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February 26, 2007

Hope and Faith

How the Oakland A's Can Win the World Series

by Christina Kahrl

Will talks with Christina about the Athletics' chances in the Athletics Hope and Faith edition of Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download mp3.

I'm an A's fan. That doesn't mean I turn a blind eye to my team's weaknesses-last October, in assessing the likely outcome of the ALCS, I came to the personally glum conclusion that the Tigers would win. (A critic would note that I was too optimistic even then, as I picked the Tigers in six, instead of in four.) But with the latest snowfall melting, and as I ponder the season to come, I am reminded again that hope and faith is an A's fan's bread and butter.

Rooting for Oakland for most of the last decade has been pretty straightforward. It's got a nice underdog vibe that, no matter how many repeated playoff appeareances they make, doesn't go away. Whatever cheats Bud Selig has used to concoct to make a lazy connection between payroll and playoff victories in his lamentable Congressional testimony, we're generally comfortable taking our chances, come what may.

What has come has been the sort of cringe-worthy moments that would get overwrought Red Sox Nation or embittered Cubbie fans worked up into a lather. The ubiquitous Kirk Gibson footage probably shows up more than any other single sports clip, but A's fans roll with it. What's been frustrating hasn't been losing one October series or another, because after the twin disappointments of the 1988 and 1990 World Series, we've endured the worst sorts of October humiliation. If anything, what galls has been the particular embarassments that come from seeing players like Jeremy Giambi, Eric Byrnes and Miguel Tejada make baserunning errors that would mean no postgame ice cream in Little League. Then there was the time that Terrence Long's Magellan act in center field got over-exposed because of another obnoxious East Coast-oriented start time. Still, A's fans cope-they'd seen similar October mishaps from Jose Canseco and Mike Andrews, and who knew we'd have D'Angelo Jimenez to look forward to?

Instead, hope and faith in the East Bay is animated by a few certainties. There's been a commitment to using it to get to the postseason every year since 1999. In his pursuit of that goal, General Manager Billy Beane is unstinting in his attention to detail. There's always talent on the field, because no GM better understands how each year's budget creates a constant process of reconfiguration, a dynamism built around financial certainties balanced against the shifting qualities of individual players. Even handicapped by a cultivated aversion among his peers to make any major deals, Beane trawls whatever waters to find under-recognized or undercompensated talent that can help put that year's winner on the field. Beyond his own basic intellectual rapaciousness, Beane enjoys the advantage of a creative and intelligent staff to help him identify those less-fished waters, both in the Hot Stove League and in-season. Have mistakes been made? No doubt about it, but this is a front office that tends not to make the same mistake a second time.

What's intriguing about this year's team is that it is a confection of risk layered upon risk. This year's Milton Bradley edition of the Athletics is perhaps best symbolized by its right fielder, because hope is engendered by what we want to see happen. We want to see Bradley become the switch-hitting power source that would make anybody remember Eddie Murray at his best, or Ken Singleton at his most grindingly, consistently dangerous. We want him to be our perhaps more mercurial version of Bernie Williams, a guy who beats you and keeps beating you. The downside? A meltdown that instead leads to Alex Johnson references.

In that way, Bradley is representative of the entire roster-we're not going to get mediocrity, but something far less certain. We're not going to wind up like the Rangers or the Mariners, hovering somewhere between 75 and 84 wins. Perhaps as a microcosm of the team's feast-or-famine history, this season seems to hold Janus-like possibilities for total success or absolute failure.

Take the young presumptive stars of the team. Rich Harden and Bobby Crosby could be All-Stars, and among the best players at their positions in the AL. But will they be? If you want to be generous, you might wishcast Harden into the same spot Roger Clemens was in going into 1986-he was obviously talented, but he hadn't yet blossomed into what people thought he could be. Say Harden gets into his 75th or 90th percentile PECOTA, but does it over 30 starts. There wouldn't be a better starter in the division, perhaps the league. Similarly, instead of a third straight semi-present season, maybe Crosby gives the A's a year that tilts more towards his happier comps, the guys like Morgan Ensberg or Gary Gaetti or Michael Cuddyer, and not so much like Kevin Elster. Put a player like that at short-and if Crosby can re-prove he can handle short-and you've got a lineup advantage almost as tasty as seeing Harden start every fifth day.

Even if the kids are alright, the rest of the roster isn't exactly a collection of steady eddies. At second, Mark Ellis is talented yet fragile. Center fielder Mark Kotsay seems to get nicked up with alarming regularity, and is barely holding on to some shred of offensive adequacy. He can contribute, but he'll need regular rest in an outfield rotation, which is probably more optimistic than most statheads see his 2007 season working out. Pace Jason Kendall, who despite his age and his obvious punchlessness in terms of power, still holds some value if he can post another OBP over .350-this is baseball, not the sabermetric Olympics. And if Eric Chavez's golden boy status has seen the life sucked out of it, and his nascence as a regular MVP candidate has been stillborn, through multiple injuries and platoon issues he remains a fine player. But will Mike Piazza have anything left in the tank at DH, the way Frank Thomas and John Jaha did, or will this be more like 1987, when A's fans had to watch both Reggie Jackson and Ron Cey come to the end of the line? Who's on first, Dan Johnson, Erubiel Durazo, Nick Swisher? Mike Epstein? In the face of that much uncertainty, I have hope.

What of the pitching staff? Will Joe Kennedy's always uncomfortable-looking delivery keep him from holding up over a full season as a starter? Which part of Alan Embree's Jekyll/Hyde act will show up in the pen? Will the real Esteban Loaiza please stand up? As a matter of hope and faith, I'm sanguine that, strangely enough, it will all turn out well on the mound. How? I don't know. It's a mystery. It's February. I cling to the relative certainty that in Dan Haren I trust, and figure that I'll be happy if the damage-control skills this team benefited from last season don't have to employed with anything like the same frequency.

Through the constant juggling of the roster, Oakland has managed to remain a place players like to come to. Where money issues usually curdle relationships on some clubs, the sensibility instead seems to be focused on getting the job done, on winning ballgames now, and if you end up having to go get money someplace else, no harm, no foul-it's baseball as a business, but the realization that that doesn't have to be embittering. The question is whether new manager Bob Geren will help maintain that uniquely green-and-gold team ethic, and perhaps add to it in a way that coach Ron Washington did, while Ken Macha, his predecessor, did not. If Geren can be both a leader and a part of the club's culture, the A's may finally have the field general who works seamlessly with both their players and their GM.

All of this makes for a certain giddy anticipation--two shots of hope with a perhaps-unavoidable fear chaser. As long as we're on top of a volcano, at least we've got our dancing shoes on. Sure, the roster could go totally Krakatoa on us, but I have faith that this year, we'll wind up enjoying the view from the top.


Will talks with Christina about the Athletics' chances in the Athletics edition of Hope and Faith Radio.

Click to download mp3

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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