The Oakland ship is steered by GM Billy Beane, the star of the oft-mentioned book Moneyball. Beane and Company’s unique look at scouting (throw body profiling out the window, focus more on college players than high-schoolers in the draft, et al.) and Bill James-aided philosophy on hitting (taking pitches, high OPS, good K/BB ratio) has started a revolution that has spread to other organizations faster than Manny Ramirez can change his mind about wanting to be traded.
Beane’s protégés have been hired as GMs of other organizations with different amounts of success. J.P. Ricciardi found deeper pockets in Toronto with the Blue Jays, but how wise he’s been with that money is up for debate and hinges on the success of A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan (which should be referred to from now on as the Initial Initiative). The Blue Jays haven’t been to the playoffs with Ricciardi behind the desk and will need to perform above standards to remain in contention with the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East. Moneyball co-star Paul DePodesta was GM for the Dodgers for 20 months before being fired this off-season. The Dodgers won the NL West in 2004, but were decimated by injuries in 2005. His best move was letting Adrian Beltre go after a stellar season in a contract year.
Arte Moreno’s arrival in Anaheim with the goal of a World Series title has allowed VP/GM Bill Stoneman to make some big signings. Moreno seems as willing to shell out cash as he is to defend the ridiculousness of his team’s name change. December 2003 brought the gift of Bartolo Colon, the first big name brought in to don a cap with a halo on it after Moreno bought the team from Disney. Stoneman followed that move in January 2004 by bringing in Vladimir Guerrero to anchor the lineup. Two months, two All-Stars signed, one a slugger heading into the prime of his career and the other a staff ace still near the top of his game.
Letting Troy Percival go allowed Francisco Rodriguez to take over as the team’s closer, and he’s been phenomenal. Hitters just can’t seem to lay off his 11-5 slider. Stoneman also made sure that the team secured mainstay Garrett Anderson, who has been with the team since they were the California Angels. The re-signing of Anderson was a wise one, as he averaged 28 homers, 112 RBIs, and batted .300 over a five-season span from 1999-2003, helping the Angels to a World Series title in 2002. His production has slipped with age the past few seasons and his time in Anaheim may be nearing an end.
Maybe there was some voodoo during the filming of “Angels in the Outfield” that would cause such a rivalry to break out 10 years later (the movie was filmed in 1994 using what was then called the Oakland/Alameda County Coliseum). While the rumors involving the moves the Angels might make are more interesting than the moves they’ve actually made this winter, they go into the 2006 season with a strong club that will likely put them in the mix for the AL West division title for a third straight year, most likely battling the Oakland A’s once again.
The A’s system won’t be as strong this year as in recent years, but keep in mind that Nick Swisher, Dan Johnson, Joe Blanton and Huston Street were all instrumental to the 2005 major league club as rookies. Shortstop Bobby Crosby was only in his second year last season and several injuries limited his production. Anytime you have that many rookies on the big league club, your minor league rosters will degrade.
The Angels will begin the season with what many call the best minor league system in baseball. They have a tremendous amount of depth in the middle infield and it’s possible that one, if not more, of the middle infield prospects could be dealt. The Angels probably won’t play four rookies in their daily lineup like the A’s did last year, but they will probably give at least one or two of them regular playing time on the major league squad. With the “Manny Ramirez to the Angels” trade rumors swirling again, some of these prospects may not even be with the team come Spring Training.
The A’s-Angels rivalry should only get better over the next few seasons, as both teams have young players who could make a major impact at the major league level soon. A look toward the future:
Daric Barton, 1B/C/DH
What is left to be said about the kid? He can hit with the best of them, but he hasn’t found his best defensive position yet. There is a minute chance he goes back to catching, but with A’s catching prospect Kurt Suzuki likely to take over after Jason Kendall’s tenure with the A’s is done, a 1B/DH is probably what Barton will become. Who really cares though? A’s fans don’t want to see the guy Stockton Ports coach Todd Steverson said (in a radio interview with Robert Buan of Extra Innings) is further along than Albert Pujols (batting-wise) at the same age called up because of his glove-work. They want to see him arrive and do what he does best, and that is swing the bat. He has a keen eye at the plate and won’t swing at bad pitches. There are debates about his power, but it’s also usually the last skill to develop in a hitter. Pujols only had 19 homers in 133 games in his lone year in the minors before exploding at the major league level with 37 in his rookie season.
