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Limbo Time With the trade deadline looming, the anxious A's had to decide: ship out potential free agents like Jason Giambi, or make a wild-card run?

Aug. 06, 2001
Aug. 06, 2001

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Aug. 6, 2001

Limbo Time With the trade deadline looming, the anxious A's had to decide: ship out potential free agents like Jason Giambi, or make a wild-card run?

The deal was done. At least Jason Giambi thought so. His agent,
Arn Tellem, thought so. Even the brain trust of the Oakland A's
thought so. Finally, after months of When? and How much? and For
how long?, Giambi was sure that he would be an Athletic for the
rest of his career. This was last March, with three days left in
spring training, when Tellem called Giambi with the good news: a
new deal, six years, $91 million. "The A's will probably want to
have the press conference pretty soon," Tellem told his client,
the American League MVP after a 2000 season in which he hit .333,
with 43 homers and 137 RBIs. "So be ready."

This is an article from the Aug. 6, 2001 issue

Giambi was. He had been part of the Oakland organization since
June 1992, when the club used a second-round draft pick to select
the powerful Long Beach State third baseman. At the press
conference, he would, of course, thank his mom, Jeanne; his dad,
John; and Billy Beane, general manager of the A's and Giambi's
good friend. Jason would acknowledge his younger brother and
teammate, Jeremy. He would probably talk about loyalty--about
starting your career in one place and finishing it there too and
about what it meant to him to be part of this team....

Being a member of the A's last week meant watching the clock
24/7. It meant wondering whether a three-game losing streak would
be an excuse for management to unload future high-salary players
before the July 31 (4 p.m., EDT) trade deadline. Wondering
whether two potential free agents at season's end--veterans Johnny
Damon, the centerfielder, and Jason Isringhausen, the
closer--would be hanging out in the clubhouse in August and
September, cracking jokes and gulping coffee. Wondering if the
heart and soul and face of your franchise, the 30-year-old first
baseman Giambi, another potential free agent after those spring
contract talks collapsed, would be shipped to New York or Los
Angeles or Boston, or some other wealthy outpost. But then last
weekend Oakland won two of three games from the Kansas City
Royals in a series that meant everything, and not only because
the A's, 56-49 through Monday, were 4 1/2 games behind the Boston
Red Sox, the leader in the crowded American League wild-card
race. When SI went to press on Monday, Giambi, Damon and
Isringhausen were still with Oakland, but, as Beane admitted,
there were no guarantees.

It was a bizarre state of affairs for the defending American
League West champions, who started the season 2-10 and as
recently as July 6 had a sub-.500 record. Had Oakland continued
on its early path, there would be no debate concerning Giambi,
Damon and Isringhausen: Bad, financially strapped teams with only
$65 million in revenues (fifth lowest in baseball last year) do
not hold on to expensive veterans, especially ones who plan on
exploring free agency in the off-season.

However, as the A's won 18 of their first 26 games in July, it
became clear that tough personnel decisions would have to be
made. From the All-Star break through Sunday, Oakland led the
league in runs per game (6.2), and its .357 on-base percentage
was second in the AL to the New York Yankees' .358. Moreover, its
staff had the third-best ERA, 3.62. "You want to force management
to keep your team together," says lefthander Barry Zito, who
pitched 6 1/3 innings of one-hit ball in Oakland's 6-4 victory on
Sunday. "You do that by playing well."

Still, every day brought trade rumors, the kind that thrive when
your paychecks come out of a $34 million payroll, second lowest
in the majors (to the Minnesota Twins' $24 million), and your
team plays in a dump like the Network Associates Coliseum while
dreaming of a swanky new complex 30 miles down the road in Santa
Clara. Even when the A's plucked power-hitting rightfielder
Jermaine Dye from the Royals in a three-team swap that sent three
Oakland minor leaguers--lefthander Todd Belitz, outfielder Mario
Encarnacion and second baseman Jose Ortiz--to the Colorado
Rockies, the reaction in Oakland's clubhouse was not so much a
celebratory Ya-hoo, but a guarded, Uh...ya-hoo?

