A's Demise No Surprise
by Glenn Dickey
May 18, 2005

MEMO TO AS fans and the media: Chill.

The As struggles this year have prompted all sorts of strong reactions. One writer suggested, Its not too early to panic. Theres been talk of bringing up players from the minors the As did bring up Matt Watson or making a trade to bring in a power-hitting right-handed hitter. In the press box on Sunday, one media member was even musing about 38-year-old Reggie Sanders. Not going to happen, and no other big trade is likely, either.

The fact is, baseball economics have caught up with the As.

Writers who turn a blind eye to the realities of baseball like to say that teams with low payrolls can win, and theyve most often pointed to the As and Minnesota Twins. Yes, they can win but they cant keep a team together. A couple of years ago, we wondered whether the As could keep their young stars, especially the pitchers. We know the answer to that now. Eric Chavez is the only young star whos signed to a long-term contract. Miguel Tejada left as a free agent, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder were traded.

Thats the reality when a team has a $60 million payroll, trying to compete with teams that have double and, in the case of the Yankees, triple the As payroll.

Some writers have pointed out that the increase in revenue-sharing and luxury tax made George Steinbrenner pass on Carlos Beltran in the last offseason. Poor baby. Steinbrenner is still making money, because of the revenue he gets from his own cable television network, which I wrote about earlier in the year. And, he still has a player payroll of roughly $200 million. If general manager Brian Cashman cant build a winner with that kind of payroll, he should be in another job which he may be if the Yankees dont win this year.

If the As even had the Giants payroll, which has been probably $25-35 million higher in recent years, theyd have been able to keep Hudson and Mulder.

As it is, the remarkable thing about the As is not their collapse so far this year but that they were able to reach the postseason for four straight years and just miss last year. Unhappy As fans should look around the baseball map at cities like Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Colorado who have not enjoyed that kind of recent success and are still floundering. The As will be back in the postseason before any of those teams reach it.

AFTER LAST season, As general manager Billy Beane had a choice to make: He could leave the team intact for one more run at the postseason, which meant hed lose Hudson to free agency at the end of the season, or he could start to rebuild.

Beane knew, though, that the gap between the As and the Anaheim Angels (you will not see them called Los Angeles on this website) was widening again, because the Angels payroll is roughly double the As. With the two biggest payrolls, New York and Boston, in the East, the wild card would probably come out of that division again. (Baltimore has since become a factor as well.)

So, Beane opted for the rebuild. Aside from the trade for veteran catcher Jason Kendall, his moves brought in younger players and pitchers. He might have gone even further but for budget restraints. Id much rather see Dan Johnson at first base right now than Scott Hatteberg, and I suspect Beane would, too, but with the As, you cant just eat the contract of a productive player, and Hatteberg has a year left on his contract. (Theres a club option for another year, but its unlikely that will be exercised.)

This will be a development year for the As, and a time to see which players (and pitchers) will be part of the nucleus for another run. Nick Swisher, now injured, will likely be a part of that nucleus, for instance. Hes not quite ready now, but he has the attitude you like and the tools to be good. Charles Thomas, obtained in the Hudson trade, has been tentative at the plate, but hell get a chance to show whether he should be flanking Mark Kotsay (whom the As will try very hard to re-sign) in left field, with Swisher almost certainly the right fielder. Watson will also be given a shot at left field. Veterans Eric Byrnes and Bobby Kielty are in the mix, too, but you dont have to read tea leaves to know that Beane hopes Thomas or Watson wins the job in left.

The young pitchers to watch are obviously Joe Blanton and Dan Haren, and when you watch them, think of what a difference a year has made for Rich Harden, who was by far the As most effective starter this year before he pulled the muscle in his side that has sidelined Hudson in the past.

Even when theyve got the pitches to be winners, young pitchers need to learn how to manage a game. Haren got a lesson from Randy Johnson in the Sunday game. Johnson was all over the plate in the first two innings, throwing 47 pitches in those two innings and being raked for three runs in the first. But he found his rhythm the further the game went, and he wound up as a winner for the 250th time.

Haren still needs to learn that. Typically, he does fine the first couple of times through the lineup but he doesnt change his pattern much the third time through, and the hitters are ready for him. One of these days, hell learn that lesson, and hell be a winner.

SO, THE AS are very much a work in progress, but theres hope for the As fans from the recent past.

In 1997, the As finished 65-97. Two years later, they won their division with a 91-71 record and went on to win 102, 103, 96 and 91 games the next four seasons. Their 483 regular season wins are second only to the Yankees in the American League for that period.

With three times the payroll the Yankees only won four more games? Its the Yankees who should be embarrassed, not the As.



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