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Spring Postcard: A's have found other overlooked skills to value

This spring, SI.com's baseball writers will be filing postcards from all 30 camps. To read all of the postcards, click here.

1. Billy Beane has changed his tactics

"Listen," says Beane, 47, now entering his 13th season as the A's GM, and his 21st in the franchise's management. "When we started putting our clubs together in Oakland, we built them on three-run homers and walks. That's no longer a skill that we can afford. My first choice to build an offensive club would be a bunch of guys who hit homers and get on base. That's my first choice. As people start to pay for that skill, then we have to keep going down the list."

"Down the list" translates to an increased focus on run prevention, as opposed to the pricier run production, a focus shared by a number of other mid- to small-market teams, most notably the Mariners. But Oakland's payroll projects to be among the league's five lowest, around $55 million, to Seattle's $90-plus million, so Beane, as usual, had to be more creative than most in his effort to assemble a competitive team. That will mean relying on a rotation stocked with young pitchers with the potential to far outperform their salaries, the best of whom should be 22-year-old lefty Brett Anderson, the second-year No. 3 starter who went 6-4 with a 3.48 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning during last season's second half. All that cheap youth allowed Beane the room in his meager budget to sign four-time All-Star Ben Sheets to a one-year, $10 million deal on Jan. 26, after falling short in his pursuit of other free agents including Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro, Jamey Carroll and, most significantly, Cuban phenom Aroldis Chapman (for whose services the A's were the runners-up to the Reds).

Beane's focus on run prevention also led him to assemble a group of fielders that should rank among the league's best, particularly in the outfield, which will feature a trio of starters who have all been significantly above-average defensive center fielders. Rajai Davis will play left, free agent acquisition Coco Crisp center and Ryan Sweeney right. "When me, [Jacoby] Ellsbury and J.D. Drew were together in Boston, that was a pretty good outfield," says Crisp, whose season as a Royal ended with a torn shoulder labrum in June but who signed a one-year, $5.25 million deal with Oakland in December and is now all but recovered. "In saying that, though, this outfield could be a really fun outfield to watch."

Davis, Crisp and Sweeney, however, combined to hit just 12 home runs last season -- every other outfield in baseball contains at least one player who by himself exceeded that total -- but Beane isn't overly concerned about his lineup's lack of power. "At the end of the day, if you score 500 runs in a season and your opponents score 400 runs in a season, it's the same as scoring 1000 and giving up 900," he says. "It's still ultimately a zero-sum game. You try to use some equation, and some combination, that allows you to succeed. For us and the Mariners, it's defense."

2. Oakland's bullpen is an overlooked strength

Despite being required to work the second-most innings (559.1) of any bullpen last season, A's relievers, rather impressively, ranked third in the majors, and first in the AL, in combined ERA (3.54). They were particularly good during a late-season stretch in which Oakland won 16 of 20 games between Sept. 5 and Sept. 26 -- they had a 1.98 ERA and allowed a .211 batting average against in those three weeks -- before a deflating, season-ending seven-game losing streak. It wasn't just AL Rookie of the Year closer Andrew Bailey (26 saves, 1.84 ERA), either. Right-handed set-up man Michael Wuertz had a 2.63 ERA and stuck out 102 batters in 78.2 innings thanks to a nasty slider that helped him lead all pitchers in the rate at which he produced swings-and-misses (batters whiffed when they swung at his offerings more than 40 percent of the time). Southpaw Craig Breslow had a 2.60 ERA in 60 games with the A's, who picked him up after the Twins cut him. Sidearmer Brad Ziegler, though not as untouchable as he was as a rookie in '08, still finished with an ERA of 3.07.

"If we were ahead after six innings, we felt really good about winning that game," says manager Bob Geren. "And if we were close after five or six, we really felt like we could hold them, and have a chance at coming back."

Bailey, Breslow, Wuertz and Ziegler will all return in 2010. So will Joey Devine, who was probably the best middle reliever in baseball in '08 (he had a 0.59 ERA in 42 appearances then) and was set to become the A's closer in '09 before Tommy John surgery forced him to miss the entire season. Of Devine's chances to be ready for Opening Day, Geren says, "I'd say 50/50. But if it's a week or two into the season, fine. If it's 162 games or 150, whatever. I just want him back in there." Devine's return to the bullpen, plus the reduction of stress upon it due to the starting staff's maturation and improvement, means that the A's pen should be even better this year.

3. The A's are another AL West team on the rise.

Since 2006, when they went 93-69 and advanced to the ALCS, the A's have won 76, 75 and 75 games. The 2010 A's, though are a very different club than they were four years ago, not only in personnel -- the only holdovers are second baseman Mark Ellis, 1B/3B Eric Chavez and starter Justin Duchscherer -- but in style. They are now a running team -- they stole 133 bases in '09, 45 more than in any other season during the decade -- and Crisp should help them increase that total. Rickey Henderson was invited to camp to hold a four-day clinic on the art of stealing bases, and also, presumably, on the art of talking about oneself in the third person. (If you start reading things like, "'Cliff Pennington is the greatest of all time,' says Cliff Pennington," you'll know why.)

Beane's reimagining of his club into one based on young pitching, fielding and speed seems to be nearing completion, although he could still be a few power hitters -- some of which might be on the way (see items below) -- away from again challenging for the division's title. Still, even in a seemingly stacked AL West, a half-dozen win improvement over last season seems manageable. By 2011 -- even without Sheets, who will likely have signed elsewhere, or, even more likely, will have been traded elsewhere before this season's end for yet more young and cheap prospects -- the A's should be contenders once more.

