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May 28, 2008

On the Beat

Oakland Renaissance

by John Perrotto

The Athletics were supposed to be rebuilding this season. General manager Billy Beane supposedly ran up the white flag last winter when he traded away two of his best players, right-hander Dan Haren and outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher, especially since both are in their prime and were signed to club-friendly contracts. Beane's rationale was that, after a 76-86 finish, the Athletics needed to rebuild a depleted farm system, and the only way to do so was by trading his established stars for a bounty in return.

So that is exactly what Beane did, dealing Haren and right-hander Connor Robertson to the Diamondbacks for six players, and Swisher to the White Sox for three more. The Athletics' farm system has consequently gone from one of the worst in baseball to one of the best.

However, a funny thing has happened while Beane sowed seeds down on the farm: the major league club has been respectable during a season in which little was expected of it. The Athletics are 29-23 and riding a four-game winning streak, and they trail the heavily-favored Angels by only two games in the American League West.

"I understand why everyone was picking us to finish last in the division," Athletics closer Huston Street said. "We have a lot of young players and people didn't have a lot of information about them. They were only basing their predictions based on the information they had at hand. Most people didn't know the type of young talent we have on this roster. We have a lot of guys who are starting to show that talent this season. Based on what we've done so far this season, I think the people who picked us last back before spring training started would probably have a different opinion now. We're definitely not one of the worst teams in baseball."

As Athletics right fielder Emil Brown said, "We have a legitimately good team. This isn't a two-month fluke thing. You don't rebuild in the major leagues. You play to win. Rebuilding is for the minor leagues."

The Athletics, despite traditionally having one of the lowest payrolls and attendance totals in the game, have had winning seasons in eight of the 10 years since Beane took over as GM. They have also made the playoffs five times during that span.

"You can never give Billy enough credit," Street said. "You look at how much the roster has turned over during the time he's been here, and the limitations he works under compared to other GMs who have owners who just open their checkbooks, and it's amazing. I know a lot of people thought luck had run out on the A's last year and that this year was going to be worse. It's not luck. We have a good organization and we're a good team. We're doing things good teams do to win."

The old Beane blueprint for success, made famous in Michael Lewis's Moneyball, was power, patience, and good starting pitching. Load up on hitters who belt home runs and draw walks, and let them provide enough offense to overcome any deficiencies in baserunning and defense, and support star pitchers like Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito.

However, that broadly-drawn caricature wasn't what the book, or Beane, is all about. Beane's plan has always been about exploiting inefficiencies in the player market and building his roster accordingly. Now, the Athletics are short on power, as they are tied for 12th in the AL with a .373 slugging percentage, and their .333 on-base percentage ranks just sixth. Yet the Athletics are fifth in the league in scoring, with an average of 4.6 runs a game.

"Pitching has been the key," manager Bob Geren said. "We're not going to out-slug a lot of teams but we're not going to give up many runs either."

Indeed, the Athletics are allowing an AL-best 3.6 runs a game, as left-handers Dana Eveland and Greg Smith lead the rotation with 1.8 SNLVAR each, while Justin Duchscherer (1.2), Joe Blanton (1.1), and Rich Harden (1.0) are also off to fine starts. Eveland and Smith were acquired from the Diamondbacks in the Haren trade, and center fielder Ryan Sweeney was one of three players who came over from the White Sox for Swisher. Sweeney's .285 EqA ranks third among Athletics' regulars behind designated hitter Frank Thomas (.331) and left fielder Jack Cust (.325).

The other four players acquired from the Diamondbacks were ranked among the Athletics' top nine prospects coming into the season (as ranked by Kevin Goldstein)--outfielder Carlos Gonzalez (2), left-hander Brett Anderson (4), first baseman Chris Carter (7), and outfielder Aaron Cunningham (9). So, too, were the two minor league pitchers who accompanied Sweeney from the White Sox--right-hander Fautino De Los Santos (3) and left-hander Gio Gonzalez (5).

Whether the Athletics can continue to confound the experts for the remainder of the season remains to be seen. Street, however, thinks this is just the beginning of a good run. "Think back to the late 1990s and early 2000s and nobody knew who Jason Giambi or Eric Byrnes or Miguel Tejada or Barry Zito or Tim Hudson or Mark Mulder was," Street said. "Everyone found out, though, because those guys turned into stars and the A's became one of the best teams in baseball in the early part of this decade. I can see that happening again here now. We're really set up to be successful for the long haul. People may not know many of the guys on this team now but I have a good feeling they are going to start finding out about us."

