In 2005, the Oakland A’s failed to win 90 games for the first time since 1999 and missed the playoffs for the second straight season. Although injuries played a large role in the A’s failure to win the division, Oakland’s lack of firepower in the middle of the lineup was an equal culprit. With their pitching staff already the envy of most teams in the league, the A’s will most certainly be concentrating on improving their offense during the Winter Meetings.
The Need for Thunder
On offense in 2005, the A’s proved to be a streaky team. The A’s did not have a lot of consistent power threats and, consequently, had to rely on stringing together rallies made up of walks and singles to score runs. That proved to be a difficult style of offense to maintain. And while the A’s can reasonably expect some improvement in the power area from youngsters Bobby Crosby, Nick Swisher and Dan Johnson, it still would be a lot to ask any of those guys to step-up as a major threat from the third or fourth slots in the line-up. So where can the A’s turn for a significant threat?
One area will be via the trade route, as it is the A’s preferred way to acquire players and there aren’t really any hitters on the free agency market that have particular appeal. Conventional wisdom states that the left-handed heavy A’s will look for a right-handed power hitter, although I’ll go on record here as saying that if the ideal power hitter comes available, the A’s will likely not hesitate to acquire him even if he is left-handed.
There are a number of names that have been bandied about as being available this winter. Alfonso Soriano’s name comes up almost daily, but Soriano’s difficulties hitting outside of Arlington, Texas and his inability to field in his position make him an unlikely target for the A’s. The A’s are also not in the running for big hitters such as Bobby Abreu, Mike Sweeney, Troy Glaus and Manny Ramirez due to salary constraints. Jeff Kent, who is expensive but only signed for one more year, would be a good fit in the line-up, but may not be available. The same is likely true for Milwaukee’s Carlos Lee, whom the Brewers will probably hang onto in an attempt to post a winning season.
In the category of “more realistic targets,” you can find names like Aubrey Huff (who, despite being left-handed, would be a nice fit because he is relatively cheap for his production and can play multiple positions); Milton Bradley (who may be a bargain if the Dodgers become desperate to move him due to personality clashes); Austin Kearns (who could be ready to breakout after a number of injury-riddled seasons); Wily Mo Pena (another Cincinnati Red who has oodles of talent but hasn’t had a chance to play full-time in the Reds’ crowded outfield); Craig Wilson (who, after an injury-plagued 2005 season, may have lost his starting spot in Pittsburgh and could be available for cheap, is only a year removed from a 29-homer season and has only one year of his career with an OPS under 800); Kevin Mench (who is a nice right-handed power hitter, although there are questions about how well he would hit outside of Arlington); and Cliff Floyd (the A’s love getting involved in three-team deals and they could nab Floyd if they somehow insert themselves in a deal with the Mets involving Ramirez or a similar player). InsidetheDome, Scout.com's Toronto Blue Jays site, says that the Blue Jays might make Vernon Wells available for Barry Zito. Wells would certainly be of interest to the A's with his ability to hit the longball and his defensive prowess.
One name who hasn’t been mentioned much is Philadelphia left-fielder Pat Burrell. Although the Phillies rumors have mostly centered around Abreu, there have been some rumblings that the Phillies would be willing to move Burrell instead. The hulking outfielder has never lived up to the huge expectations that the team had for him despite posting solid seasons for every year of his career minus a disastrous 2003 campaign. The 29-year-old Burrell is signed through 2008 at roughly $11 million a year ($9 million, then $13 million and then $14 million). Although that number would conceivably be too high for the budget-conscious A’s, it could fit under the A’s newly (slightly) expanded payroll, especially if the A’s move either Mark Kotsay or Jason Kendall. However, Burrell would be a long-shot for the A’s, to be sure.
