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Monday, January 19, 2009
A's seem to have closed gap on Angels

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

The race in the American League West in 2008 essentially ended on July 8, the day the A's, only five games out of first place, traded pitcher Rich Harden to the Cubs. The race officially ended three weeks later when the Angels traded for Mark Teixeira. Eventually, the Angels won the division by 21 games, the largest margin of any division race since 1999.

It will be a lot closer in 2009. The Angels, who won 100 games last year, are still the favorite, but they lost Teixeira and closer Francisco Rodriguez (62 saves) to free agency. And the A's, who won 75 games last year, have done a marvelous job of upgrading a terrible offense by trading for outfielder Matt Holliday and signing free-agent first baseman/designated hitter Jason Giambi.

"We achieved our goal last year to rebuild our farm system; it has gone from near the bottom to near the top,'' said A's general manager Billy Beane. "We played well early last season, but we knew we were not good enough to win our division. We had no illusions about that. Now we've addressed a major need, I think we're better. And we insulated our young players, especially our young pitchers. We needed some room for error.''

They have it. Now, says one general manager, "The A's have a chance to make a run in that division. The Angels are good, but the A's closed the gap with what they've done this winter.''

The major need the A's addressed was their offense. Last season, the A's were last in the major leagues in slugging percentage (.369) and batting average (.242), second-to-last in on-base percentage (.318), 27th in runs scored (4.01 per game) and 25th in home runs (125). They had only one player with more than 13 home runs (DH/outfielder Jack Cust hit 33). They had no one with as many as 78 RBIs -- the Angels had four guys with at least 78 RBIs.

Beane laughed and said, "4.01 runs per game? That seems a little high. You'd better check those numbers … obviously, it was critical that we address that for the young pitchers. You don't want them going out there thinking that they have to pitch a shutout.''

Holliday has been one of the best players in the game over the last several years. Now he will have to make an adjustment going from Coors Field, the greatest hitter's park in baseball history, to McAfee Coliseum, which is spacious, with lots of foul territory. Holliday's home/road splits are noticeable: in his career at Coors Field, he has 84 home runs, 307 RBIs, a .423 on-base percentage and a .645 slugging percentage. His road numbers don't compare: 44 home runs, 176 RBIs, a .348 on-base percentage and a .455 slugging percentage. He has slugged nearly 200 points higher at Coors Field, and his on-base is nearly 100 points higher at Coors than on the road.

"We're not concerned about that,'' Beane said. "The difference is not as dramatic as OPS would suggest. If you dig deeper, other metrics suggest that there isn't that big of a gap.''

Holliday has one year left on his contract. The A's say they have every intention of keeping him for the 2008 season, and trying to win with him. But Beane also agrees that if the A's fall out of the race by the end of July, they would have to consider trading Holliday.

We've improved. But the Angels are the team to beat even though they've had some significant losses.

-- A's general manager Billy Beane

"But we're not anticipating that,'' Beane said.

They plan to be in it all year because of Holliday, Giambi and the return to health of third baseman Eric Chavez. The A's need Giambi because their designated hitters had only 64 RBIs last year and their first basemen had 63. Giambi will play first and DH, but Beane said he expects a turnaround season from young first baseman Daric Barton, who hit .226 last year.

"That was not indicative of the way Daric can swing the bat,'' Beane said. "And he is a very good defensive first baseman.''

Giambi likely will get more at-bats as a DH, allowing Cust to play more in the outfield because he's more productive there than as a DH.

Chavez, 31, has been limited to 113 games played in the last two years combined because of a back injury. Beane says Chavez is "feeling great. He is really motivated. He has really missed playing. When healthy, he's one of the best third basemen in the game, a 30/100 [home runs/RBIs] guy.''

It's possible that Chavez, Giambi and Holliday will each drive in at least 80 runs in 2009, something that no A's player did in 2008. That will greatly benefit a pitching staff that last year had a 4.01 ERA, 10th-best in the major leagues. Their bullpen ERA was 3.50, fourth-best in the majors, second-best in the AL. The 'pen is young -- Beane says he's looking for a veteran presence in the bullpen -- but Brad Ziegler (11 saves, 1.06 ERA) and Joey Devine (0.59 ERA and 0.83 WHIP in 45 2/3 innings ) were so good down the stretch last year, it allowed the A's to trade closer Huston Street in the deal to get Holliday.

Gio Gonzalez
Dana Eveland

The rotation is young with Dana Eveland, Sean Gallagher, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden, among others, behind Justin Duchscherer.

"Our young pitchers more than held their own the second half of last year,'' Beane said. "There's more pitching coming, with more fanfare.''

Indeed. Prospects Trevor Cahill and Vin Mazzaro, both right-handers, along with lefty Brett Anderson give the A's three of the best young pitchers in baseball. The A's can deal from a position of strength with their pitching.

Things set up nicely for the A's, but Beane is nothing but realistic. He says the Rangers, who finished second in the AL West last year, are a young team on the rise. He knows the Mariners will play better than they did last year. And he knows the Angels are always good.

"We've improved,'' Beane said. "But the Angels are the team to beat even though they've had some significant losses. You won't hurt my feelings picking the Angels.''

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.