Cheap A's, Randy Winn, Cal Decision
by Glenn Dickey
Jul 23, 2008

AS THE season has progressed, it’s become more and more obvious that the A’s are trying to put together the youngest and cheapest lineup possible. Though they were in contention for both the AL West title and the wild card in early July, they were sellers, not buyers. Instead of going after the one big hitter they needed for the middle of the lineup, they traded pitchers Rich Harden and Joe Blanton.

Though general manager Billy Beane is the point man, he’s not acting independently. The current ownership, which makes Steve Schott look like a spendthrift, simply doesn’t want to spend the money. They are cheap, cheap, cheap, in everything from the playing roster to marketing to medical equipment to keep their players healthy. Except for its excellent baseball operation, this is a minor league operation.

Beane has done an excellent job of acquiring young talent, most of it still in the minors, and he may be able to achieve his goal of a team which will be good for several years, but it will probably be 2010 before the A’s are contenders again.

Young players are often inconsistent. A player can have a strong rookie season and then fall back his second year. That’s happened to outfielder Travis Buck, who looked like the real thing last season but has had trouble getting untracked this season. I still like Buck’s chances to be a productive major league player for many years, but he’s at Sacramento now.

Many of the A’s best pitching prospects are still in the minors, though Gio Gonzalez may be close to being called up. They’ve gotten good efforts from Dana Everland and Greg Smith, though I believe that they’ll be back of the rotation starters when better pitchers come up from the minors. Brad Ziegler has set a major league record for scoreless innings at the start of his career. Joey Devine was impressive before he went on the disabled list, and many observers think he’ll wind up being the A’s closer, after Huston Street is traded.

There have been bright spots among the young position players, particularly outfielders Ryan Sweeney and Carlos Gonzalez.

Sweeney, though he’s made a couple of trips to the DL, has shown from the start that he belongs, playing well defensively in center and right, and hitting .300 or close to it all season. He’s also been an effective base stealer – a rarity for the A’s – stealing eight times in nine attempts. He’s just 23 and, at 6-4, 215 pounds, has good size. With time, he'll probably develop into more of a home run hitter.

Gonzalez is even younger than Sweeney – he won’t be 23 until after the season – and was originally scheduled to stay in Triple A all season, before Buck’s injury made room for him on the major league roster. He needs to learn more plate discipline because he seldom walks, a real no-no for the A’s. He’s also an excellent defensive outfielder, with a very strong arm. He’s been primarily a “gap hitter’< with 17 of his first 43 hits going for doubles; with time, he will also develop into a more prolific home run hitter.

By next season, the A’s could have a Buck-Gonzalez-Sweeney outfield in place that would remain that way for several seasons. Hopefully, Jack Cust will be strictly a DH by then.

There’s another young player who deserves mention: catcher Kurt Suzuki. When he came up in midseason last year, after the A’s traded Jason Kendall, Suzuki was shaky defensively, but he’s improved greatly since then – and the pitchers have great confidence in his pitch calling. He’s also been a decent hitter, so he should be the starting catcher for several years.

The one serious disappointment has been Daric Barton, even before he took a dive into a shallow pool during the All-Star break and wound up on the DL. Barton, who had been a very good hitter at every minor league level at which he played, has struggled all season and clearly lost confidence. He will get a chance to regain his stroke at Sacramento. Beane has had high hopes for Barton, so you can bet he’ll get every chance to prove himself.

Otherwise, everything is in flux. I seriously doubt that Eric Chavez will ever again be a productive offensive player, but the A’s are on the hook for his contract through 2010, which much gall the current ownership. and it’s not likely the A’s can trade him. His replacement, Jack Hannahan, is not a legitimate major leaguer.

Mark Ellis is a great defensive second baseman and a timely, though not a high percentage, hitter, but the A’s ownership doesn’t way to pay him what he’s worth (see earlier reference to cheap, cheap, cheap). Shortstop Bobby Crosby has another year on his contract, and then he’ll be gone. So, the 2010 infield will be…well, your guess is as good as mine.

