happen.
Mike Piazza might be a possibility if he’d be willing to sign for one year, but he made $13.5 million last year. He won’t get anything like that next year, but he’d probably still want more than the A’s would be willing to pay him, and after playing his entire career in Los Angeles and New York, how would he deal with the bright lights of Oakland?
One long shot possibility: Frank Thomas, who will apparently be a free agent after this season. (Thomas’s contract with the White Sox is a complicated one, and it’s not yet certain that he will be free after this season.) He’d be a gamble because of his injury history, but healthy, Thomas is exactly the kind of hitter A’s general manager Billy Beane loves, combining power with a high on-base percentage.
“The market isn’t what it used to be,” said Beane, in an interview in his office. “We saw that at midseason last year. Not only were there more teams who thought they were in the playoff race, but even some teams like Milwaukee who were out of it wanted to finish strong, as the Brewers did, so they didn't want to dump good players."
The one spot that appears open on the A’s roster is the designated hitter role, though Beane said no decision has yet been on Scott Hatteberg; the A’s have a club option on Hatteberg for next season. “He’s such a great guy, and he’s great in the clubhouse as a steadying influence on our younger players,” Beane said.
True, but Hatteberg’s numbers were always marginal for a first baseman/DH and they’ve slipped from his best - .256 with only seven home runs last season. That doesn’t cut it. Dan Johnson is a much better fielder at first, and Nick Swisher plays well there in relief, so Hatteberg is no longer needed in that role. I’d like to see the A’s drop him as a player but find a way to keep him in the organization, as a scout, a coach or even in the front office. His usefulness as a player has ended.
The A’s need to keep looking for a good right-handed hitter who could DH. I don’t have any candidates but Beane and his staff have been good at finding players who are below the radar screen. If he can’t do that, perhaps he could rotate Jay Payton and Bobby Kielty (if he’s resigned) in left field and DH. Payton is a right-handed hitter, of course, and Kielty is best hitting from that side. In fact, I think the A’s should tell him to stick strictly to that side because he’s pathetic swinging from the left side. Switch-hitting is fine. Switch-swinging is another matter.
COMPOUNDING THE problem for the A’s is that their best minor-league hitting prospects, Andre Ethier and Daric Barton, are both left-handed hitters. Beane said he expected both of them to start the season in Triple-A, at Sacramento, next year, though it’s possible one of them might be promoted during the season, as Johnson was in 2005.
Ethier was the Most Valuable Player in the Texas League (Double A) last year and has continued his hot hitting in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .378 through Tuesday’s games.
But it is Barton who has Beane, and others in the organization, raving. “He’s only 20 and already in Triple A,” Beane said. “The last time we had a 20-year-old hitter at that level was Chavvy (Eric Chavez).”
Chavez actually reached the majors as a 20-year-old, in September, 1998 (his birthday is in December) and Beane thought that would be possible for Barton, who will be 21 in August of next year.
“Age is so important to gauge hitters,” he said. “If you get a hitter who can hit even .230, .240 in the majors at 20, you’re talking about somebody who could be really special, probably a Hall of Fame candidate. At 20, he could be just a junior in college.”
Barton was signed as a catcher and has been playing first base more lately. Catcher might still be in his future, though. “One thing that would concern us is that catchers often are limited to about 130 games,” Beane said. “But the possibility of that kind of hitter as a catcher is very intriguing, so that’s always at the back of our minds.”
The current A’s starter, Jason Kendall, is signed through 2007. He’s coming off what he’s described as his worst season and will almost certainly be better next year. The A’s also have other candidates to replace Kendall eventually, Kurt Suzuki and Landon Powell, both taken in the 2004 draft. But if Beane decides Barton should be a catcher, he’ll be the front-runner.
BEANE HAS made one point, repeatedly, about last year’s team, and it’s a valid one. “For 2 ½ months, we led the majors in scoring runs. Nobody said our offense was bad then.”
At that time, I thought of the A’s in terms of the 2002 Anaheim Angels, who won the World Series with a lineup that was strong from top to bottom, with no real weaknesses at any spot. The A’s were like that during the long run that propelled them from seeming also-rans to the top of the AL West.
Then, Bobby Crosby was hurt, and it all fell apart. That put pressure on everybody else in the lineup, and the A’s offense was uneven the rest of the way, breaking out in multi-run games occasionally but, more frequently, being held to two runs or less.
Having a healthy Crosby next season will make a big difference to the A’s – but I’d still like to see them get one more good right-handed bat for insurance. With no other glaring weaknesses to worry about, Beane and his staff can concentrate their energies on that goal.
CORRECTION: I mis-identified the publisher of www.49ersparadise.com in my early column yesterday (I corrected the error at mid-day). His name is Bryan Hersh.
TV: I will be a guest on the 49ers Playbook Sunday morning on KTVU (2)
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