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A's Hinge 2005 Hopes On Flock Of Rookies

By Casey Tefertiller
February 25, 2005

OAKLAND—If Billy Beane were an artist, he would be Christo in sanitaries: building, tearing down and rebuilding. Every creation would be different, notably different.

The A’s are going young again this year, with general manager Beane banking on as many as a half-dozen rookies to play significant roles on a team that Oakland officials still believe has the potential to challenge in the American League West. Beane broke up the vaunted “Big Three” of pitching aces by trading away Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder and leaving Barry Zito behind. In place of a team built on starting pitching, the A’s will be built around a strong bullpen and the expectation of outstanding defense.

“I think we can compete. I’m really excited about it,” said Nick Swisher, who is one of the rookie candidates hoping to come in and win a starting job.

The switch-hitting Swisher is expected to take over one of the corner outfield positions. Righthander Joe Blanton and lefthander Dan Meyer are leading candidates to move into the rotation. While first baseman Dan Johnson and relievers Huston Street and Jairo Garcia are unlikely to break camp with the team, they could well be quick callups if a need arises. Import Keiichi Yabu is also a rookie at 36, after pitching in the Japanese leagues.

Much of the fate of the A’s this year will rise or fall on the success of their rookies, and that is a mighty load for young players. It is also not unusual in Oakland, where young players have been integrated into the system with regularity. The latest example, shortstop Bobby Crosby, was the American League’s rookie of the year last season.

“We’re excited about the team,” assistant general manager David Forst said. “People will define ‘competitive’ differently. (One prognosticator) picked us to finish in last place, and that’s not where we see ourselves. Hopefully, we’ll surprise some people in ’05. What I’m really excited about is the future of this team. I expect us to improve a lot over the next four years.”

During those four years, the six young hopefuls are likely to play a major role in the future of the A’s. Swisher enters the spring as the biggest name of the group, a potential power hitter with on-base ability. Since being drafted 16th overall in 2002—the noted “Moneyball” draft—the A’s have moved him through the system so quickly he hardly had time to sample the best restaurants in Modesto and Midland. After 314 minor league games, he debuted in the majors last year, hitting .250 with two homers in 20 games.

“He has a really good attitude and an aggressiveness about him,” longtime farm director Keith Lieppman said. “Plus he has a baseball background (as the son of former major leaguer Steve Swisher). All that led to making it possible for us to push him. He’s responded to it really well. He’s gotten bigger and stronger every year, and his power is still developing.”

Because Swisher, 24, has been pushed, it is hard to gauge just what kind of hitter he will become. He never had time to reach a comfort level at any minor league stop—as soon as he grew comfortable he moved up. At Triple-A Sacramento last year, he hit .269-29-92 and drew 103 walks in 125 games.

Most surprising was the news that came after the season: Swisher had played the whole year with a broken left thumb that required two postseason surgeries to repair. “We know he can do a lot,” Lieppman said, “but it’s hard to say just what kind of player he could be. What we’ve seen is a player who can make quick adjustments. He’s able to figure things out.”

Where the youth movement will be most visible will be on the mound, especially in the rotation. After the two key veterans—Zito at 26 and Rich Harden at 23—Blanton (24), Meyer (23) and Danny Haren (24) could fill out the rotation, if all win jobs in spring training. Haren, acquired from the Cardinals as part of the Mulder deal, is barely past rookie status. If any of those three don’t make the team, Yabu will likely get the call. If not, the Japanese rookie will probably start the season in the bullpen.

With the cadre of young starters, Oakland expects to rely more on a bullpen that was rebuilt around the trades for the two aces. The A’s acquired Kiko Calero from the Cardinals and Juan Cruz from the Braves. With the pen virtually set, it will be difficult for Rule 5 pickup Tyler Johnson to earn a job as a lefty specialist.

The basic concept of the A’s organization in this young century has been to draft, develop and trade around youth. Stay young, cheap and competitive while other teams get locked down with big contracts for aging players. The A’s attempt to draft creatively, or to identify young talent in other organizations and find a way to acquire the players.

“A lot of what we do is out of necessity,” Forst said. “Realistically going forward, we didn’t have a real shot at signing Tim Hudson (when he becomes a free agent after ’05). We figured we needed to get something for Tim, and we made the decision we were willing to trade one of the other guys (Mulder). We’ve seen what the Angels can do with a strong bullpen. Something has to be cheap—either the starters or the bullpen. If we go cheap on the starters, we can invest a little more in the bullpen.”

The A’s are taking a huge gamble with such an inexperienced rotation, but life is always a roll of the dice in Oakland, as it is with most organizations that don’t spend freely. Last year, the A’s brought in more experienced veterans to try to end a four-year streak of being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The result was a fade down the stretch and no October baseball. This year, the A’s have gone young, young and younger.

This is the year when the famed “Moneyball” draft begins coming of age. Michael Lewis’ controversial book created a stir around baseball by telling of the A’s methods of identifying undervalued players based partly on statistical analysis rather than primarily on tools. The book highlighted the 2002 draft and showed the statistical emphasis the A’s placed on those players. Neither Blanton nor Swisher were particularly controversial picks, however, because both were prized by statheads and tools devotees alike.

Blanton had an erratic year in 2004, struggling at times before finding a groove. He finished the regular season with three straight wins to go 11-8, 4.19 at Sacramento, then earned a promotion to the majors, where he was impressive in relief despite allowing five runs in his eight innings. “His relief appearances in the majors opened some eyes about him being ready,” Lieppman said.

Blanton has an average fastball in the 90-93 range, but he knows how to pitch and throws both a curve and a slider to go with an improving changeup. The A’s believe his is close to being ready, whether that time is April, June or September.

Meyer came to Oakland from Atlanta in the Hudson deal. He was a supplemental first-round pick of the Braves in 2002 out of James Madison. He made two relief appearances in Atlanta last season after going 3-3, 2.79 with Triple-A Richmond and 6-3, 2.22 at Double-A Greenville. Overall, he had 146 strikeouts and just 37 walks in 126 innings.

“We wonder how he slipped past us in the draft,” Forst said. “He’s a strong, polished college lefthander. He throws 90 to 92 and he’s not afraid to pitch inside. He has a good curve and a change.”

This will be a year of mystery in Oakland, with the A’s hanging so much of their hope on young arms and a budding slugger, plus the gang in reserve at Sacramento. If it all works out, the new generation of A’s could become even more successful than the generation that slipped away during the winter of Oakland’s separation from the era of the Big Three.

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