A's Future; A-Rod, Manny; O. J. Mayo/Tim Floyd
by Glenn Dickey
Jun 10, 2009

AFTER A VERY rocky start, the A’s have righted their ship and the outline of what they’re trying to be in the near future is starting to take shape.

The A’s had a nice seven-year run at the start of this decade, winning at least 91 games in six of those seasons and going over 100 wins twice. Mixed in there was an American League record 20 straight wins in 2002. In that period, they won four divisional titles and two wild cards.

That run was fueled by a very productive farm system, essential because the A’s limited payroll made it difficult to keep their top stars when they became free agents. The best ones, Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada walked, as did Barry Zito. General manager Billy Beane traded Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder before they became free agents.

The farm system had fallen off sharply in recent years, though. After the 2007 season, Beane took stock of what was happening and decided he had to break up the team to get the top prospects that could restock the farm system and fuel another run. Fan favorite Nick Swisher was traded, as were pitchers Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Rich Harden. In return, the A’s got a bushelful of prospects, and the farm system is now re-stocked.

Some of those prospects have already reached the majors. Centerfielder Ryan Sweeney is one. Sweeney has made several spectacular catches this season though his habit of challenging fences to makes those catches has landed him on the disabled list. Another outfielder who came in a trade, Aaron Cunningham, has just been brought up. Carlos Gonzalez was used in a trade for Matt Holliday.

Two of the A’s very young starters, Josh Outman and Brett Anderson came in those trades, as did reliever Michael Wuertz.

I wrote before the start of the season that the key to the A’s success would be pitching coach Curt Young, and that’s the way it’s turned out. Young doesn’t preach a revolutionary philosophy. He just works with individual pitchers to emphasize their strengths, and he constantly reminds them to throw strikes. Sounds simple but it’s amazing how often pitchers think they have to throw a perfect pitch every time, which only results in too many walks – and then, too many grooved pitches. That was the undoing of Sean Gallagher, who was originally scheduled to be part of the rotation but is now in Sacramento.

So, Young has four rookie starters – Outman, Anderson, Vin Mazzaro and Trevor Cahill – and one, Dallas Braden, who is in his first full year. Lately, the group has looked so good that it appears that Justin Duchscherer, an All-Star selection last year, will be put in the bullpen when he returns from injury re-hab.

Hoping to bolster the offense so the young pitchers wouldn’t get discouraged, Beane brought in Holliday, Giambi, shortstop Orlando Cabrera and infielder Nomar Garciaparra.

Holliday got off to a slow start but is now hitting as he always has. Even the best hitters have periods during the season when they’re either unbelievably hot or unbelievably cold. The good hitters simply have more steady periods, and that’s the kind of hitter Holliday is. By the All-Star break, he’ll probably be hitting around .300 with 12-14 home runs and more than 50 RBIs – and he’ll be the A’s representative in the All-Star game.

Despite all the speculation that Holliday would be traded in midseason, I’ve never thought Beane would. This week, he said that publicly. If Holliday walks at season’s end, the A’s would get two premium draft picks, which Beane values.

Giambi hasn’t hit for average yet but he’s starting to warm up as the weather does. It was at this time last year that he started a long stretch of high productivity, and I’d expect much of the same this year. He has great plate discipline; that and his reputation allows him to get into frequent hitter counts. Watch him for awhile and see how frequently he’s hitting with 2-0 or 3-1 counts – and almost never on 0-2. When he gets looser, his swings on those pitches will produce more hits and home runs.

Cabrera has improved the A’s defense with his great range. He occasionally flubs routine grounders – a career-long pattern – but he’s made several TV highlight plays, ranging deep in the hole to make throws to get the runner at first. His hitting has been off, but he’s shown some signs of improvement lately. That’s important because he’s the nearest thing the A’s have to a leadoff hitter, able to steal an occasional base, which always surprises A’s opponents.

