In our latest edition of Oakland A's Notebook, Inside Pitch explores the roster crunch created by…
Oakland A's Weekend Review
Over the last several years, the monotony of the off-season has been broken with a Saturday in January at the McAfee Coliseum in Oakland. The A's have consistently drawn big crowds for their winter FanFest, which has featured appearances from some of their most high-profile current and former players, as well as some of the A's up and coming stars. This season, FanFest had an even bigger buzz surrounding it, as new slugger Frank Thomas made an appearance at the event. More than 20,000 fans braved the rain and wind to attend Q&A sessions, receive batting cage instructions, take photos with their favorite players and more. Below are some of the highlights from the event…
The A's took the opportunity to use the first Q&A session of the day to announce the signing of second baseman Mark Ellis to a two-year contract with an option for a third season. Ellis, who was arbitration-eligible, is coming off of the best season of his career. He is also only a year removed from missing the entire season with a severely separated right (throwing) shoulder. Ellis and the A's had failed to come to an agreement before arbitration figures needed to be exchanged earlier this month and they appeared headed for an arbitration hearing in February. Now the A's have wrapped up one of their steadiest players with a contract that will take him through his arbitration years.
Ellis appeared in the final Q&A session of the day and said that his throwing arm was feeling better then it had since before the injury and that it was "back to normal." A's GM Billy Beane, who was at the first Q&A session, joked with fans that he would be taking the next month off, as the A's have now signed all of their unsigned players to contracts and they appear to have their 25-man roster sewn up.
The subject of the team's depth was the overriding theme during the first Q&A session, which featured a panel of Beane, manager Ken Macha and A's Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley. When asked how the team was going to handle having so many players who have been starters in the past on the roster, Macha indicated that it would be his responsibility to ensure that everyone got proper playing time and rest. He also named his starting pitching rotation as Barry Zito, Rich Harden, Esteban Loaiza, Dan Haren and Joe Blanton, although he didn't commit to that being the exact order of the rotation.
As for the log-jam in the corner outfield positions and at first base, Macha indicated that the decision on who would start in left-field and at first would come at the end of spring training. Milton Bradley was mentioned as the team's right-fielder. Macha also noted that he and A's first baseman Dan Johnson had a conference call during the off-season to discuss Johnson's proclivity for pulling the ball last year and how Johnson could correct that to use the whole field in 2006.
Beane was asked about third baseman Eric Chavez's decision not to have surgery on his sore throwing shoulder this off-season. The A's GM replied that "surgery should always be the last option." He stated that Chavez believes his soreness was a result of one day of over-throwing last season and that the A's star would be extra careful this year to monitor his throwing to guard against further aggravation of the injury. Beane also reported that Chavez was feeling great.
A's announcer Ray Fosse was emceeing this panel, and he announced at the outset that the A's would be wearing a patch to honor Bill King, the legendary A's broadcaster who passed away unexpectedly this off-season. The patch will be a microphone with King's famous catch-phrase "Holy Toledo!" stitched underneath it and it will be worn throughout the season.
Starting pitcher Rich Harden appeared in the second Q&A session and indicated that he is close to 100% recovered from his off-season surgery to his left (non-throwing) shoulder. Harden missed more than 10 starts last season with a variety of muscle strains that he attributed to a hitch in his throwing motion that developed to compensate for the injury to his left shoulder.
A's top pitching prospect Dan Meyer also appeared on the panel. He, too, gave himself a clean bill of health. Meyer struggled with a left shoulder strain for much of the 2005 season. Meyer said that "made a young player's mistake" in trying to pitch through the shoulder pain without telling the coaching staff last spring and that he had learned from the experience and was looking forward to pitching well this season.
Arguably the highlight of the FanFest festivities came during the fourth and final panel, when Frank Thomas was officially introduced to the fans for the first time. Thomas was given a long standing ovation from the panel audience when he was announced. He told the crowd that he was very excited to be playing in Oakland. He arrived at the podium without any signs of a limp and looked extremely fit. He indicated that he would listen closely to the advice of the doctors during the season in terms of when he should and shouldn't be playing, but that he plans to be in the line-up nearly everyday.