Sure, the 27-year-old Dye was a 2000 All-Star who seemed the
perfect righthanded bat to place in the middle of a
lefty-dominated lineup. But was Dye the man to bat cleanup and
protect Jason Giambi in the lineup, or was he the man--in the
event that Giambi left sooner or later--to replace him? Surely
every Oakland player, including Giambi and Dye, asked himself
that question. "I play devil's advocate like the next guy," said
Giambi last Friday. "I'd [be lying] if I said that didn't cross
my mind."

Beane had much on his mind, too. Last Saturday night, minutes
after Oakland's sloppy, uninspired 9-3 loss to the Royals, he sat
on a couch in a team office, furious. As Beane stewed, reporter
number 12,471 began peppering him with questions about economics
and small markets: Isn't it inevitable that with Giambi, Damon
and Isringhausen soon eligible to be free agents, someone will be
traded before season's end? Don't the A's, regardless of the
wild-card standings, have to deal one or two of those players
now?

"I'm damned if I do, and I'm damned if I don't," said Beane. "If
I trade these guys, I'm pulling the plug. If I don't trade these
guys, there's a chance they leave and I get nothing for them. To
me, the most important thing in this job is to reach the
postseason. Right now, we're in a position to possibly do that."

Still fuming, Beane took a deep breath. His team had lost three
of its last four games. "Look, I could trade guys every time
they're within a year and a half of their contract's ending," he
said, "and the team could suck the entire time I'm here, and I
could use the excuse, 'Well, they're gonna be free agents, so I'd
better trade 'em.' But what does that do? If you're close to the
playoffs, why trade?"

Translation: Given that we just traded for Jermaine, I'd say it's
pretty unlikely that I'll be trading our best players. We're
playing to win the wild card. I like what we have.

Giambi, though, remained disillusioned through the weekend. Was
loyalty dead? he wondered. Hadn't he forsaken his three years of
salary arbitration to sign a paltry three-year, $10 million deal
taking him through the 2001 season? Hadn't he proved his own
loyalty by saving a coin-strapped team some money? When Oakland
wouldn't comply with the no-trade clause that he and Tellem had
demanded during their negotiations last spring, Giambi says, "I
wasn't angry, but I was hurt. Considering what I've tried to do
for this organization, being a positive influence and trying to
keep the finances reasonable...the way I was treated, it
doesn't seem right. I was led to believe the deal was done."

It was--except for the no-trade clause, which proved to be a
sticking point. Giambi's concerns were understandable. Through
keen drafting and dazzling trades, Oakland had collected some of
the game's top young talent. The first three starters in the
rotation, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Zito, are 26, 24 and 23,
respectively; third baseman Eric Chavez is 23; leftfielder
Terrence Long and shortstop Miguel Tejada are 25. Over the course
of the next five years, those six plus Dye will be eligible for
salary arbitration and, inevitably, will get multiyear,
multimillion-dollar contracts.

"My fear is that with all those guys up for arbitration, they'll
look at me with the highest contract and say, 'He's gone,'" says
Giambi, who, after the no-trade demand was rebuffed, offered to
drop it in exchange for a seventh contract year at $21 million.
(That was also refused by Oakland, which feared locking up so
much money in a 37-year-old player.) "Maybe that sounds foolish,
but it can happen. Babe Ruth can be traded. Mark McGwire can be
traded. Anyone can be traded. But if I sign a long-term deal, I
don't want the team to be able to trade me anywhere."

Oakland stuck to its policy of not offering no-trade clauses.
This is, after all, a club to which payroll flexibility is vital.
Moreover, there's the looming presence of Steve Schott, the
thrifty owner-managing general partner who has implied that the
A's aren't afraid to trade Giambi. As Schott told the Bergen
(N.J.) Record, "[Trading him] probably makes sense from a
business standpoint." (Schott refused SI's interview requests.)
It was still possible up until the All-Star break that Giambi and
the A's would make a deal, but then he acknowledged an impasse
and said Oakland had lost its "hometown discount." The two sides
would have to start again from scratch--and Giambi might open the
bidding to all comers at season's end.

