A's Future, Dick Nolan, Nate Longshore. . . and More
by Glenn Dickey
Nov 14, 2007

WHAT KIND of team will the Oakland A’s be next season? Even general manager Billy Beane doesn’t know. In a conversation at his office yesterday, Beane said he is waiting until January to assess the health of the team before making a decision on whether to move aggressively to put together a contending team or whether to look at the future and perhaps make trades for young players to strengthen the suddenly-depleted farm system

After two straight seasons in which they were blindsided by injuries to key players, the A’s are monitoring their players on a weekly basis this offseason.

“We had to,” he admitted. “If we hadn’t, people would have been asking why, and we wouldn’t have had an answer. The players have to accept that. My dad was in the military and he used to say that, even if you thought it was silly that you had to make your bed so a quarter would bounce off it, that was just the way it was. It’s the same thing here. We can’t go into the season with players that won’t be ready until the end of May just because we didn’t do something before then.”

This is how Beane assessed some of his key questions:

--Rich Harden. “He’s a puzzling case because he’s missed so much time the last two seasons but he hasn’t had surgery. With a young pitcher, sometimes, every time he feels a twinge, it worries him, where a veteran pitcher might ignore it because he’s gone through it before.”

Beane was speaking very cautiously here, but it’s obvious he thinks a lot of Harden’s problems have been in his head. Beane’s not alone in his skepticism. When Harden came back late last season, he claimed that he still wasn’t right, though he was throwing 95 mph. Give me a break. Harden has tremendous physical ability but if he doesn’t develop some mental toughness, he’ll never become the pitcher he should be.

But, Beane can’t trade him. “I wouldn’t get anywhere near the value of what he could be worth.” And if Harden were traded and pitched up to his potential elsewhere, Beane would have egg all over his face.

--Joe Blanton, who has been the subject of trade rumors for months, in part because he is arbitration eligible and the A’s haven’t signed him to a contract expansion, as they have in similar cases.

“Sometimes, another team asks you about a player and that information gets out, so it looks like you’re trying to trade him,” said Beane. “That’s what’s happened here. I get a couple of calls a week on Blanton, but I haven’t initiated anything myself. Joe is a workhorse. He gives us 200-plus innings every year and he’s won 45 games in three years. He would be very hard to replace.

“You never want to say a guy is untradeable but you can set such a high price on what you would want in return that it really means he won’t be traded.” Beane didn’t say directly that he’s done that with Blanton but the implication was obvious.

--Eric Chavez, who’s had offseason injury for both his back and shoulder. “Eric played through his pain in 2006 because we needed him to win. He was in great pain swinging the bat but he came to us and said, ‘You can bat me ninth but I know you need my glove.’ Out of respect, we didn’t bat him that low, but he was right about his glove. He makes plays no other third baseman makes, like cutting off those balls hit between third and short. And, he has tremendous range on foul popups, which is a big factor at the Coliseum with all that foul ground. He is absolutely the best fielding third baseman I’ve seen since I’ve been in the game.” (My frame of reference goes back further than Beane’s, and I’d say he’s the best since Brooks Robinson.)

Last year, Chavez finally had to shut down. These surgeries are probably something he should have had done years ago. Beane thinks that, if healthy, Chavez can be a 30-homer, 100-RBI man, which does not seem unreasonable. In the six years before his injuries overwhelmed him, Chavez averaged just a tick below those numbers and, though it seems he’s been around forever, he won’t turn 30 until next month, which is still well within a hitter’s prime.

--Bobby Crosby. The American League Rookie of the Year in 2004, Crosby seemed on his way to stardom before he was felled by a series of injuries.

Beane doesn’t think Crosby is injury-prone, just unlucky. He had his elbow broken by a 94 mph fast ball,” he noted, “and he had his ankle broken in a collision at home plate,” Beane said. “That’s not an indication that he’s fragile.”

When he did play last year, Crosby had reverted to the bad hitting habits of his rookie year, trying to pull everything. He is an excellent fielder but he needs to be a more disciplined hitters, as well as a healthy one, to realize his potential.

If Crosby and Chavez are healthy and productive hitters again, if Harden convinces himself that he’s healthy enough to be the kind of pitcher he should be, the A’s could be serious contenders again. But if Beane doesn’t see that happening, he may go in the other direction and concentrate on building up the farm system.

“With all the injuries the last two years, we got stretched out,” Beane noted. “Before the injuries, Travis Buck was supposed to play at Triple A (Sacramento). The good news is that he showed he belongs here (until he, too, was sidelined by elbow chips), but all these injuries meant that players who should have been at Double A were moved up to Triple A and players who were supposed to be at A ball were moved up to Double A.”

But with the A’s, there are always prospects. When the A’s fell well out of contention last season, Beane traded catcher Jason Kendall and brought up Kurt Suzuki, who hit well after a slow start. “He’s still learning the defensive part,” said Beane, who thinks Suzuki may have to fight off Landon Powell, who was throwing out more than half the baserunners who tried to steal last season before he was – of course – injured. In the fairly near future, Beane likes the chances of Henry Rodriguez, who has a 95 mph fast ball.

