This is the time that tries men’s souls.

And no, I’m not talking about the war, politics or any of that other hoo-ha. Granted, I do talk about exactly that specific brand of hoo-ha a lot, but ultimately, given my druthers, I’ll choose to dwell on baseball instead, thankyouverymuch. And this truly is the time of year that tries my soul.

Why, you ask? Simple. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Oakland A’s fan. This is the time of the year where I watch talented, but a bit too expensive players, leave the A’s to ply their trades elsewhere. It happens nearly every year in the land of Beane-ball. This is no less true this year. 

To honest, I don’t give a hoot about Miguel Tejada leaving. Miguel is a fine player, and he’s been a lot of fun to root for over the past few years in Oakland. But honestly folks, he’s streaky, and when he slumps HE SLUMPS. Just take the entire first third of the season last year. He couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with a bowling ball. Mediocre pitchers were looking like geniuses against him, and I don’t even want to talk about the ways in which really good pitchers made him look foolish and overpaid last season. Let us never mind the ways in which Miguel has baffled, perplexed and greatly annoyed A’s fans in the last three post-seasons. I’m not just talking about his baserunning blunder in the series against Boston either. In 2000 he frustrated Jason Giambi so much that Jason, who is a patient guy, blew his stack at him on the field in front of god and everybody. I hope he has a great time in Baltimore and that he at least gives Orioles fans something to cheer about every now and then. I’ve got very little doubt that he’ll also give them plenty to throw fits over.

What I’m hand-wringing the most over is the loss of Keith Foulke. It’s no secret to my friends that I watch baseball for the pitching. I love pitchers. I particularly love dramatic and dominant pitchers. I’ve got a very special place in my heart for Closers. I was virtually weak in the knees the last two seasons over Eric Gagne. Much as I dislike the Giants, I’ve been known to bust out in an ovation when Robb Nen drops the hammer on someone in the Nenth inning. So, naturally, I spent last season swooning over Keith Foulke. Not only is Keith capable of being very dominant and intimidating, he doesn’t even throw hard. But he does put the ball pretty much exactly where he wants it on every throw. To a hitter who has spent nearly three hours playing a ballgame that just really doesn’t give you much of a chance if your team is down a run or two and you’re at your last three outs. Besides, I just gotta love a guy who comes to Oakland and head out to the orthodontist and gets himself braces. Most closers grow odd facial topiary. Not Keith Foulke. Nope. He’s gonna glare at you over his braces. 

Anyway, I’m sweatin’ it right now folks. To replace my dear, departed Keith it looks like Billy Beane has signed Arthur Rhodes. Hmmm. A couple of years ago Rhodes was the lynchpin of a fantasy baseball team I was running. He chewed up innings, got a pile of holds and basically surprised the heck out of me and everyone else in the league (several of the other team owners openly mocked me for selecting him and keeping him in my lineup day after day). As a closer though I’ve got no faith in him. I’m sort of hoping that he’s not really been signed to be the closer. I’m hoping in my heart of hearts that Billy Beane has decided to convert Chad Bradford into the new closer for the A’s and make Rhodes his set-up man. That’s an idea I can get behind.

Bradford was, until the publication of Moneyball, truly the unsung hero of the A’s staff. When he’s on he’s unhittable. His release point just flat out confuses most hitters, and his fastball looks about ten to fifteen mph faster than it actually is. You see lots of very good hitters and a few great hitters swat at Bradford’s pitches as if they were flies on a back porch in Texas. Chad’s also a religious man. I think that there’s a sense among his fellow players that “the Lord” may just be on his side. How’s that for a Closer’s edge?

I’m equally troubled by the starting lineup the A’s have cobbled together so far. Here’s what it looks like:

Starting Lineup / Career Avg 

Damien Miller / 0.262 

Scott Hatteberg / 0.267 

Mark Ellis / 0.257 

Bobby Crosby / 0.000 

Eric Chavez / 0.277 

Mark Kotsay / 0.281 

Bobby Kielty / 0.261 

Jermaine Dye / 0.273 

Erubiel Durazo / 0.270 

Combined avg. – 0.239

Granted, Bobby Crosby’s lack of at-bats (and, so far, his inability to get even one hit in the limited at-bats he’s had) gives him an average that cocks up the numbers a bit. I’d say it’s fair to guess he’ll end up hitting at least .250 next season. If that happens we’ll have a starting lineup with a combined average of .266. Just for comparison, the combined average of the projected starting lineup of the Boston Red Sox is .283, and that’s without any trade for A-Rod coming through (to be honest, A-Rod’s really not much better than Nomar. His biggest attraction for the Sox is easily his marquee value – he’s famous and lots of idiots who don’t watch a lot of baseball in New England now are likely to tune in to watch him play. I’d argue though that the Red Sox are better off keeping Nomar and Manny Ramirez in their lineup than trading Manny for A-Rod and shipping Nomar off to Chicago for Maglio Ordonez). 

The fact is, however, that the A’s have what can, at best, be described as a mediocre group of hitters. If Jermaine Dye sucks ass as badly as he did last season (.172 batting average), the A’s are in a whole lot of trouble. The Mariners and the Angels are both in the midst of improving their teams. If the A-Rod trade goes through and Texas suddenly ends up with a lot more cash on hand than they have had they could very well cobble together a half-way decent pitching staff. None of this makes having a lineup that his .239 sit very well with me or many other A’s fans.

The thing we A’s fans can sort of count on is the pitching staff. The rotation is pretty much set now – Hudson, Zito, Mulder, Redmond and Harden. Unless one of the big three gets hurt (like last season – groan) it’s fair to expect those guys to deliver 60 wins between them (if not more) and to lead the team. To be honest, I’d rather have Lilly than Redmond, but Redmond will do as a fourth starter. Hopefully, his taste of the big leagues will have helped Rich Harden to mature and understand that pitching as if he’s facing a triple-A club is going to get him nailed to the outfield fence by big league hitters. He’s got the stuff. If he can get his brain to cooperate Harden could fulfill the prophecy that has him turning the big three into a big four.

For all my doubts about Arthur Rhodes they’re nowhere near the doubts and confusion I have regarding Ricardo Rincon. Why the A’s resigned him is baffling. He was a useless butterball last season. Bringing him into a game was guaranteed to give me several really big heart attacks. Was I the only one in the stands watching him suck as badly as he did? Apart from Chad Bradford and Rhodes, the A’s bullpen is weak. Much as I love Jim Mecir opposing teams finally got wise last season to the fact that the man’s legs ain’t no good. Bunting yourself on-base with Mecir on the mound ought to be easy for anyone who can put down a halfway decent bunt, and a few people actually did that last season. My bet is that others were watching. Chad Harville has potential. He throws very hard and is a lot more accurate than he was in his first stint in the big leagues a couple of years ago, but he’s no sure thing. Justin Duchscherer really should be a starter. As a reliever he’s so so. As a starter he could easily be the number three guy on some other team. One hopes that Billy Beane is as aware of this situation with the bullpen as I am. 

Just to overstate my point, the bullpen of the A’s has a combined ERA of 4.62. For comparison’s sake, the much-maligned (although greatly improved by the arrival of Keith Foulke) bullpen of the Boston Red Sox has a combined ERA of 3.79. That’s about one run better. With relievers, one run is all it takes to cost you a game.

Basically, A’s fans, we’re hosed. Then again, I always feel that way this time of year. Must be the weather.

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