Bradley is probably the most intriguing name on this list. There is no questioning his talent and intelligence, but Bradley’s anger has caused him to get in hot water with three organizations thus far in his career. There is always a risk that he would have similar problems with the A’s. However, the A’s are going to have to take a risk on someone to improve. Why not take it on a guy with the talent of Bradley? Bradley would give the A’s versatility in that he can play all three outfield positions well, he is a switch-hitter with a great eye and good gap power, and he runs well. Bradley is the kind of hitter who, when he is on his game, makes everyone else in the line-up better because he is a threat to both get on-base and drive-in runs and he can score from first on a double. He very well could be the Baron Davis of the A’s offense.
Of course, the A’s could also target a Dan Haren-like player to step into the offense; in other words, a position player who hasn’t seen much major league time but is ready to step into a full-time role. Some of those players could include Arizona prospects Conor Jackson and Carlos Quentin. However, if the A’s are really looking to try to make the playoffs in 2006, they will likely go for a player with more experience then Jackson or Quentin.
The offensive free agency pool was thin even for the big spenders and it is even thinner for small market teams. Names like Rondell White, Preston Wilson and Reggie Sanders dot the landscape, but all of them come with injury issues and questions about their production levels. Former superstars Nomar Garciaparra and Frank Thomas are available, but both players are also dogged with questions about their health. It is possible that the A’s would take a flier on one of these players, but all of them will be bigger risks to succeed then those guys who would be available via trade. Probably the most intriguing name on this list is Garciaparra, who was swinging the bat well after his return from injury at the end of last season and is still in his early 30s. He could serve as the team’s primary DH and see time both at third and at short if either Eric Chavez or Crosby need a breather or were hurt. However, there are a number of teams interested in Garciaparra and it is likely that some team will pay more for him then the A’s would be willing to risk on a guy who hasn’t been healthy since 2003.
Who Could be on the Move?
Off-seasons have been a time for the A’s to say good-bye to popular players since 2001, so it is no surprise that most people expect that Barry Zito has made his last start in the green and gold. With the acquisition of Loaiza, the A’s now have more pitchers then rotation spots and Zito will likely net them more in a trade than any of their other pitchers (minus Rich Harden and Haren, who are likely untouchable). But A’s General Manager Billy Beane insists that the A’s don’t have to move Zito for salary reasons and they are likely to be a better team with Zito then they would be without him. So it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the A’s chose to hold onto Zito for the final year of his contract.
If Zito doesn’t go, then fellow starters Kirk Saarloos and Joe Kennedy will be the most likely players to be moved. The A’s also might deal from an area of strength and see what they can get for a set-up man like Justin Duchscherer or Kiko Calero, both of whom could command a lot from a team looking to improve their bullpen who lost out on the Kyle Farnsworth/ Tom Gordon/ Bobby Howrey sweepstakes. The A’s will also look to move enigmatic pitcher Juan Cruz and hope that some team will see his talent and take a flier on him despite his struggles last season.
On the offensive-side of the ball, the A’s don’t have a lot of depth to move. Mark Kotsay would be a hot commodity in a market thin on centerfielders, but he has a no-trade clause and wouldn’t likely waive it for a team not in California. Jason Kendall is coming off of a terrible year and his contract will scare almost every team away. Jay Payton could be moved, but the A’s will only deal him if they acquire another outfielder who is capable of playing centerfield in the event that Kotsay’s back flares up again (i.e. Bradley).
In a bolder move, the A’s could include first baseman Dan Johnson in a mega-deal for another big hitting first baseman or DH, but it isn’t likely that the A’s will trade any of their young talent that is under their control for the next several years. The A’s could also consider “selling high” on second baseman Mark Ellis, who had the best year of his career in 2005. However, Ellis was their best offensive player and it would be a big risk for the A’s to lose someone as effective with the bat as Ellis was last year. In addition, Ellis would be worth keeping for his defense alone, as he won’t likely command much more than $750,000 in 2005.
While the A’s will most certainly make a move or two before the off-season ends, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them do nothing during the Meetings and wait to see what is on the table after the Meetings end. Sometimes the best deals come when no one is paying attention, and the A’s may choose to wait until the “big-name” deals have been made before pulling the trigger. There is decidedly less talent out there then teams that need players, so the demand for the A’s trading chips may rise the later into the off-season we get. We shall see…