Chris Carter and Michael Taylor

Carter, 23 and acquired in 2007 from the Diamondbacks in the Dan Haren trade, and Taylor, 24 and picked up over the winter in a swap for fellow minor leaguer Brett Wallace that was part of the Roy Halladay deal, are ranked by Baseball America as the game's 28th and 29th best prospects, respectively. Neither has spent a day in the majors, but both, says Beane, could provide a boost to the A's offense this season -- perhaps sooner, rather than later. "Even conservatively speaking, I think we'd be surprised if they weren't at some point up here," the GM says. "It could be at the end of spring."

Both are physically imposing: Carter is 6'4", Taylor is 6'6". While Carter, who will likely play first base, possesses more raw power -- he hit 28 home runs last year in the minors, and 39 the year before -- Taylor is perhaps more versatile. The A's expect him to be an above-average defensive outfielder, and even though he hit 20 home runs in the Phillies organization in '09, he also displayed a plate discipline possessed by few players of his considerable size. He struck out 70 times in 116 games, and hit .320 with a .395 OBP.

Taylor also, says Beane, "puts about as good a first impression on you as you can imagine. I got off the phone with him when we traded for him, and I said, listen, this kid on the phone was about as impressive a young man as you'd want." Taylor is 19 units, or about one academic quarter, shy of graduating from Stanford with a degree in Political Science -- he focused on American government and U.S.-Middle East relations -- and intends to complete his degree, his studies for which were interrupted when he was drafted after his junior season, in short order. Of his chances of making the A's this season, he says, "You're talking to a guy who has not seen one major league pitch, so it would be a little presumptuous of me to sit here and say, yes, I'm going to provide something at the major league level. But I'm trying to get better, so that whatever skill set I have shines."

Kevin Kouzmanoff

Kouzmanoff, 28 years old and now with his third team after the A's acquired him from the Padres in a trade centered on spare outfielder Scott Hairston, should fit well into Oakland's defensive renaissance. "He had three errors all last season, which is remarkable," says Geren of his new third baseman. "I've seen two errors on one play. I've seen three in one game." But he should also contribute some much-needed, everyday power. He averaged nearly 20 homers in his three seasons in San Diego, and his 18 last year were more than anyone on the A's roster mustered except for Jack Cust. Says Geren, "He has real good numbers hitting with guys in scoring position" -- a .303 average and an .838 OPS in '09 -- "and he's the kind of guy who is going to drive in runs. I don't know where he's going to hit yet, but he's going to be a middle-of-the-lineup hitter, which we need."

Dallas McPherson

Speaking of possible sources of power, few players have ever had as much power potential as the 6'4" McPherson, a 2nd round pick of the Angels in 2001 who was Baseball America's 12th-best prospect in the game in 2005, and who has two 40-plus home run seasons on his minor league curriculum vitae. That C.V., though, also features three major surgeries, one on his hip and two on his back, the second of which was necessitated after he felt a twinge the day after he signed a contract with the Giants last spring. McPherson explains: "The cadaver bone they put in [during his Jan. 2007 spinal fusion procedure] overgrew and the nerve grew into it. So they had to go in, shave down that bone, free up the nerve, clean up some scar tissue, and take out the hardware from my first surgery."

The result of all that is that McPherson is 29 years old now and has played in just 128 big league games. He's in A's camp on a minor league deal, as a non-roster invitee and is under no illusions about his standing. McPherson knows that the window for him to start a long big league career has almost closed. "Hopefully if I play well and stay healthy," he says, "some day there will be a need for me." If there's one place where his services might be needed, it's in Oakland, which has eyed him for at least two years, and which in 2007 gave a chance to a then 28-year-old slugger: Cust, who, like McPherson, had yet to find a big league home. Cust has hit 84 home runs in his three seasons as an A. "Jack's issue was he never got the chance," says Beane. "Dallas's issue is that he's never been able to stay healthy when opportunities presented themselves. If he has health, it's hard to find that kind of corner power." McPherson is as deep a sleeper as deep sleepers get, but he shouldn't be overlooked.

The television in Beane's office is usually tuned to Fox Soccer Channel, and Beane, who along with several members of his staff attended the World Cup in Germany in 2006, is borderline fanatical about the beautiful game. He particularly admires Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, whom he views as a kindred spirit as far as his approach to the business of sports. He highly recommends David Goldblatt's sweeping 2008 history of soccer, The Ball is Round. "I don't read a lot of sports books," Beane says, "but this is one of the best books I've ever read. It's about 900 pages, but it's phenomenal. That's your reading assignment.".... Geren proudly showed off a digital photo of his rescue dog, Hank. As in, Hank Geren.... Dallas Braden should be the club's No. 4 starter, even though he still feels numbness -- similar to "pins and needles" -- in his left foot from a botched procedure to drain a cyst late last summer, which severed a nerve and prematurely ended a promising season in which he went 8-9 with a 3.89 ERA. "If I can stand, I can pitch," says Braden. Braden, a loquacious 26-year-old, visited Amsterdam during the off-season. He spent hours in the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House, and hopes to travel to Europe again next winter. "It's a little early to plan, but I think Germany, because after gathering all the information I did at the Anne Frank House I want to gain an understanding of everything that occurred over there, and enlighten myself," he says. "Plus, I hear they have some good beer."

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