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February 11, 2003
Team Health Reports
Team Health Report: Oakland Athletics
My brother Jason is a recurring character in UTK, and one many of you will get to know. He tags along on many of my journeys and occasionally adds his own Zen-like humor to the mix. The funny thing is, he's not a baseball fan. At this year's Winter Meetings, Jason did a lot of people watching. While Joe Sheehan and I spent half the time asking each other "Isn't that...?" Jason was figuring out who was important by watching which people were essentially the centers of attention. He kept noticing one guy and asked me if I knew who he was. It was Billy Beane. I explained who he was and how he usually grabbed people's attention.
"Oh, so don't look him in the eye?" Jason said. I was a bit confused. Jason told me about the urban legend concerning Prince, one of my favorite musicians. The story goes that by looking people in the eye, Prince can somehow hypnotize them and bend them to his will. It explains Sheena Easton and Vanity to me, and perhaps gives us some insight into the number of deals Beane has been able to pull off over the years.
I'm reasonably convinced that Beane's success has largely been forged in a similar way to that of Bill Walsh. Beane surrounds himself with great people, from the departed J.P. Ricciardi and Grady Fuson, to current A's staffers like assistant GM Paul DePodesta and pitching coach Rick Peterson. While Beane puts together creative trades and robs Allard Baird blind, the rest of the organization is following the plan and being innovative. From Peterson's decision to take baseline MRIs and biomechanical images of all his pitchers, to the medical decision to shelf Ted Lilly and fix his mechanics, to the close monitoring of minor league players, the A's use their smarts and collaboration to form a model organization. Trainers Larry Davis and Stephen Sayles are seldom mentioned, but deserve a great deal of credit for keeping the A's away from major injuries, something a team with a limited budget can seldom overcome. Consider the almost complete lack of material for me to work with in this THR as a tribute to them.
Erubiel Durazo has gone from baseball's version of a political prisoner, to the object of massive media scrutiny, to the object of Beane's almost irrational desire, in less than half a season. Being stuck behind Mark Grace is one thing, but refusing to play right field after your team's best position player is knocked out is completely another. Adding that baggage to his injury-riddled cup o' coffee in the majors, Durazo is someone that no one actually has a good handle on. At 29, he's too old to be a prospect and too young to be a retread, but there's no word for the man caught in the middle.
Durazo's extensive injury record worries me: Wrists, elbows, groins, hamstrings, and obliques all show up in his rap sheet. Few question his ability to hit when healthy; he just has a bigger "when" than most players. He's essentially replacing David Justice, but he's actually filling the shoes of Geronimo Berroa and Olmedo Saenz, players that the A's have been able to find, use, and never overpay for. Until he does it, the magical numbers that Durazo could produce in a 500 AB season are pure myth, and I remain unconvinced that anything will be different in Oakland than it was in Phoenix. Then again, whatever alien pod possessed John Mabry last season may need a new home.
Jermaine Dye's comeback from a broken tibia should be nearly complete, but he gets a yellow based on some effects of the injury. While the leg wasn't as much of a problem as anticipated during the season, the remaining pain caused Dye to slightly alter his gait. The extra pressure on the non-injured leg caused hamstring problems that plagued him all season. This type of compensation injury is more common than many realize and is one of the main risks of returning too soon from injury. Dye should be pain free this season, but we'd like to see him make it through the first couple months before we go green on him.
Three good, young starters throwing as hard and as well as the big three in Oakland means one thing to me - odds are, two will end up on the DL. Somehow, Oakland has avoided this fate. Tim Hudson appears to be slightly fatigued, but has had little loss of velocity or effectiveness. Mark Mulder has returned from back problems to become even more dominant. Barry Zito is, well, he's just Barry Zito. I'll give most of this credit to Rick Peterson and note that as they pass through the age-25 injury nexus, their risk goes down somewhat. With these three aces, Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang, and John Halama in the major leagues, and pitchers like Rich Harden and John Rheinecker coming - plus a wild card of Keith Foulke, who could be the next Derek Lowe if bumped to the rotation - the A's depth truly competes with that of the Yankees.
Ted Lilly is the one major injury concern in the rotation. Lilly came over in the Jeff Weaver-Carlos Pena triangle and did next to nothing. Give the A's a lot of credit for putting Lilly on the shelf and reworking his mechanics during a tight division race. Long-term, it could be a great move for both the A's and Lilly. Reports indicate Lilly has developed a completely new, fluid motion this off-season. If it sticks, Lilly could be one of the top fourth starters in baseball. I'll keep the yellow light on him due to history and the quirkiness of changing a delivery, but the A's track record is so good that normal rules shouldn't apply.
I seldom go "off the board" and talk about backups or bullpens, but with the A's giving me so little to work with, I'll do it just this once. Adam Piatthas an unjustified reputation as being injury prone. Contracting viral meningitis, as he did in 2001, is something that shouldn't count against anyone, and his comeback was derailed by an oblique strain, which was clearly a result of too much work in the weight room. With the right opportunity - and the retirement of David Justice might be just that - Piatt could be a very solid fourth outfielder, and one of those guys you grab at the end of your draft and snicker over when they break out.
Jim Mecir will miss Spring Training and at least April while recovering from knee surgery, but will once again be a key member of the bullpen. Once he's healthy, he could return to his 2001 form. Another sleeper and a classic A's-type pickup is Mitch Meluskey. Like Durazo, he's a "when healthy" type of guy who's never been healthy. In a Scott Hatteberg-Erubiel Durazo-Mitch Meluskey troika at 1B/DH, few teams have more low-cost potential, or injury risk. They'll need production from those two positions one way or another - Chavez, Tejada and the big three can only do so much.