The A's put their single game tickets on sale at FanFest and there were long lines to purchase tickets. The team reported more than 45,000 tickets sold at the event and announced that only 2,000 tickets remained for Opening Day against the New York Yankees. The A's also previewed the third deck tarp, which will cover all of the 300 sections during the 2006 season. The A's have closed the third deck in an effort to make the Coliseum seem more "intimate" and to create a scarcity of tickets. The tarp on display at FanFest said "Oakland" and was directly behind home plate. Eventually, the tarp will cover the entire deck and will state "Home of the Oakland Athletics", as well as tributes to the A's World Championships and retired numbers. The tarp may eventually have advertisements, as well.
Winter League Update
The Winter League playoff season is winding down and A's infielder Marco Scutaro is once again finishing off a strong winter performance. His team, the Caracas Lions, won the league championship with a 4-1 series victory over the Aragua Tigers.
In the four games played thus far in the championship series, Scutaro is hitting an even .400 with three RBI and three walks. He hit four homeruns in 12 games during the Round Robin tournament, in which the Lions went 10-6 to get into the finals. During the regular season, Scutaro hit .336 with 20 walks in 38 games. A's prospects Javier Herrera and Gregorio Petit also saw playing time during the regular season with the Lions, although they have been used primarily as pinch runners during the playoffs. Both prospects had strong winter league campaigns, with Petit posting an 879 OPS in 26 at-bats and Herrera hitting .275 with a league-high 11 stolen bases in 54 games played.
A's minor league off-season acquisition Doug Clark has finished a strong winter league season. The outfielder hit .333 with 11 homers, 42 runs batted in and 10 stolen bases in 56 games for the Mayos de Navojoa. Clark posted a .422 on-base percentage and a .589 slugging percentage. Clark didn't have as much success during his team's playoff run, however. The former San Francisco Giants farmhand hit .263 with a .313 slugging percentage and a .417 on-base percentage in six playoff games. The Mayos did not make the finals.
A's pitcher Juan Cruz helped the Licey Tigers win the Dominican League championship by pitching six strong innings during his only appearance in the league finals versus Aguilas. Cruz allowed three runs (two earned) over six innings. He struck out six and walked two. The hard throwing right-hander threw 21 innings during the Round Robin playoff tournament, posting a 2-0 record with a 2.57 ERA. Cruz struck out 15 and walked seven during the Round Robin.
Minor League Transactions
The A's announced three more minor league signings this week. Chris Smith, a left-handed pitcher who spent last season with the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League, is the latest in a line of minor leaguers the A's have signed out of the Independent Leagues. Smith was a 2001 draft pick (seventh overall) of the Baltimore Orioles out of Cumberland University. Smith received a $2.1 million signing bonus from the O's in 2001, but his career was derailed by a rotator cuff injury that limited him to nine minor league appearances in three-plus years with the Orioles.
The A's also signed lefty Ray Aguilar, who was most recently with the AA-Carolina Mudcats in the Florida Marlins chain. Aguilar has a career 20-15 record in four minor league seasons with the Atlanta Braves and the Marlins. He has a 2.77 ERA and has struck out 8.19 batters per nine innings during his career.
In addition, Oakland inked first baseman Nate Espy, late of the Seattle Mariners chain. The 27-year-old posted an 824 OPS for the AA-San Antonio Missions in 2005. Espy, who was originally drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies, has 92 career minor league homers in seven seasons.
The A's released two players from the system: pitchers Clay Tichota and J.R. Pickens. Tichota was a 17th round pick in 2004. He spent the 2005 season split between the A's Rookie League club and the low-A Kane County Cougars. Tichota had an 8.10 ERA with the Rookie A's and a 7.76 ERA with Kane County. Pickens was a 2002 10th round selection. He spent last season in high-A Stockton and low-A Kane County, posting 7.59 and 4.92 ERAs, respectively. Pickens went 12-4 with a 3.26 ERA in three-plus seasons in the Oakland chain.
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