Garciaparra has spent most of his time on the disabled list, no surprise given his injury history. He probably won’t contribute much the rest of the way, either, but he came at a relatively low price, so he was worth the gamble.

I’m still reluctant to make any season predictions for the A’s. There’s no dominant team in the AL West – the division-leading Rangers still have to overcome the Texas summer, which has done them in before – and the A’s are not far out. But it’s unrealistic to expect the young starters to pitch consistently all year, though I think that Mazzaro, Cahill and Anderson are potential stars.

But I feel confident in predicting that the A’s are setting up for another nice run, probably starting next season.

THE FANS SPEAK: The fact that Alex Rodriguiez and Manny Ramirez are both strong vote-getters for the All-Star game once again shows that the media is much more upset over the use of performance enhancing drugs than most fans.

For sure, there are the moralists among baseball fans, many of them of my generation and not actually going to games any more, who talk about the “integrity of baseball,” a real oxymoron, and ignore the fact that baseball has always had a culture of cheating. These fans are vehement in their e-mails to newspapers and magazines, but most of the fans who actually go to games just want to see the action, and they prefer high-scoring games. If that’s because of juiced baseballs, overexpansion, smaller parks or PEDs, they just don’t care.

When Barry Bonds was playing, he would get booed on the road – but when he hit a home run, even the home fans cheered. They wanted to be able to say they’d seen bonds hit a home run.

In games at PacBell/AT&T, he was loved. Bonds always got by far the biggest ovations when he came to bat. Nobody went out for food or to the rest room when he was coming to bat in an inning. Fans booed vociferously when he was walked intentionally, and the Giants started that silly “Chicken Walk” on the scoreboard. The walks, of course, were simply good strategy by opposing managers because, after 2002, the Giants didn’t have anybody else in the lineup who could do much damage.

Now, Dodgers fans are giving Ramirez the same kind of love. They’re supporting him despite the announcement that he’d tested positive for a banned substance and is suspended for 50 days. Their support enraged Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke who sputtered, “They’re acting like Giants fans.” Not really. They’re acting like baseball fans, who are much more realistic about this issue than the moralists in the media.

BASKETBALL SCANDAL: The resignation of USC coach Tim Floyd because of allegations he paid an agent to deliver O. J. Mayo is only the tip of the iceberg. .

Ever since the NBA put in its minimum age of 19 to play in the league, agents have been putting top players in schools around the country, to avoid too many stars on one team. Often, these players have been signed in high school – a clear violation of NCAA rules, but NCAA enforcement of its rules has been a joke for years – and paid along the way, so they do what their agent tells them to do. And, of course, these players all leave after one year.

Football recruiting scandals usually get the most attention, but basketball is at least as bad. To field a good football team, you need many good players, but one or two great basketball players gives you a huge head start;

There’s no way to stop this, but the NBA needs to change its rule. Either drop the age restriction or require players who go to college to play two years before turning pro. In baseball, players have to commit to three collegiate years before they’re eligible for the draft.

MEMOIAL TOURNAMENT: A golf tournament to raise money for scholarships in the name of Anthony Guirado will be held July 20 at Boulder Ridge. Anthony was a baseball player at Serra High and Canada College before being killed at a Giants game on May 9. For more information, go to www.anthonyguirado.org.

THE READERS HAVE ALL THE BEST LINES: Janice Hough writes, “Rookie Marlins pitcher Sean West nearly no-hit the Giants Monday night. But really, isn’t having a great pitching performance against the Giants lineup like winning a hot-dog eating contest with super models?

TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS! . The concert scene is heating up with Bay Area appearances by Diane Krall. Smokey Robinson and Tony Bennett. Nationally, The Boss is back and so is Britney. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band start touring at the end of May. Britney Spears is selling out arenas across the country. Other big names touring include Taylor Swift, The Dead and Jimmy Buffett. Meanwhile, tickets are also available for the NBA playoffs. Just click on the links below and everything will come up.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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