The A’s ownership isn’t concerned. They’ve already written off their current fan base, looking forward to the new fans who will flood into the real estate venture in Fremont. Will that ever happen? Don’t bet on it. It’s already been postponed to a 2012 opening and there are concerns in City Hall about traffic congestion and fans’ ability to get to the park. No kidding.

So, that’s the state of the A’s. The only reason for optimism is Billy Beane, but even he may not be enough to make the A’s a contender again with this ownership.

PARK FACTOR: It’s amazing to me that baseball writers seldom factor in the parks when they talk about power numbers. This year, for instance, they've talked about the National League’s big power surge without mentioning the main reason: the new hitter’s parks in the league, in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Houston. Of the first five home run hitters in the NL, three play in Philadelphia, one in Cincinnati and one in Milwaukee.

Colorado, which used to have the park which most notably inflated hitting stats, is well back in comparison since the humidor was installed. Wrigley Field almost looks like a pitcher’s park in comparison to the new ones.

Philadelphia’s new park is considered the real home run haven, which should concern the newly traded Joe Blanton. Pitching half the time in the pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum, Blanton’s ERA was more than 4 ½ runs a game. In his first start for the Phillies, in New York, Blanton gave up eight hits and five runs in six innings. Hide your eyes when he has to pitch in Philly.

GIANTS MOVES: Why is Randy Winn still here? I think it’s because Giants general manager Brian Sabean has pleasant memories about his arrival in San Francisco.

When Winn arrived in San Francisco in midseason, 2005, Sabean’s bad decisions were starting to pile up. Winn seemed to be the exception, -having the best two months of his career, as he hit .359 with 14 home runs in 58 games. Sabean then overpaid him, which is the Giants way, of course, giving him a four-year contract for $28 million.

Sabean made the same mistake with Ray Durham, re-signing him for two years after a personal record home run season. Both Durham and Winn soon returned to form. Winn hit a combined 25 home runs in the last two seasons and has only five homers in the first 99 games this season. Those numbers are not acceptable for a corner outfielder.

The Giants need to trade him to make room for Nate Schierholtz. Of course, they’d have to pay part of his salary (his contract runs through 2009) because other clubs aren’t so foolishly generous, but Winn is not part of their future and hurting them now by blocking the path of a potentially much superior player.

CAL DECISION: At long last, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara Miller has ruled in the university’s favor in the lawsuit which attempted to stop construction of an athletic training center adjacent to Memorial Stadium. The judge gave the plaintiffs (the city of Berkeley, the California Oak Foundation and the Panoramic Hill Associations) a week to decide whether to appeal but ruled that they would have to pay 85 per cent of the court costs.

Good for her. This has been a phony issue from the start, because the university had promised to plant three trees for every one of the 44 in the grove which have to be cut down. The most transparent motive was that of the neighborhood association, whose spokesman said the university should just tear down the stadium and build elsewhere. Home owners in the neighborhood bought with the full knowledge that football games would be played there each fall, as they have been since 1923, but now they just want those games to go away.

The decision will also help keep Cal coach Jeff Tedford here. Tedford has several times affirmed his support for the university, but also with the qualification that his program needs the training facility. Opposing coaches use Cal’s facilities shortcomings against him in recruiting. Even with that, Tedford has generally recruited well and, as I’ve said many times, he’s the best Cal coach I’ve observed in watching the Bears closely since the fall of 1956.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL is coming and tickets from Cal home games are available on TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS!: Michigan State, Aug. 30; Colorado State, Sept. 27; Arizona State, Oct. 4; UCLA, October 25; Oregon, Nov. 1; Stanford, Nov. 22; and Washington, Dec. 6. New York will host the top tennis stars – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova – in August for the U.S. Open, and tickets are available. Tony Bennett will be at the San Francisco Symphony on Sept. 14, and top names are touring, such as Billy Joel, Neil Diamond and Jimmy Buffet. Madonna is back in the spotlight with her October tour. Just click on the local or national links and everything will come up.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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