MANAGER BOB GERENfirst season with A's
THERE WAS a justified air of excitement at A's camp this spring. On the part ofthe players, regarding new manager (and former bench coach) Bob Geren, who wasas approachable as former manager Ken Macha was aloof. On the part of A'smanagement, regarding the health of shortstop Bobby Crosby, who missed 63 gameslast season because of various injuries but was swinging pain-free. On the partof Geren, regarding the professionalism of outfielder Shannon Stewart, aone-year, $1 million insurance policy that was immediately cashed in whencenterfielder Mark Kotsay underwent back surgery in early March. And on thepart of most everyone regarding the performances of new DH Mike Piazza and newace Rich Harden, the keys to the 2007 season.
Even at 38, Piazzaremains a formidable power threat at the plate and has been a welcome veteranpresence in one of the game's loosest clubhouses. Harden arrived in midseasonform, hitting 98 mph in his first outing and striking out five of the sevenPadres he faced. "Tremendous," says Geren of the pair. "They'remaking me a happy man."
Tremendous effortsfrom Piazza and Harden are a necessity if this club is to make the playoffs.Signed as a free agent after spending last year with the Padres, Piazza mustreplace the power of the departed Frank Thomas, who hit 39 HRs, then jumped tothe Blue Jays. Harden moves to the top of the rotation following Barry Zito'sexit to accept a rich offer from the Giants. If Piazza doesn't deliver orHarden gets hurt again, Oakland will be in trouble.
Both men realizethis, and for the 25-year-old Harden, in particular, it is a sensitive subject.In his four-year career he has gone 30--16 with a 3.67 ERA and averaged nearlya strikeout per inning, acelike numbers if only he could reach acelike inningtotals (average starts per year: 18). Harden maintains that his injuries arethe "fluke type," not related to his power pitching. The muscle strainin his lower back that sidelined him in 2006 occurred while he was trying toknock down a comebacker off the bat of the Rangers' Phil Nevin. And a sprainedright elbow ligament later in the year was the result of turning over his handtoo much on his changeup. "I've never had any trouble throwing a fastball;it's just a matter of being aware of what my arm is doing on a changeup,"he explains. "I'd never even thrown one until the minors, so I was forcingmyself to do it more and overdid the motion."
If Harden stayshealthy all season, he could better Zito's 16--10 record and 3.83 ERA of 2006.Still, after Harden and Dan Haren (whose 3.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio wasfourth in the AL last season), the rest of the rotation is unpredictable. Thatputs the onus on the offense, and with only one other significant pickup(Stewart) in the off-season, Piazza must do better than last year's 22 HRs and68 RBIs. Two reasons to think he will: leaving cavernous Petco Park (box,below) and giving his body more rest as a DH rather than catching 100-somegames. "Mentally it was always a relief for me to get out from behind theplate in June for the interleague games," says Piazza, who has hit .304with 10 homers in 191 DH at bats. Finally, in Nick Swisher, Milton Bradley anda healthy Eric Chavez, Piazza should have better lineup protection than he hadlast season. (Geren says he's "99 percent sure" Piazza will hitfourth.)
Another plus tohaving Piazza on the roster is his experience. He's already giving batting tipsto Swisher, speaking up during hitters-only meetings and working with catchingprospect Kurt Suzuki on blocking the plate. "If he wants to," saysGeren of Piazza, "he'd make a good manager someday."
Perhaps, but forthe A's to have a chance at winning the West, he needs to make a good DH rightnow.
a modest proposal...
A year ago, in aneffort to upgrade at DH, the A's invested a guaranteed $500,000 in 37-year-oldFrank Thomas, a future Hall of Famer nearing the end of his career. The moveproved to be a steal as Thomas led Oakland in homers, OBP and slugging, and wasfourth in the MVP voting. (Even after meeting incentives, he made only $3million.) After Thomas took off for Toronto, A's G.M. Billy Beane tried hisluck again by signing Mike Piazza, 38, to a one-year deal worth $8.5 million.Piazza's numbers with the Padres last year--.283 average, .342 OBP, .501slugging with 22 homers in 399 at bats--weren't eye-popping, but remember thathe played home games in Petco Park, the toughest hitting yard in the majors. Onthe road Piazza (left) tore up the NL to the tune of .332/.372/.564. If managerBob Geren gets Piazza more than 500 at bats, he'll be one of the best hittersin the AL.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2006 STATISTICS
* New acquisition
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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