2006 Oakland Athletics Preview

The 2006 Oakland Athletics hope to contend in the American League West once again on the strength of their pitching. There is no reason to expect them not to, as they return four of their top starters and the American League Rookie of the year in closer Huston Street. Most of their questions will come on the offensive side of the ball, as the Oakland Athletics will need good years from a mixture of youngsters and veterans to be in the thick of things. The Oakland Athletics, under the guidance of one of the most celebrated general managers in the game, Billy Beane, make the most of what they have available payroll wise and almost always have a second half rally in store for their fans.

In 2005, the A’s barely missed the playoffs, finishing at 88-74 and behind the Angels. Manager Ken Macha, who returned to skipper the A’s only after failing to get the Pittsburgh Pirates job that went to ex-Dodger manager Jim Tracy, is stressing fundamentals during spring training. “We focused in on what we needed to do to get guys ready,” Macha said. “Who needs more at-bats, who needs more work? The outfielders aren’t throwing the ball where we want them and I don’t think we should have those passed balls. We have high expectations for this team and we feel the players should have the same expectations. I realize it’s early, but you don’t just turn on the switch.” He knows that with the opening series being against the hated Yankees, the A’s need to be at their best right from the get go.

During interleague play, the Oakland Athletics will take on the National League West, with a pair of series against the Giants, their rival across the bay. The A’s did not lose as many people from last year’s squad as they normally do in an off-season. They picked up free agent Frank Thomas, formerly of the White Sox, and hope that he has something left in the tank. He has battled injuries the last few years, but had a 42 homer, 142 RBI season as recently as 2003. Lifetime, he has potential Hall of Fame numbers with over 440 home runs and 1,465 RBI, to go along with a .307 batting average. The big right hander, if he can contribute, will make things a lot easier for the A’s when it comes to scoring runs.

Catcher Jason Kendall, who went 601 at bats last year without a single home run, is the toughest man in baseball to whiff, striking out only 39 times in 676 plate appearances. He has good speed and sprays the ball around the park. Last year was his first in the American League; he calls a good game, but his throwing arm is nothing to write home about. Kendall will be backed up by Adam Melhuse, a switch hitter with a .246 career average.

Thomas will play a little first base, but the majority of starts there will go to Nick Swisher and Dan Johnson. The switch hitting Swisher, who also can play in the outfield, struggled against lefties last season, hitting but .203 against them as a rookie. He did, however, show some pop, with 21 home runs, but he struck out 110 times in 462 at bats. Johnson, who is a defensive liability at this point in his development, hit 15 round trippers, also as a first year player. The lefty knocked in 58 runs and should improve on his .275 average in 2006.

At second, the Oakland Athletics will have Mark Ellis, who recovered from a serious shoulder injury that made him miss the 2004 season to hit .316 in 2005. He hit 13 home runs and the Rapid City, South Dakota born right hander is a strong fielder, although his arm is somewhat below average. The other middle infielder is possibly the most vital player on the roster. Bobby Crosby, a former Rookie of the Year, played in only 84 games last campaign due to stress fractures in the ribs and a broken left ankle. When he played, the A’s were 55-29; without him they struggled to a 33-45 mark. He hit a soft .276, but he provides intangibles that make him valuable to the team.

Eric Chavez, a Gold Glover for the last 5 years, mans the hot corner. Chavez hit 27 homers and racked up 101 RBI for the A’s last year, recording his sixth straight 25 plus homer season. He has had more than 100 RBI in 4 of the last 5 years, and the left handed power bat he gives the A’s make the 28 year old third sacker a possible MVP candidate. Utility man Marco Scutaro can play third, short, or second, and he had his best season a year ago, with 7 homers and 43 RBI. Antonio Perez, a Dominican native, comes from the Dodgers to also fill in around the infield.

The outfielders are an interesting group. Along with the aforementioned Swisher, there is Milton Bradley, who talked his way out of Los Angeles and Cleveland and into Oakland. He has a live bat to go with his live mouth, but needs to cut down on his strikeouts. He is active in the community, being nominated by the Dodgers for the Roberto Clemente award, but did not get along with Los Angeles second baseman Jeff Kent, going so far to accuse Kent of being a racist. Bradley missed considerable time with knee and finger injuries, and if he can stay healthy, should be motivated to have a good year.
Mark Kotsay, who will most likely be in centerfield, is a productive hitter and solid fielder. He hit 15 homers and had 82 RBI, although he cooled in the second half of 2005. Still, he had the most RBIs for any A’s centerfielder since 1991, when Dave Henderson had 83. Bobby Kielty, who turns 30 in August, hasn’t become the hitter many thought he would, but the switch hitter did manage to knock in 57 runs last year. Another player that never quite lived up to his advance notices, Jay Payton, came from Boston after the All-Star break to chip in with 42 RBIs in only 69 games. He is a good athlete, and will combine with Bradley, Swisher, and Kielty to keep the outfield fresh.

The starting five may be the best in the American League behind the champion White Sox. Veteran lefty hurler Barry Zito, with his 12 to 6 curveball, rebounded from a poor first half to get to a 14-13 record. He is only 39-36 the last three seasons after starting out his career at 47-17, but has the ability to put together a Cy Young year like he did in 2002 if his stuff does not desert him for long stretches.

Featuring explosive mid 90 mile per hour fastballs, Rich Harden established himself as one of baseball’s up and coming stars last year. He only made 19 starts due to muscle strains, but pitched to a 2.53 ERA and struck out 121 in 128 innings as he went 10-5. He hopes to build on this success; he is only 24 years old! Fellow righty Dan Haren started off 1-7 in 2005, but thanks to some generous run support from his teammates, he finished 13-5 for a winning 14-12 record. Not quite as fast as Harden, Dan mixes a hard slider and good sinker in with his fastball. He is only one year older than Harden, giving the A’s a pitching nucleus for years to come.

Veteran Estaban Loaiza, a former Cy Young winner as well, sometimes falls in love with his cut fastball, but he knows how to pitch. The Yankees would have done well to keep him after the 2004 season as he made 34 starts for the Nationals and went 12-10. Coming to Oakland as a free agent, he should fill the number four spot in the rotation nicely, leaving the fifth spot for sophomore Joe Blanton. He had a solid rookie year, with an impressive 2.65 ERA after the All-Star break. In his 12 losses, the A’s scored only 6 runs! He is another kid, only 25, and he already has learned to change speeds well, making his stuff more effective.

The 2005 Rookie of the Year, Huston Street, is a Texas product who converted 21 of 25 save chances. Only Mariano Rivera had a better ERA than Street’s 1.72 posting, and the cocky youngster, who has no single outstanding pitch to get hitters out, gets by because he knows he can do the job. The set-up men, right handed Kiko Calero and Justin Duchscherer, are tough match-ups for most righties. Kiko gave up only 9 hits to the first 53 men he faced last year; Justin had an AL best 4.47 to 1 strike out to walk ratio in 2005. Left hander Joe Kennedy is still relatively young, and if he can mentally get over some of the poundings he received pitching for the Devil Rays and Rockies before he went 8-13 with Oakland last year, he could be an asset. He is capable of starting, as is Kirk Saaloos, a righy who pitches to contact, as his career 4.80 ERA attests.

If the A’s can avoid their usual slow start, they should be right in the mix come September. They finish the season with 7 of their final 10 games with the Angels, in what may be the contests that determine the West champion.

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