Young players like Sweeney have the A's excited.
After a tumultuous off-season that saw the team trade four of their most popular veteran players, the Oakland A’s entered Spring Training as a team in a state of transition. With a 15-6 Cactus League mark through Tuesday and strong spring play from its younger players, the A’s are set to leave for Japan on Wednesday as a team with a bright future.
Over the years, Oakland A’s fans have gotten used to saying good-bye to the team’s top players. Since 2001, the A’s have bid adieu to numerous fan favorites, including Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. Generally speaking, those players were either allowed to walk away as free agents or were traded to other teams as they neared free agency. This past off-season, the A’s surprised everyone by dealing two players – Dan Haren and Nick Swisher – who were a number of years away from free agency. In addition, the A’s traded veterans and fan favorites Marco Scutaro and Mark Kotsay.
In return, the team received 13 players – and a lot of grief from fans and the media, who openly wondered if the A’s front office was giving up on the team’s immediate future. Throughout all of these moves, the A’s front office has insisted that the trades were necessary in order to put the organization in a position to be competitive for years to come.
The infusion of talent has been noticeable this spring both in the A’s major league and minor league spring training camps. In major league camp, the A’s have gotten off to a fast start, winning 15 of 21 games and putting up strong numbers both on the mound and at the plate. Some of the team’s most impressive performers have been the younger players that the A’s acquired for Swisher, Haren and Kotsay this off-season, including left-handed starters Greg Smith and Gio Gonzalez, right-handed reliever Joey Devine, and outfielders Carlos Gonzalez, Ryan Sweeney and Aaron Cunningham. Not all of those players are going to start the season with the A’s, but the team expects many of them to contribute at the major-league level by the end of the 2008 campaign.
“One of the reasons, I think, that we took such a PR hit early on in the off-season [was that] the headlines weren’t ‘The A’s Trade Nick Swisher For Gio Gonzalez, Fautino De Los Santos and Ryan Sweeney,’ it was ‘The A’s Trade Swisher For Three Prospects,’” Farhan Zaidi, the A’s manager of baseball operations, said.
“Nobody knew who those guys were. Now you have our fans coming out to the games and they see Gio putting up zeros on the board or Sweeney make a great catch in right-field, those players start feeling real to people, to our coaches and our fans. I think that there is definitely a very optimistic and upbeat feeling around here.”
That optimism has extended to the A’s minor league complex at Papago Park in Phoenix, where newly acquired prospects such as Brett Anderson and Chris Carter from the Dan Haren trade and Fautino De Los Santos from the Nick Swisher trade are already turning heads.
“We are all really excited about who we have acquired,” Keith Lieppman, the A’s director of player development, said.
“Each in their own right has certain skills that make them very attractive players. They are all the best players from their old organizations and you put them in with our already existing players, and you immediately notice that your system has been strengthened.”
In addition to acquiring talent through trades, the A’s have made a conscious effort to improve their minor league system by increasing the resources allocated to their scouting and player development departments. The team has added more scouts in the United States and overseas in Latin America, Australia and Asia. The A’s have also begun to hand out more sizeable bonuses to international free agents. This off-season, the A’s crossed the six-figure bonus threshold for prospects in the Dominican Republic for the first time.
“We had taken the approach where we would sign a lot of guys for pretty low or mid-range bonuses and they weren’t panning out. We weren’t getting the results we wanted,” Lieppman said.
“In the past five years, the culture has changed in the Dominican. If you want to go in there, you are going to have to compete for players with the kind of money that is being spent. Billy [Beane, A’s general manager] basically told us now that we should find players that we liked and if it meant that we needed to increase the bonuses to bring those players in, we would go in that direction.”
The A’s aren’t likely to reap all of the fruits of their labor during the 2008 season. Much of the team’s newly acquired talent will begin the year in the minor leagues and some may not make their Oakland A’s debuts until 2009 or 2010. However, the A’s are quietly optimistic that their 2008 ballclub will be better than expected. While Gold Glove third baseman Eric Chavez is still struggling with the after-effects of three off-season surgeries, some of the A’s other talented, but oft-injured players – including starters Rich Harden and Justin Duchscherer and shortstop Bobby Crosby – are healthy and playing well in spring camp. In addition, the team feels better equipped to handle injuries in 2008 than they were in 2007, thanks to the added depth at the Triple-A level provided by the off-season trades and through free agent signings, including veterans Mike Sweeney, Keith Foulke and Emil Brown.
“Just going around the diamond, I think we have, with the exception of one or two guys, the same core of players that we had last year, but we just have so much more depth,” Zaidi said.
“That next level of talent is not only better, but I think it is younger, so that is good for us in the long run.”
The new-look A’s first test this season will be a big one – facing the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox for two games in Tokyo, Japan, on March 25 and 26, and then two more games in Oakland on April 1 and 2 to start the US portion of their schedule.