The outfield: A terrible weakness in '03, a strength in '04, an area of transition and intense discussion on AN so far this post-season. Let's take a close look at the issues and personnel for 2005.
1. Mark Kotsay. In my mind, with all the discussion about Byrnes and Dye, the #1 question of the A's offseason is going unnoticed: Mark Kotsay has an opt-out clause in his contract. Here's something from Susan Slusser in the Chronicle, 11/27/03: "The A's will pay Kotsay $5.5 million in 2004, and $7 million each of the following two years. He can opt out after any season, but said that he will not do so." (I've seen Kotsay's contract listed as $6.5M each year for 3 years, but let's assume Slusser's numbers are correct and the other figures are just someone taking a 3-year average.) From Josh Suchon on the same date: "The trade allows Kotsay to become a free agent after either of the next two years, but Kotsay doesn't expect to exercise that clause. 'I don't plan on using the contract anymore,' Kotsay said. 'I'm excited to be in Oakland and excited for the next few years.'"
Well now. I hope that's true, but it's not as if he waived his contractual rights. At that time, it seemed like a moot point, since he was coming off an injury-marred, underperforming year, and his contract looked like a bad one. That's one reason Billy was able to unload T-Long: The deal was, in part, an exchange of "bad contracts." But now the money remaining on Kotsay's contract is down from $19.5M to $14M, and Kotsay is coming off a career year. Suddenly the contract is almost a bargain. Kotsay is from southern California, he's played for the Padres, the Pads are a newly-rich team with a lucrative new ballpark with a roomy center field, and they're desperate for a center fielder. It's not hard to see them (or the Dodgers) being willing if not eager to pony up more years and dollars than Kotsay currently has on his contract, and Kotsay's agent will know this. He could change his mind about opting out, or use his leverage to get Billy to add years and/or dollars to his current contract, sucking needed dollars out of Billy's budget. Kotsay's current contract is a perfect fit for the A's in another way: It expires after 2006, which is just about the time that Javier Herrera and/or Richie Robnett, a couple prospects currently in the low minors who have potential all-star ceilings and who can both supposedly handle center field, may be ready to start providing quality performance on the cheap.
2. Eric Byrnes. Let's get one thing clear right off the bat: There is absolutely, positively no way in hell the A's will fail to offer Eric Byrnes arbitration. This is not the same thing as to say that he'll be in the Oakland outfield next year. It's merely to say that he is a valuable commodity, a solid performer at a bargain price, and the A's will realize that value either by playing him themselves or by trading him for something of real value. Not to offer him arbitration would be to lose this valuable commodity for nothing, which would be stupid. The A's may be cheap, but they aren't stupid.
Let's look at a few numbers from 2004:
Byrnes: .814 OPS
League average (corner outfielders): .792
Byrnes was better than Dye last year (also, of course, in 2003), while Dye provided just about exactly league average offense at a gargantuan price. Dye is a better outfielder, but Byrnes is younger (28 vs. 30), faster, a better baserunner, much more durable, a high-energy guy and a fan favorite, and of course vastly cheaper. And Byrnes will still be a bargain. He's a first-year arbitration-eligible coming off a $328,000 salary and a solid (not great, but good) year, he isn't going to break the bank. I'd say Taj Adib's estimate in another thread of $1.2 - 1.8 million for Byrnes next year sounds about right.
And remember another important fact about Byrnes: He's not only our starting left fielder, he's our backup center fielder. As such, he keeps the A's from having to blow a roster spot on a light-hitting defensive specialist in that role (Chris Singleton, anybody?). He's also a perfect complement to Kotsay: If you want to rest Kotsay a dozen times a year, you can choose to do it when there's a lefty starting (you always want Byrnes in the lineup when a lefty is out there anyway), preferably when one of our groundball pitchers is starting. I'm assuming here, until shown otherwise, that the A's would not trust center field to Swisher except in an emergency, not as their "regular" centerfield backup. I know they played him there in the minors, but that's likely a case of trying to challenge a prospect to test his maximum capabilities; I've never seen a single comment from anyone outside the organization who feels Swisher can handle center on a regular basis, and the A's have been pretty conservative about their defense at the big league level for several years now. Blez, you watched him a lot, do you have a feel for the team's thinking here?
As useful as Byrnes is on the A's roster, Billy could decide to utilize his value as a trading chip instead. I disagree with Tal Adib's expectation that Byrnes could be a .300/30HR guy: That's not impossible, but it's quite unlikely. Odds are pretty good, given his age, that his 2004 season is about his peak, and I'd be happy if he just repeated that performance instead of backsliding a bit. But he has a lot of qualities--good 2004, reasonably young, fast, always hustling, "hair's on fire" plays, white, fan favorite--that make him the sort of player other teams might overpay for. I'd miss him, but I trust Billy Beane to make the right evaluation here. Byrnes is useful, and entertaining, but not indispensable. (Unless we lose Kotsay; Billy can't do anything with Byrnes until he's certain Kotsay is staying.)
- Jermaine Dye. I like Jermaine, but I don't want to see him back, and despite the polite noises made in today's newspapers that seem to indicate a willingness to explore bringing him back at a lesser price I'd be absolutely shocked if Billy brought him back at any price. I talked a lot about Jermaine in my Eric Byrnes comments above, but the bottom line is that he's provided two league-average years and one horrible year in the past three, he's a major injury risk and is on the downslope of his career, and with all that he will still command a stiff salary. It's nothing personal, it's just a consequence of Dye's early-career success, his subsequent injuries, his high current salary, and his free agent status that whoever signs him has no chance whatever of getting a bargain, some chance of getting what they pay for, but a very high risk of getting badly burned. As an aging and expensive but about league-average player, Dye is exactly the sort of player a smart organization should not consider offering a multi-year contract to, but should be able to find reasonable alternatives.
- Nick Swisher. And here is that alternative. I have a strong feeling that the A's will just commit to the rookie from the get-go, as they did with Crosby in 2003. This will not result in nearly the steep offensive dropoff we experienced from Tejada to Crosby, because the post-2001 Dye is not nearly at Tejada's level. In fact, I rather expect that Swisher, as a rookie, will match or exceed Dye's 2004 production. I expect a mediocre batting average, a ton of strikeouts (but Dye is a champion striker-outer himself), lots of walks (enough that his OBP should be an improvement, maybe a big improvement, on Dye's), and 20 home runs (that's not that many for a full-time player, and Swish hit 29 HRs in just 125 games at Sacramento). Defense: Sometimes flashy good, sometimes the erratic path to a fly ball, quite a few more errors than you'd like to see. (Blez, as our "eyes-on" Swisher expert, does that sound right?) Adequate, and improving.
- Reserve outfielders. I don't really understand Billy's handling of the scrubs last year--as bad as Kielty (.214/.321/.370) and McMillon (.185/.255/.326) were last year, he never called up guys like Watson or Edwards from AAA. What are those guys there for, if not as potential major-league reserves (after all, they aren't really prospects)? Anyway, whatever he does next year, a force stronger than Billy Beane will improve the 4th and 5th outfielders next year, whoever they turn out to be: A little thing called "regression to the mean." That is, they sucked so bad the A's would be hard put not to improve those spots even if they tried not to.
And oh yeah, Go Cal! KILL the Bruins!!!