Clubhouse Chatter: 2004 A Year For The Future

Billy Beane had a busy year.

The 2004 calendar year was a year filled with building blocks for the future for the Oakland A's. Through contract extensions, trades, drafts and organizational player development, the A's used the 2004 calendar year to lay the groundwork for Oakland A's ballclubs for the next seven years.

Of course, 2004 was also a year of sad good-byes. The beginning of the year saw the A's assemble in spring training without their sprightly shortstop Miguel Tejada for the first time since the mid-1990s. And the end of the year saw the A's bid a surprising adieu to two-thirds of their famed Big Three pitching trio. In between, the A's experienced a tumultuous season which saw them hold a share of first place for much of the year only to miss out on their fifth straight playoff appearance by a single game. As the calendar inches closer to 2005, below is a review of the seminal moments of 2004 which should have an impact on the A's franchise for years to come.

1) A's sign 3B Eric Chavez to a six-year contract extension

The A's surprised many within the industry when they decided to break their recent trend of letting their premier free agents walk by signing their star thirdbaseman Eric Chavez. Many wondered what made Chavez different then past free agents such as Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada, who had both posted MVP campaigns before departing for richer pastures. Many asked what made the enigmatic and sometimes maddeningly inconsistent thirdbaseman the ideal candidate on whom the A's should stake their future?

For one, Chavez – unlike Giambi – is viewed as a player who has yet to reach his potential and is at the beginning of his peak years. Chavez, who General Manager Billy Beane has likened at times to a young Barry Bonds, has accomplished a lot before his 28th birthday. He will likely continue to mature as a hitter throughout the life of his contract, unlike Giambi, who signed his New York Yankees contract at age 31 and could have been expected to decline in performance throughout the life of the pact. In addition, Chavez's outstanding defensive abilities make him a valuable commodity on both sides of the ball, something that the stone-gloved and slow-footed Giambi was not.

In the case of choosing Chavez over Miguel Tejada, the choice is not quite as obvious. Tejada, like Chavez, debuted in the major leagues at an early age and was still in the midst of his peak years when he entered free agency. Tejada also is incredibly skilled defensively and his durability is without question. However, for the A's, Tejada was more easily replaced as a player because the A's had a top shortstop prospect in Bobby Crosby waiting in the wings and because Tejada didn't appear to have the room to grow as a hitter that Chavez did. Although Tejada is a tremendous offensive player, he is a free swinger at heart and isn't likely to develop plate discipline as his career progressed. Chavez, on the other hand, is more selective at the plate and appears to be on a track to acquiring more plate discipline. Down the road, one can expect that Chavez will be a more complete offensive player than Tejada because of his ability to control the strike zone.

2) Bobby Crosby and Nick Swisher hit back-to-back homeruns to beat the Cleveland Indians on September 11

When Bobby Crosby and Nick Swisher hit back-to-back homeruns in the 8th inning of the September 11th game against the Cleveland Indians, it signaled a beginning of a new era for the middle of the A's line-up. In his rookie campaign, Bobby Crosby showed power that is rare for a shortstop. Although his first season was marked with bouts of inconsistency, Crosby still managed to blast 22 homeruns. It is fair to assume that as Crosby develops better pitch recognition, he will develop into a 30+ homerun power hitter.

Switch-hitting power hitter Nick Swisher should soon join Crosby as part of a young and hard-hitting middle of the A's line-up. Swisher, perhaps most famous for his plate discipline, has quietly developed an elite power stroke. The outfielder smashed 31 homeruns between AAA and the major leagues last season despite playing much of that year with a broken bone in his hand. While no one expects Swisher to hit 30 homeruns in his first full season with Oakland, it might not be too many years before the A's boast a 3-4-5 of Chavez, Crosby and Swisher, all of whom who could hit 30 homeruns or more.

3) A's complete the "Moneyball 2" draft

Although the 2004 draft may never get the press of the famous 2002 "Moneyball" draft, the 2004 draft may be the better of the two. The early returns on the A's draft have been strong. Buoyed by a slew of draft picks received from the losses of free agents Miguel Tejada and Keith Foulke, the A's used their multitude of early round draft choices to select accomplished collegiate players like Richie Robnett, Landon Powell, Huston Street, Kurt Suzuki, Danny Putnam, Michael Rogers and Jason Windsor. Reliever Street moved so quickly through the A's system that he finished the year in AAA. Street was so dominant at all of the levels he competed at in 2004 that many expect that he will be a part of the A's bullpen as soon as 2005.