Barton is so adept at making contact, the power will inevitably come. He possesses a fluid swing with great mechanics and he covers the plate well. He has great pitch recognition and isn’t dominated by southpaws. Given all the positives, the few flaws Barton has are more the product of age as opposed to apathy. The A’s signing of Frank Thomas will do nothing but help Barton, as he might be able to work with the legendary hitter and two-time MVP during the spring. Thomas possesses a similar plate approach and would help Barton hone his skills at the plate and may help him to find that power earlier than he would have without Thomas’ tutelage.
Javier Herrera, OF
Signed as a 16 year-old, Herrera has perhaps the highest ceiling of anyone in the A’s minor league organization based on his raw talent alone. He suffered a terrible injury running into a wall in 2003, but thankfully recovered to put together back-to-back strong seasons at Vancouver and Kane County. His play at Kane County prompted a call-up to Triple-A Sacramento when the River Cats were in desperate need of another outfielder. Herrera was also one of the players suspended for 15 games for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs.
He covers a lot of ground and has a cannon for an arm. He has 30-30 potential (even in the A’s system). He should begin the year at high-A Stockton and with Swisher, Mark Kotsay and Milton Bradley all slotted to play in the Oakland outfield for at least one more year, Herrera could earn a spot as a back-up outfielder on the 2007 squad or as a starter in 2008. He’s got the tools; he just has to grow with them.
Dan Meyer, LHP
The young lefty who was supposed to make the Tim Hudson deal look at least even was hurt with a shoulder injury (an injury he admits to hiding from the A’s staff during the spring) for most of last year. You can’t really fault the guy for trying to play through the injury, as he was with a new organization and was just brought over in a trade for their staff ace. He probably wanted to make a good impression. The main problem was that his development was set-back about a year and the A’s hoped he would be at the back-end of their rotation come 2006.
Before being acquired by Oakland, Meyer had a 4.7:1 K/BB ratio and allowed three or fewer runs in 24 of his 28 starts. He also had a reputation for being a big-game pitcher. If he refines his slider, it should help him against lefties, who hit him at a .306 clip (righties hit .220). If Zito isn’t re-signed and Meyer can bounce back from last year’s problems, he could very well be the team’s fifth starter heading into 2007.
Shane Komine, RHP
Any guy with the nick-name “Hawaiian Punchout” has to be in this group. Standing only 5’8” and 175 pounds, he hits the mid-90s with his fastball and has a biting curve that is his out-pitch. His success was delayed in 2004 due to an arm injury that led to Tommy John surgery. Since coming back, he has proved to be an effective starter. He should begin the year in Sacramento’s starting rotation and depending how things fall into place (read: if starter Barry Zito is gone and/or reliever Justin Duchscherer’s role changes) could be in the A’s bullpen in 2007. If his body can handle the strain of pitching 6-8 innings regularly as a starter, he could be a dark horse to make the starting rotation.
Kurt Suzuki, C
After getting the championship-winning hit in the 2004 College World Series, Suzuki followed that season with a strong 2005 campaign in high-A Stockton. Originally set to go to low-A Kane County, Suzuki was promoted to Stockton due to a knee injury to 2004 first round pick Landon Powell. He is an offensive catcher at this point, but he will likely receive some great mentoring from Jason Kendall this spring as a non-roster invitee. He had an almost even K/BB ratio this year and can hit the ball out of the park; both are plusses for a catcher. Suzuki should make the jump to Midland this year and will need to prove that his defensive struggles are a thing of the past. He had 15 errors and allowed 19 passed balls last year, but he did improve towards the close of the season. Working with Kendall and getting some more experience should lead Suzuki to becoming Kendall’s replacement once Kendall’s career in Oakland is over.
Kevin Melillo, 2B
Speaking of guys who can hit, Melillo did a lot of it last year across three minor league levels at Kane County, Stockton and Midland, racking up an OBP of .380 and hitting 24 homers. He has above-average power for a second baseman and is in-line to take over after Mark Ellis leaves Oakland. Melillo’s defense should improve once he has had some time with A’s third base coach and infield guru Ron Washington. A left-handed batter with a fast, compact swing, Melillo also flashes some speed, stealing 21 bags in 27 attempts. He will start the year at double-A Midland, but could swing his way onto the A’s roster next season. With Antonio Perez, Marco Scutaro, Mark Ellis, as well as Freddie Bynum around this year, Oakland will likely have to trade someone to make room for him.
