Tyson Ross Headlines Opening Day Surprises





OAKLAND—Moments after receiving the biggest news of his life, 22-year-old Tyson Ross had a decision to make.

During spring training he wore the assigned No. 66, high digits befitting of a non-roster player with little chance of sticking.

"I'm keeping it," Ross said with a big smile crossing his face. "I grew up playing Little League on 66th Street just outside the park, so I'll stay with it."

The number helps connect Ross to his roots. He grew up in Oakland, then played college ball for California, a few miles up the road in Berkeley. At the end of spring training, he received the thrilling news that he had made the Athletics' Opening Day roster less than two years after being the organization's second-round pick.

The decision Saturday was part of a bizarre afternoon in the A's clubhouse, as players and reporters huddled for nearly two and a half hours while manager Bob Geren and general manager Billy Beane called the players in individually to tell them of the critical decisions.

And there were surprises.

Left fielder/DH Jack Cust did not make the Opening Day roster, and neither did Landon Powell, last season's backup catcher. Travis Buck, who many expected to be sent down just a day earlier, landed a starting outfield job. Both out-of-option players—Eric Patterson and Jake Fox—made the team in reserve roles.

And then there was Ross.

The bullpen was expected to be Oakland's greatest strength this year, but spring injuries took a heavy toll. Dependable Michael Wuertz went down with shoulder soreness. Joey Devine, recovering from Tommy John surgery, was not ready for the start of the season. Lefthander Brad Kilby had been dominating last September but was unimpressive in spring. Hard-throwing, 23-year-old righthander Henry Rodriguez needs more minor league tuning. Righthanders Edwar Ramirez and Chad Gaudin, acquired during spring training, made the roster in the midst of the crisis.

Even by the spring finale, Ross seemed to have little chance to make the team. Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill were competing for the No. 5 starter job, and the loser would likely move to the bullpen. Cahill pitched two innings, then after the game it was revealed that the righthander had an injured left shoulder that had grown increasingly painful. With Cahill placed on the disabled list, Ross made the big league team as a reliever.

"I came in to learn a lot and improve my game and see what I can pick up along the way," said Ross, who had a scintillating spring, including a 10-strikeout performance. "It's been a pleasant surprise. I started thinking about it, but realistically, I knew I was just getting my work in—learn from the best here and then probably go back down. I'm happy I'm here to start the season.

"It's all kind of a shock right now. I'm overwhelmed. It's a big moment."

Ross' tenure in the majors likely will be brief. The A's want him to continue to develop as a starter, and he likely will return to the minors when the other relievers are healthy. He finished last season by making nine starts for Double-A Midland, going 5-4, 3.96 with 31 strikeouts and 20 walks in 50 innings. But in that stint, Ross did show a groundball tendency, allowing just thee home runs and registering a 2.87 groundout-to-flyout ratio.

Buck was equally thrilled with the news. The A's had an overabundance of outfielders, and he had an option remaining. However, two days before the opener, newly signed Coco Crisp fractured his left pinkie finger, an injury that could keep him out of action for three to eight weeks. That moved Rajai Davis from left to center, and Buck into left.

"Coming into spring training, I focused on keeping a good attitude," Buck said. "Whether I made the team or got sent down, I was going to keep that good attitude and just play as hard as I can."

Buck sustained a concussion in 2008 that recurred last year and caused continual problems. The injury is a big reason for his failure to build on a strong rookie campaign in 2007, during which he batted .288/.377/.474 in 285 at-bats.

He said that going through problems helped him grow as a person. "I hope it helps me become a great player for the A's," he said

The biggest shock of the long afternoon was the news concerning Cust, who has been the club's top power hitter for three years running. He was designated for assignment, which means he will have to pass through waivers. If that happens, he can then choose to accept a minor league assignment with Triple-A Sacramento and keep his $2.8 million salary or declare free agency and forfeit the money. The A's said they hope Cust will clear waivers, then accept an assignment and possibly return to the big league team later in the year. Cust had been in a hitting funk this spring, batting .216 with one homer.

After Geren and Beane notified Cust of their decision, he came to his locker and said he needed a few minutes before facing the press. He sat glumly in his locker, staring at the floor, then stood to talk with reporters, making all the expected comments about going to the minors to get his bat going, then coming back to the majors. He then left quietly.

San Francisco Chronicle beat writer Susan Slusser called Cust later, after he had time to reflect. And Cust let out a storm.

"I think it's messed up," Cust told the Chronicle. "They're going to go on 50 at-bats after three years of what I've done here? It's ridiculous. A lot of other guys have had bad springs. This is a joke.

"The fact is, this team has no power and they've just released a guy who (averaged 28 homers) the last three years. That's amazing.

"I've busted my butt for them for three years, and I played sporadically this spring and they leave it until the day before the regular season to do this, like they didn't know what was going on before? And with Coco on the DL—I'm not good enough to be one of the 25 guys?"

The move opens the DH job for Eric Chavez, the organization's longtime star whose career had been sidetracked in recent years by back and shoulder injuries. Chavez showed signs of regaining his stroke in spring training. He had been working on backing up at first and third, possibly playing three or four times a week. This move would allow the lefty-hitting Chavez to share the DH job with the righty-hitting Fox. Beane said Chavez and Cust were a redundancy as two lefthanded hitters who fit into the DH role.

