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Friday, April 3, 2009
A's could very well stick with AL's elite

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

A few weeks ago, A's manager Bob Geren was explaining his many options for all positions and all spots in his lineup. "In the minor leagues," he said with a laugh, "sometimes I'd have to pull guys out of the shower 15 minutes before a game and say, 'You're playing!' In winter ball, I'd work out the lineup on the bus, guys would drive separately to the game, and I'd get there and find out that they weren't coming. I would say, 'What do you mean they're not coming?'"

There will be no such problem for Geren's A's this season. Their depth and versatility in the lineup make them a demonstrably better offensive team than they were last year, and make them a dark-horse candidate to contend this year in American League West. It is a division that clearly is led by the Angels, who won the AL West title by 21 games last year. But the Angels lost key players in the offseason, including first baseman Mark Teixeira and closer Francisco Rodriguez. It is a division that includes the retooling Mariners, and the Rangers, who don't have much quality pitching.

Matt Holliday
Matt Holliday enters his sixth season in the majors, and his first with the A's.

"If our young pitching comes around, we're …" said A's first baseman/DH Jason Giambi, not completing the sentence, but let's do it for him: the A's can be very good. "Our lineup is going to be very good. [General manager] Billy [Beane] told me before I signed that he had a lot of things on the books. That's what swayed me to come here. And when I got here, Billy told me that he wasn't done yet. And, he wasn't. We've added a lot of pieces."

The 2008 A's were last in the major leagues in slugging percentage (.369) and batting (.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). Now the A's have Giambi, left fielder Matt Holliday, shortstop Orlando Cabrera, utilityman Nomar Garciaparra and a return to health of second baseman Mark Ellis and third baseman Eric Chavez, who played 23 games in 2008.

"We are way better just because of that guy," Cabrera said, pointing at Holliday. "Oh my god, he is so unbelievably strong. He is Vladimir Guerrero with great technique. He hit 25 straight pitches for home runs in batting practice the other day. The pitches were in all areas, the home runs to all fields. It was incredible." Giambi agreed, saying Holliday "is ridiculously strong. He is unbelievable. The balls he hits, and the weight he throws around in the weight room is amazing. And he's ever better now after working with Mark [McGwire] this winter. He's shorter to the ball. There's no telling what he's capable of here."

This will be Holliday's first year in the American League, and he has never played a game at McAfee Coliseum. His adjustment likely will be seamless because his talent level is remarkably high, and because he is the son of a coach, a student of the game -- he's the guy who, after playing a night game, will go home and watch the end of another major league game on TV.

"There are guys who play baseball, and there are baseball players," Geren said. "Matt Holliday is a baseball player."

As for going from Coors Field -- the greatest hitter's park in baseball history; there is not a close second -- to a big ballpark in Oakland, Holliday says without pretense, "if I hit it on the barrel, I'll take my chances."

Holliday will have plenty of offensive support in the lineup, and he will play left field every day. He, Ellis and catcher Kurt Suzuki are the three players who can almost always count on playing the same position every day. Others will be moved around.

"Not many teams," Giambi said, "have so many guys who can play two positions beyond the one they're playing."

Giambi will play first base or DH. Daric Barton, who is coming off a subpar offensive year, will play a lot of first. Against a tough left-hander, Garciaparra or Bobby Crosby, who has gone from shortstop to utilityman, will also get some at-bats at first. Ellis is a terrific defender who can hit, but if he needs a day off, Cabrera has told the A's he can also play second base, and Crosby played a little second this spring. If Cabrera needs to take a day off at shortstop, Crosby or Garciaparra can fill in. Chavez is coming off back surgery, and had a setback this spring, but the goal is for him is to play 115 games. Garciaparra and Crosby can also play third base.

Ryan Sweeney will be the primary center fielder, but against a left-hander, Rajai Davis, who is the best defensive outfielder on the team, could play center. Right field likely will be shared by Travis Buck and Cust, or, against a difficult lefty, Geren has toyed with the idea of playing Crosby in right. The DH will be Cust or Giambi, but there are also many options there.

Brett Anderson
Rookie Brett Anderson, 21, is expected to start the season in the A's rotation.

Geren is amazingly organized. He has a board in his office on which he has three weeks of games planned out, and what pitchers the A's are going to face. He is a real student of the game, and big believer in the statistical end of the game, some of which he gets from a book called "The Book." He knows, from reading, that over the course of the season, a No. 3 hitter is going to get 15 more plate appearances than the No. 4 hitter.

"If you have a strikeout guy, sometimes it's best to hit him second, not fifth," Geren said. "There are more productive outs at the fifth spot. And did you know that the No. 3 spot in the order comes to the plate with no runners on base more than any spot in the batting order?"

The A's, with their new offense, have a chance to score 100-150 more runs than last year. "You can't win in the American League without scoring runs," Giambi said.

But the A's also know their dark-horse candidacy will be determined by the progress of their young pitching. In left-hander Brett Anderson and right-handers Vin Mazzaro and Trevor Cahill, the A's might have the best young threesome of pitchers in the major leagues. "They remind me of [Tim] Hudson, [Mark] Mulder and [Barry] Zito with the way they carry themselves on the mound," Giambi said.

Anderson, Mazzaro and Cahill "are the best three pitchers they have," one scout said, "I'd love to see them put all three in the rotation, and just go for it." The A's may just be courageous enough to do so, especially with Justin Duchscherer a couple of weeks behind schedule because of soreness in his right elbow, and Sean Gallagher having struggled this spring. No matter who the A's start, it's going to be a very, very inexperienced rotation. That doesn't bode well for a chance to be a contender.

But the A's play in a big ballpark, they have a pretty good bullpen, and they have a veteran lineup that should give the team's pitchers a lot of run support. And if the A's fail to become a dark-horse contender, look for them to trade Holliday and others before the July 31 trade deadline. We should know a lot about the A's right away -- they start the season on the road against the Angels on April 6, the first of a four-game series.

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.