Brandon Wood, SS
Wood is the most impressive of the Angels prospects. Last year, he put on a power display across three different minor league levels (Hi-A, Triple-A and the AFL). Over the course of 163 games, he hit over .300 with 57 HRs and 148 RBIs. The spectacle he put on in the AFL bordered on ridiculous. He hit 14 homers in 29 games (or roughly one long-ball every other game). Wood’s 2005 performance vaulted him to the top of the minor league prospect list, outshining even Minor League Player of the Year Delmon Young. As his slightly wiry frame (6’3”, 185 lbs.) fills out, he should produce even more power. Wood could prove as a more serviceable backup than Maicer Izturis in 2006, though the Angels should give him more time in the minor leagues for seasoning. A’s fans will grow to fear him.
Jered Weaver, RHP
The 2004 College Player of the year was labeled by some to be ready for the big show straight out of college, but after struggling some in Double-A, he will get some time at Triple-A Salt Lake before breaking into the Angels rotation sometime in 2006 or possibly out of spring in 2007. Kelvim Escobar is usually a healthy starter who spent a lot of time injured last year. If Escobar’s injuries strike again, or if new acquisition Hector Carrasco (6 starts in 563 career games over a 10 year career) doesn’t pan out, look for Weaver to get a shot in the rotation. The leadership of the Angels’ catchers could play a big part in keeping Weaver calm on the mound during intense situations.
Jeff Mathis, C
He is improving his offensive game to complement his already solid defensive catching ability. He has good leadership skills, works well with the pitching staff, and is very athletic behind the plate. With the recent departure of Bengie Molina, Mathis will get a chance to earn the everyday catching duties. At the very least, he will split time with Bengie’s brother Jose. He could be vital to the success of both Weaver and Ervin Santana as the Angels move toward a younger starting rotation.
Howie Kendrick, 2B
Kendrick is touted as one of the best pure hitters in the minors after finishing second in the minor leagues in hitting (.367). He could be a lot like Placido Polanco, as he doesn’t strike out or walk much, preferring to use his balanced, compact swing to drive the ball to all fields. His average arm strength won’t be much of a factor at 2B and he has great baseball instincts. Once he’s brought up, he might not stop hitting and could perennially be in the top 10 in batting average in the AL. He is plain tough to get out and will use his great instincts to steal a bag on occasion.
Kendry Morales, 1B
The switch-hitting, Cuban defector’s debut in pro ball was delayed last year because of visa problems, but when he finally arrived, he backed the Angels high hopes for him by homering with his first swing. An average fielding first baseman, he could be a better DH option than Juan Rivera or Robb Quinlan. He could also platoon at first with Casey Kotchman now that Darin Erstad is back in center (we’ll see how long Erstad can hold up there). There’s also a possibility of Morales beating out either Kotchman or Dallas McPherson for a roster spot. He also experimented at third base in the AFL, where he hit .380. He makes quick adjustments and will hit for power and average from both sides of the plate (think Eddie Murray with a weaker glove). He actually could make the most immediate impact of this group if he earns a roster spot in spring.
Erick Aybar, SS
Aybar might be the odd man out amongst the Angels middle-infielders. He started last season off trying to pull everything, but worked with the Angels minor league hitting staff to shorten his swing. It helped him finish the year batting .303. He has the best defensive tools of the group, but his bat is behind that of Wood and Kendrick. He does possess blazing speed which helps him leg-out infield hits and he has the energy of fellow Dominican Miguel Tejada.
The Angels will have a tough decision to make and could theoretically move up all three aforementioned middle-infielders within a year. Wood could move to third, if incumbent shortstop Orlando Cabrera is traded, then Aybar could take over at short, and if Adam Kennedy isn’t re-signed and becomes a free agent at the end of this season, Kendrick could take over at second. If Morales is at first by then, the Angels could have one of the youngest, most productive infields in baseball. It wouldn’t put up the Ameriquest Field-inflated numbers the Rangers infield of ’05 did, but it would still be an exciting young group.
As these players continue to progress and their front offices continue to make smart moves, these two organizations could very well battle for dominance atop the AL West for the better part of a decade. The A’s haven’t been to a World Series in 16 years. Billy Beane, team owner Lewis Wolff and the rest of the organization are doing all the right things to end that drought. Arte Moreno will not rest his pocketbook until the Angels have added another World Series trophy to their case.
These prospects could all make a noticeable impact for their respective clubs when they finally make it to the show and this rivalry could end up being one of the three biggest rivalries in baseball behind the Yankees-Red Sox and the Giants-Dodgers. There’s no question that a new epic is being written with wooden bats and leather balls and we are witness to the beginning clashes that could lead to an all out battle.