Wait 'til Next Year for A's
“Any moves I might make now would have long-range repercussions,” said A’s general manager Billy Beane when we talked today, “so I think the worst thing now would be to make a panic move.”
The A’s are stuck because they have too many left-handed hitters and too many players, on both the major and minor-league level, who can only play first base or be a designated hitter.
On the current club, Scott Hatteberg is primarily a first baseman who sometimes acts as the DH. (He conceivably could also back up at catcher, but current backup Adam Melhuse has trouble getting into a game himself.) Erubiel Durazo is a DH who should never be allowed in the field. Both hit left-handed, of course. Top prospect Dan Johnson is a left-handed hitting first baseman.
If the A’s had a power-hitting right-handed outfielder in the minors, he’d have been brought up by now, but the two outfielders who have been mentioned as possible callups, Jack Cust and Matt Watson, both hit left-handed.
Injuries have also hurt. Bobby Crosby, who has power from the right side, has been sidelined since spring training. Crosby has been cleared to take batting practice, but even when he’s pronounced injury-free, he’ll have to play at Sacramento for a few games to be ready. Nick Swisher, a switch-hitter who was usually in the lineup to bat right-handed against left-handed pitchers, is also on the DL.
Beane thinks any offensive improvement has to come from those currently on the roster. “Jason Kendall is a career .306 hitter. He’s hitting .219. Eric Chavez isn’t going to hit .192 (his current average) all year.”
CHAVEZ IS the focal point for the A’s problems because he’s the one star Beane has held on to, while Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada have left as free agents and pitchers Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder have been traded.
Each year, Chavez has a terrible start. “We’ve got to get Eric to quit talking himself into that,” Beane said, only half-joking.
Beane thinks criticism of Chavez is too harsh. “It’s not that he’s passive. Nobody is harder on himself than Eric. Maybe he’s too hard, but you’d rather have that than somebody who doesn’t care. I think sometimes he gets tired of people saying he doesn’t do as much as he could. The last four years, he’s been around 30 homers and 100 RBIs each year, and he’s won four Gold Gloves.” (An injury limited Chavez to 475 at-bats last season. If he’d had the 575 at-bats he averaged in the previous three seasons, his power figures pro-rated would have been 35 homers and 93 RBIs.)
I’m one of those who have been critical of Chavez for not reaching his potential. At 27, he’s just entering the prime years of a hitter’s career, but I’m more and more doubtful that he’ll ever be the hitter I once thought he would be.
It takes a certain kind of athlete to accept the responsibility of being a superstar, and all the attention, good and bad, that goes with it. It isn’t personality, because there are examples as diverse as the very extroverted Reggie Jackson to the much quieter Joe Montana. In very different ways, Jackson and Montana handled the pressure of being the focal point and kept playing at a very high level.
There are other more common examples of very good players who remain just below that radar screen because they can’t take that pressure.
Roger Maris is the extreme example. Maris had been a very good player, MVP in the American League in 1960, but the Yankees were Mickey Mantle’s team, and it was Mantle who got most of the attention. In 1961, when he was 27, Maris hit 61 home runs to break Babe Ruth’s record and got so much media attention that some of his hair fell out as a reaction from his nerves. He never made that mistake again. The next year, he fell off to 33 home runs and never hit more than 26 for the rest of his career. He should have been a Hall of Famer, but he ended his 12-year major league career as a footnote.
At this point, Chavez seems much more in the Maris category than the Jackson/Montana one.
BEANE WOULD never say this publicly, but long-time Beane watchers realized that, when he traded Hudson and Mulder in the offseason, he was looking forward to the 2006 season, not this one.
Beane was named an A’s scout in 1990 and assistant general manager to Sandy Alderson in 1993, and it is the 1992 season that sticks most in his mind, because the A’s won a division but paid for years for decisions they postponed.
“That was the year we should have started to rebuild,” he said, “but we hung on to the old players to have one more shot. So, we were stuck in the mud for many years. I don’t ever want to get in that position again.”
So, Beane started the rebuilding this year, bringing in young pitchers Dan Haren, Dan Meyer and Calero in trades, and elevating Joe Blanton from Sacramento.
Young pitchers often struggle in their first exposure to the majors. Mulder was only 9-10 with a 5.44 ERA in his first year with the A’s. Rich Harden had a tendency to have “crooked innings” that ruined otherwise good performances last year, but he’s hit his stride big-time this season. Haren and Blanton will both be excellent pitchers, but it’s unreasonable to expect consistency this year. Meyer is at Sacramento, still trying to match performance with potential.
BY NEXT SEASON, Harden, Haren and Blanton may form another “Big Three.” (Barry Zito remains a mystery.)
By next season, I expect Johnson to be up to play first base; Hatteberg has made a nice story but the A’s need more power at the position. Durazo may be replaced by one of the other prospects from Sacramento.
Meanwhile, Crosby and Chavez will anchor the infield, and Swisher will be a strong factor in the outfield.
The A’s will be poised to start another run like the 2000-2003 period when they made the playoffs four straight years.
Just don’t expect it to start this year.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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