Others in the A's draft had early success, as well. Danny Putnam performed well enough at short-season A Vancouver to move up to Low-A Kane County early on during his first professional season. Richie Robnett made the jump from Vancouver to Kane County at playoff time to help the Cougars in the post-season. Jason Windsor and Dallas Braden both threw innings for the Cougars after spending time in Vancouver. Many of the A's 2004 draft picks have received high marks from scouts and could move quickly through the A's organization.

4) Jairo Garcia and Joe Blanton appear in the Futures Game

When Joe Blanton started the Futures Game for the US Team and Jairo Garcia finished the game for the World Team, it gave a glimpse in a possible A's pitching team for the next several years. Both prospects made their debuts at the major league level at the end of the 2004 season and both could have a major impact in the immediate future of the A's franchise.

Although Garcia struggled through most of his major league relief appearances at the tail-end of the 2004 season, his appearance on the scene could have a great impact on the A's pitching staff for the next four or five years. Garcia began the season as a little-known pitching prospect in Low-A Kane County and ended it as one of the most well-known relief prospects in all of baseball. A hard-throwing righthander with a wicked slider, Garcia has been compared to A's closer Octavio Dotel in terms of the quality of his stuff. He has struggled with control issues at the higher levels of competition (AAA, MLB and the Dominican Winter League), but, at age 21, he has time to refine his motion to harness his control. While Garcia will likely spend the 2005 season in Sacramento (at least to start), he should have a prominent role in the A's bullpen by 2006. He could team with 2004 draft pick Huston Street to form a dominant back-end of the A's bullpen in the near future.

Unlike Garcia, Blanton began the 2004 season as a known commodity as a top prospect. Although Blanton had a somewhat disappointing campaign for the Sacramento RiverCats (AAA) in 2004, the A's are still counting on Blanton to fill one of the A's starting rotation spots in 2005. Blanton had strong peripheral statistics in AAA in 2004 and had a promising major league debut at the end of the season. Blanton will likely be the fifth starter in the A's revamped rotation in 2005.

5) A's trade for Jason Kendall

While Jason Kendall isn't particularly young nor is he cheap, but Kendall brings something to the A's for the present and the future that they didn't have before: an All-Star caliber player behind the plate and a strong bridge to the A's cache of catching prospects (John Baker, Kurt Suzuki, Landon Powell, Daric Barton and Jeremy Brown). Kendall is signed for three more years and, if his past history is an indicator, should provide the A's a strong top of the order hitter and a powerful leadership style in the clubhouse. Kendall is used to working with younger pitchers and should provide a steadying hand to the A's youthful staff over the next three years.

6) A's trade Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder for a group of six players

The A's most shocking move during the calendar 2004 season was the trades of aces Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. Although Hudson and Mulder have been an integral part of the A's most recent successes, they had also struggled with injuries over the past three seasons. In addition, the A's saw the contracts being handed to lesser starters such as Carl Pavano and Matt Clement and knew it was only a matter of time before they lost both Hudson and Mulder to free agency.

Besides Blanton, the A's were extremely thin at the starting pitcher position in the top levels of their minor league system. If the A's had held onto Hudson and Mulder through the end of their contracts, they could have been in the precarious position of having to try to pay for free agents to fill their rotation spots, as they had no one waiting in the wings to take their place. Instead, the A's traded Hudson and Mulder for young starters Dan Meyer and Dan Haren, players who should be established major league starters at the same time Hudson and Mulder hit the free agency market.

The A's also used the trades to acquire two bullpen pitchers who should aid in revamping the A's atrocious bullpen of 2004. Both Juan Cruz and Kiko Calero are strikeout pitchers and should bring stability to the 7th and 8th innings that the A's did not have last season. With the improved bullpen, the A's may be able to withstand the immediate downgrade they will experience in their starting rotation and could allow them to remain competitive in 2005 despite losing Mulder and Hudson.

The last pieces of both trades involved offensive improvements. The A's acquired outfielder Charles Thomas from the Atlanta Braves. Thomas is a high energy outfielder who has plus defensive skills and who had a successful rookie season at the plate. The lefthanded Thomas should provide the A's good outfield depth and could be a strong platoon partner for Eric Byrnes in leftfield. Thomas will also give the A's more speed on their roster.

The last player the A's acquired in the Hudson-Mulder trades is catching prospect Daric Barton. Although Barton will most assuredly not impact the A's in 2005, down the road he could impact the A's the most of any of the players they acquired. Barton is one of the best hitting prospects in the lower levels of the minor leagues and, at age 20, has almost unlimited potential. Barton has been compared to another star hitter from the Cardinals organization, Albert Pujols.

The views expressed in these columns do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the site's publisher, writers, or other staff members.

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