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Willie Randolph is still the manager of the underachieving Mets, who are 24-26, and that qualifies as a bit of a a surprise. The odds seemed better than 50-50 going into Randolph's meeting with Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon on Monday that he would be fired.

Not only had the Mets gone 1-6 on their road trip to Atlanta and Denver that ended Sunday, but Randolph criticized SportsNet New York, which is owned by the Wilpons, for casting him in a bad light by claiming it only shows dugout camera shots of him sitting passively on the bench. Randolph, an African-American, told the Bergen Record that he thought that portrayal was racially motivated.

After the meeting, Randolph expressed confidence. "I didn't come in thinking that I was going to get fired," Randolph told reporters afterwards. "I was looking forward to being the manager today, tomorrow, and hopefully the rest of the year. It's something I have no control over," Randolph said. "My main concern is trying to get this team back to where we're playing good, solid baseball."

Whether Randolph lasts the year remains very much in doubt, though. The Wilpons gave no assurances to Randolph about how long he might be around, and General Manager Omar Minaya, a supporter of his manager, also wouldn't commit to anything specific. "There is no limbo period," Minaya said. "Willie is the manger. Willie has the support of the general manager, has the support of ownership."

---

Mariners manager John McLaren was also presumed to be on the hot seat, as his team has the worst record in the major leagues at 19-34 despite ending a seven-game losing streak Tuesday night with a win over the Red Sox. There was also speculation that GM Bill Bavasi could be in trouble, but Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said last weekend that he has no plans to fire either one. Bavasi also said he is not about to drop the ax on McLaren, and that it is up to the players and not McLaren to get the Mariners' ship righted.

"This is not a field manager issue," Bavasi told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "John has done a good job leading a number of horses to water. Our performance is not related to his work. It's related to [the players'] underperformance and underachievement."

"When something goes wrong, we need players to grab [other] players by the throat to say, 'That's not what we do here,'" Bavasi added. "Good teams have players who make demands of each other. We need players to step up and play like they can, not like how they want to. I see people who care, but you have to be willing to take the first step out of the shell."

McLaren, for his part, says he is not giving up on this season. His club is 12 games out in the AL West, with less than a one percent shot at the postseason per Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds report. "I've been around tough guys all my life," McLaren said. "I'm a tough guy. I've got a good support group and they've been calling me and talking to me a lot. They mean well, but I know I'm doing what I can do. I know I'm a fighter, that I've always been a fighter. I think I'm at my best with my back to the wall and in a corner."

---

It was only fitting that the Giants' Omar Vizquel set the major league record for most games played by a shortstop in a doubleheader. Game number 2,584 came in the nightcap of a twinbill against the Marlins in Miami on Sunday, breaking the record set by Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio, whose final two games came in a doubleheader on Sept. 28, 1973, while playing for the Red Sox against the Brewers at Fenway Park. And like Aparicio, Vizquel is a native of Venezuela.

When the game became official in the sixth inning, the rest of the Giants remained in the dugout and let Vizquel take the field alone. The 41-year-old shortstop was greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd of 14,674. "I felt pretty proud, pretty emotional at that moment," Vizquel said. "It was a very big moment."

However, Vizquel did not have a chance to enjoy the day as much as he would have liked, as the Giants were swept in the doubleheader. It should be a happier occasion Friday, when Aparicio will be on hand for a pre-game ceremony before the Giants host the Padres at AT&T Park.

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Rumors and rumblings: The general consensus among baseball people is that Ben Sheets will be the most attractive starting pitcher on the market at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline if the Brewers aren't in contention in the NL Central by then. Right-hander Jeff Weaver can opt out of his contract with the Brewers' Triple-A Nashville farm club on Sunday if he is not in the major leagues. It seems probable Weaver will not be called up by then, considering his 6.69 ERA in 35 innings for the Sounds. The Mets are kicking around the idea of signing free agent outfielder Kenny Lofton to add some speed and depth. While Giants GM Brian Sabean said a few weeks ago that he won't be a seller at the trading deadline, many baseball executives still expect second baseman Ray Durham, infielder Rich Aurilia, and right fielder Randy Winn, among others, to be available come late July. Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez says he plans on playing again next season, but it is becoming increasingly doubtful that Detroit will re-sign him as a free agent.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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