Last Friday, as he sat by his locker, Giambi, wearing a
sleeveless white T-shirt and an unflappable smile, interrupted
his conversation with nods, grins, snorts, laughs and shouts.
Although he had been playing his home games in front of an
average crowd of 25,106 (20th in the majors), Giambi--who at
week's end was batting .324 with 24 homers and 74 RBIs--loves
being an A. It has everything to do with a clubhouse he gleefully
refers to as "the land of the misfit toys." The room is a place
where joyful chaos reigns, where players rap along as 2Pac and
Snoop Dogg declaim from the stereo, and radio-controlled cars
dart through the furniture. "We were just in Seattle, and 18 of
us went out to dinner," says Mulder, who is 4-1 with a 1.74 ERA
in July, including a complete-game four-hitter in a 5-0 win over
Kansas City last Friday. "It'd be pretty tough for us to be any
closer."

This year, even as the team fell 10 games behind the Seattle
Mariners in the American League West only 21 games into the
season, the mood remained positive. That's why--despite leadoff
hitter Damon's batting .244 through Monday and the highly touted
Zito's having a 6-7 record and a 4.77 ERA--Oakland remains in the
wild-card hunt. "We never lost faith in ourselves," says Hudson,
the staff ace with a 12-6 record and 3.20 ERA. "And I don't think
anyone here stopped having fun. Even with all the trade talk and
stuff."

As soon as Giambi proclaimed his willingness to enter the
free-agent market, the rumors started flying. George Steinbrenner
wanted Giambi in Yankees pinstripes. Giambi would be a perfect
fit in Boston. Giambi to the Mets. Giambi to the Dodgers. "The
strangest one came when we visited the Twins a few weeks ago,"
Giambi says. "A security guard in the Metrodome said he heard I
was coming there in a trade. I was like, 'Um, that's probably not
happening.'"

While it is all but certain that Oakland will let the up-and-down
Isringhausen (converting 19 of 26 save opportunities through
Monday) walk, Beane can't afford to allow Giambi, his most
popular player, and Damon, his most exciting player, to depart
without adequate compensation. Beane can't afford the $27
million-plus in salary it would probably take to keep both in
2002 either. "I love playing here, and I love the idea of coming
back," says Damon, who was hitting .293 with a .375 on-base
percentage in July. "But a big part of that is Jason. He's the
leader of the team. If he's not around, it takes a tremendous
piece away from it all. To me, he is the A's."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONO Left hanging Trade rumors swirled around Frank Menechino (here taking the high road over Derek Jeter) and his A's teammates last week. COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVEROCOLOR PHOTO: MATT BROWNCOLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Off the wall It took half a season, but the fleet Long (left) and Damon have helped Oakland finally get its act together.

One-Upping Himself

The addition of Jermaine Dye (above) to the A's lineup might
help Jason Giambi (assuming he was not traded before Tuesday's
deadline) maintain an enviable streak. As the chart illustrates,
beginning in 1997 (his second full season) and continuing
through 2000, Giambi (below) equaled or surpassed his numbers
from the previous season in each of five major offensive
categories. Projections of his numbers so far this season
suggest the streak will end. But there are two other
considerations: 1) With Dye batting behind him, Giambi will be
pitched around less often (though that would also lead to fewer
walks); and 2) traditionally, the final month has been Giambi's
most productive (last September and October he batted .396, with
13 homers and 32 RBIs). --David Sabino

YEAR AVG. HR RBI BB ON-BASE PCT.

1996 .291 20 79 51 .355
1997 .293 20 81 55 .362
1998 .295 27 110 81 .384
1999 .315 33 123 105 .422
2000 .333 43 137 137 .476
2001* .324 37 114 125 .458

*Projected; based on statistics through Monday.

Was Dye the man to protect Giambi in the lineup, or was he the
man to replace him?