Another victim of the roster trims was Powell, who impressed last year in the backup catcher role. He reported to camp trim and appearing in excellent condition as he battles through a series of health issues. However, Powell did not have a good spring, and the need to keep Fox forced a decision. The A's expect him to return as the season moves along and the roster changes. He was clearly disappointed by the decision.

It was an afternoon of surprises in the Oakland clubhouse, with some players thrilled and others shattered. Rarely does a team have such roster drama as the season begins, and it will bear watching to see how it plays out.

OTHER OPENING DAY TIDBITS
By Matt Eddy

• The Reds announced on Friday that Mike Leake had made the big league team as its No. 5 starter. Yes, that Mike Leake, the eighth overall pick in last year's draft whose pro experience amounts to 19 2/3 innings in the Arizona Fall League.

Cincinnati will recall Leake the first time they require a fifth starter, so until then he'll stay behind in extended spring training. Assuming he makes no tune-up appearance in the minors, he'll become the 21st player to go directly from the draft to the big leagues with no minor league stopover in between. The last two pitchers to turn the trick: Ariel Prieto in 1995 and Darren Driefort in '94.

"We're very confident in his ability to pitch at high level. He demonstrated that this spring," Reds GM Walt Jocketty told correspondent John Fay.

Just before their first game, the Reds designated for assignment both outfielder Wladimir Balentien and second baseman Aaron Miles, but not to make room for Leake. Instead, outfielder Laynce Nix and second baseman Miguel Cairo were added to the squad. Cincinnati will need to clear another space when it calls up Leake, who worked 18 innings this spring—which ranked second only to Bronson Arroyo—and compiled a 10-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 3.00 ERA.

• The season begins with five players for whom Rule 5 jeopardy remains attached. Righthanders Kanekoa Texeira (Mariners), David Herndon (Phillies) and Carlos Monasterios (Dodgers) each pitched his way into his club's respective bullpen with an outstanding spring performance.

In Pittsburgh, the Pirates are preparing to stash outfielder John Raynor, who not only finished spring training in a 1-for-20 skid but also made the team as one of six outfielders. From left to right field, Lastings Milledge, Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones are the presumptive starters, with Ryan Church, Delwyn Young and Raynor available as backups.

"In John Raynor, we've got a guy who can play all three outfield positions, provide some speed off the bench, and he's a guy we think has the upside to be an everyday player," Pirates GM Neal Huntington told correspondent Dejan Kovacevic.

The Pirates, interestingly enough, have retained their past two Rule 5 picks in Donald Veal and Evan Meek. This makes sense intuitively seeing as Pittsburgh has had its pick of the Rule 5 litter, selecting no lower than fourth overall in the past three drafts. In fact, Meek and Raynor were No. 2 overall selections.

The Indians can delay making a decision on Hector Ambriz, their Rule 5 pick from the Diamondbacks, until he comes off the disabled list and makes the maximum number of rehab appearances.

• Red Sox righthander Scott Atchison warmed up in the Fenway Park bullpen last night but did not enter the game. Regardless, the moment  carried a special significance for the well-traveled 34-year-old reliever. He had never before made an Opening Day roster.

Atchison returned to the U.S. after a two-year run in Japan, where he pitched for the Central League's Hanshin Tigers. But his motivation to return was not simply that the Red Sox offered him a big league contract. The Providence Journal's recent feature on Atchison is highly recommended.

But Atchison was not the only player returning from an international pro circuit to crack an Opening Day roster. Rangers righthander Colby Lewis and Tigers lefty Brad Thomas pitched in Japan and Korea, respectively, last season. Both signed big league deals. The Rays likewise signed first baseman Dan Johnson to a major league contract, but he had a poor spring and lost his place on the 40-man roster. He accepted an assignment to Triple-A Durham after playing for Japan's Yokohama BayStars last season.

Both of the Mets' Japanese imports made the big league bullpen, but the club had signed only 5-foot-11 righthander Ryota Igarishi to a major league deal. Known as one of Japan's hardest throwers, the 30-year-old features a low- to mid-90s fastball and a splitter. Scouts who saw him this spring were not entirely sold on the quality of his curveball or the life on his fastball. Igarishi spent 11 seasons in the Yakult Swallows' bullpen.

Meanwhile, 35-year-old lefty Hisanori Takahashi made the cut thanks to a 14-strikeout, three-walk showing over 13 innings in spring training. A 10-year veteran of Japan's Central League, he had worked primarily as a starter for the Yomiuri Giants, but he made the Mets' bullpen after signing a minor league pact.

• A number of familiar faces made Opening Day rosters after making good on minor league contracts with new organizations. A lineup of such players could include Chad Tracy (Cubs) at first base, Mark Grudzielanek (Indians) at second, Brian Barden (Marlins) at shortstop and Mike Lamb (Marlins) at third. One could form an outfield using any of Cory Sullivan (Astros), Willy Taveras (Nationals) or Jim Edmonds (Brewers) in center and deploying any of Austin Kearns (Indians), Garret Anderson (Dodgers) or Marcus Thames (Yankees) on the corners. Catchers are in short supply, however, and no obvious "walk on" candidate has emerged.

A pitching staff could make use of Todd Wellemeyer (Giants), Clay Hensley (Marlins), Rodrigo Lopez (Diamondbacks), Jamey Wright (Indians) and Miguel Batista (Nationals) in the rotation, with Jose Veras (Marlins, again), D.J. Carrasco (Pirates), Guillermo Mota (Giants), Will Ohman (Orioles) and Scott Schoeneweis (Red Sox) coming out of the bullpen.