But the biggest factor is still whether the A’s can stay healthy, and that’s why the monitoring over the next couple of months could be crucial.

END OF AN ERA: The death of Dick Nolan last weekend was a reminder of how much the NFL has changed. Nolan played and coached in a much simpler era, in a time when quarterbacks called plays and defenses were very basic, without the blitz packages that are so prevalent today.

In Dick Nolan’s time, the 49ers had a simple way to pick up blitzes. Because defenses only sent one player, usually an outside linebacker, if a running back were involved in a pass pattern, he waited a second to make sure the linebacker wasn’t coming; if he was, the back stayed in to block. Now, it’s much more complex, and the 49ers obviously have no strategy to combat the blitz, as we saw most recently in the Monday night game against Seattle.

Though there’s been an attempt to say that Mike Nolan is much the same type of coach as his dad, in fact, they are quite different. Mike Nolan has had his hands in everything, from player selection in the draft and free agency, to every aspect of the football operation. Dick Nolan concentrated on his specialty, the defensive side of the ball, and he left others to handle the offense and the draft; there was, of course, no free agency then.

Dick Nolan’s approach was both his strength and weakness. He inherited some good players who had been acquired in the draft because the 49ers had been drafting high for several years, and he had a good offensive coordinator in Jim Shofner. With quarterback John Brodie, who should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Nolan’s 49ers were in the playoffs for three straight years, including the NFC championship game the first of those years. Each year, they lost to the Dallas Cowboys.

Nolan lost Shofner and never adequately replaced him, and with Jack White running the draft, the 49ers went south in that department and the talent level plunged. After the three glory years, the 49ers plunged into sub .500 depths and Nolan was fired.

But to the end, Dick Nolan had the support of his team. The players always believed in him. Several of them showed up at the press conference when Mike Nolan was hired, expressing the hope that Mike would be the same kind of leader his father was.

Unfortunately, that does not seem the case. The likeliest explanation for the 49ers’ shocking plunge this season is that the players have lost faith in their coach, despite their protestations to the contrary. When that happens, the coach’s firing is inevitable. The only question is when.

COLLEGE QBS: Cal coach Jeff Tedford cautioned the assembled media at his weekly press luncheon not to “pile on” in criticism of quarterback Nate Longshore, pointing out that “he isn’t getting paid a million dollars a year to play.”

Tedford’s point is valid. College football gets a lot of media, and fan, attention because it’s a multi-million dollar industry, but the players aren’t getting that money, the colleges are.

In general, I’ve tried to remember that and, in my evaluations, stay away with the harsh criticism I’ve often made of pro athletes. Usually, the only time I’ve made those harsh evaluations has been of coaches – most recently of Tom Holmoe at Cal – because they are professionals.

But, the line between fair evaluation and unfair criticism is sometimes blurred. A few years ago, a Cal quarterback from thee ‘80s reminded me that I had once written that he played just good enough for the Bears to lose. It was an accurate assessment, but I shouldn’t have written it.

FOOTBALL SMALL TALK: The Big Game has a 4 p.m. start time at Stanford this year – and it’s on Dec. 1. Brrrrr! A few years back, the Cal and Stanford athletic directors pledged that the game would have a 12:30 start, but those ADs, John Kasser and Ted Leland, are gone. The current ADs, Sandy Barbour at Cal and Bob Bowlsby at Stanford, have no feeling for the tradition of the Big Game but they have a clear understanding of what TV money means to their programs. . . The worst rule in football has to be the “breaking of the plane” rule for a touchdown. Anywhere else on the field, the ball is spotted where the runner is down. Why make an exception for the goal line? Often, when runners or receivers are stopped short of the goal, they simply stretch the ball over the line. Voila! A touchdown. Ridiculous. . . Are you geared up for the Ohio State-Michigan titanic this Saturday? I guess ABC couldn’t get an Illinois-Appalachian State matchup.

WANT TO WATCH some football? Tickets for big NFL matchups like the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers on Nov. 19 and the Cowboys’ games against the Washington Redskins on Nov. 18 and Dec. 30 are available on the TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS! link at the bottom of my Home Page. Tickets are also available for big college games, including Ohio State-Micigan on Nov. 17, USC at Arizona State on Thanksgiving Day, Texas-Texas A&M on Nov. 23, Alabama-Auburn on Nov. 24, UCLA-USC on Dec. 1 and the Big Game the same day. It’s not too early to think basketball, and tickets are available for the Warriors and all NBA games. In the entertainment world, hot tickets for the legendary group Bruce Springsteen, the Hannah Montana tour and the E Street Band are available, along with those for Van Halen, Kelly Clarkson and Jimmy Buffet. Tickets for Broadway shows like Wicked, Jersey Boys and The Color Purple are also available. Just click on either the Bay Area or national link and everything will come up.

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