Offseason Interview:  Mychael Urban

Mychael Urban is the beat writer for oaklandathletics.com.  He's always been a good community member and contributor here at Athletics Nation as well, so I've been surprised in the past at how some community members have openly lobbed personal attacks at him.  Listen, you can always go after someone's opinions and dissect them accordingly (which I've done in the past with Urban after the Bradley column ran), but I will always demand that community members show other community members respect.

All that being said, Urban and I recently had a conversation about all things A's.  This is our conversation.  Enjoy.

Blez:  Tell me, what do you think the A's biggest offseason need is?  Many seem to think it's offense, but I actually think the team could use an extra starter more than anything given Harden's ongoing health issues.

Mychael Urban:  The biggest offseason need? How about some sort of guarantee that Eric Chavez, Bobby Crosby, Kiko Calero, Justin Duchscherer, Mark Kotsay, Travis Buck, Huston Street and Rich Harden will stay off the DL for a full season? Get that and you're in serious business.

Obviously, such a guarantee isn't forthcoming, but that's what makes your question so difficult to answer. I'm convinced that a healthy 2007 A's team, with Mike Piazza OR Jack Cust at DH, would have had more than enough offense and pitching to win the AL West. And I think a 2008 lineup consisting entirely of guys already on board would be tough to beat if it were backed by a rotation of Harden, Dan Haren, Joe Banton, Chad Gaudin and Justin Duchscherer, and a bullpen anchored by Street, Alan Embree, Calero, Santiago Casilla and Jerry Blevins.

That said, I do think the A's need a legitimate right-handed power threat in the middle of their order, and I don't think they'll be able to find one via free agency. That's why I've been saying for a long time that I expect Billy Beane to pull the trigger on a big trade or two. There's also an obvious need for another viable option at shortstop and third base, if for no other reason than to light a fire under Chavez and Crosby, who haven't been truly challenged from within the organization during their careers. And with Duschcherer likely to be moved into the rotation, there's a need for another reliable reliever -- preferably one who throws hard.

As far as the rotation is concerned, I like what the A's have -- even if Harden doesn't hold up -- as long as Duke can make the transition back to starting, and I think he can. Haren and Blanton are a very good 1-2 punch, and I thought Gaudin simply wore down as the innings piled up; he spent last winter working out with a relief role in mind, and now that he'll be able to tailor his offseason workouts to a starter's workload, I expect him to be much better prepared for the grind of the second half next year. Duke would be a terrific No. 4 or No. 5, and if he has to be the No. 4 (because Harden is out), I have a feeling Dan Meyer is going to finally emerge as the guy the A's were hoping to get in the Tim Hudson deal and claim the No. 5 spot.  

Blez:  You are in contact with people inside the organization all the time. What's the true feeling about Rich Harden from A's insiders?  Will he ever, EVER be a factor in green and gold?

Urban:  Another tough one to answer. As a beat reporter, the person you speak to most often is the manager, and when Art Howe and Ken Macha were in Oakland, they'd usually give a straight answer about what the organization really thought about certain guys. Bob Geren is a cool guy and I like him a lot personally, but he's still very new to the skipper's role, and he rarely says anything about a player that doesn't seem like it's been sent through some sort of company filter. I'm not sure he trusts the people who cover the team just yet, and that's understandable. Frustrating, but understandable. You just can't get much out of Geren other than positive platitudes.

I speak fairly frequently with Billy Beane, who I know trusts me and is usually as honest with me as he can be, and he remains convinced that Harden will be a factor -- a dominant factor -- at some point. The question is, for whom? And here's where I can give you a little something your readers probably don't know:

When Jonathan Papelbon was still in the Red Sox rotation early this season, they were talking to the A's about trading for Harden and making him their closer. And not only did Rich know about it, but he also was starting to warm up to the idea before Boston put Papelbon back in the 'pen. And when the A's were working Rich back into the mix by using him out of the bullpen later in the year, it was something of an experiment to see if he might be better off in that role -- and Rich knew that, too. When he got hurt again, though, he soured on the idea of being a reliever, so now he's adamant about starting again. And the A's are going to give him at least one more chance to do it this year.

Blez:  Many on AN have pretty much given up on Bobby Crosby ever being anything more than a guy who hits .230 or so and has an OBP under .300.  Is it premature to draw that conclusion?

Urban:  I think it is, but I'm a well-known "Crosby apologist." In fact, now that Jason Kendall is gone, Crosby is the guy I'll most get ripped for defending. I see him as a position-player equivalent to Harden, to an extent. Harden has the more mind-blowing talent, as evidenced by the brilliance we've seen from him when healthy, but I still think Crosby can be a very good player if he can stay on the field. He's never going to be a .300 hitter with that long, uppercut swing, but if he can stay off the DL for a couple of years and get the kind of playing time he needs to mature as a hitter and develop a little more patience, I could see him giving Oakland .275/25/85 out of the lower-middle of the order for many years. And he's an above-average defensive player when he's right, too.

But I totally understand the frustration of his detractors, and this is probably a make-or-break year for Crosby. He'll be 28 by the time spring training rolls around, his contract is up after 2009, and there's a reason the A's were talking to the Dodgers about a shortstop prospect when L.A. called about Blanton this summer.    

Blez:  Do you think the A's should go with Jack Cust as their DH or do you think the A's should pursue Barry Bonds?

Bonds:  I can't say that I'm fully sold on Cust for the simple reason that he's only had one good year. He was a hell of a story, and maybe he is that classic late bloomer, but I'm still a little skeptical. If the A's were able to get that big right-handed stick I mentioned earlier (he's a corner outfielder in my little GM fantasy), I could see Barton as their DH and Swisher moved, once and for all and forever, to first base.

Bonds? Personally, I'd like to see what that circus feels like from the front row. And if you made me pick Cust or Bonds, I'd pick Bonds every time. But I just don't see it happening. There's the Mitchell investigation findings to consider, there's the exorbitant salary Bonds is probably going to want, and there's the looming perjury charges; the feds don't keep extending grand juries for show, and they almost ALWAYS get their man. It'd be great theater to see Bonds with the A's, but the potential for messiness is too great.

Blez:  Who do you think has the most upside, Daric Barton or Travis Buck?

Urban:  Great question. I've seen quite a bit more of Buck, but I've seen enough of Barton now to understand why everyone's been so high on him for so long, and I'd probably say they're about even in my mind as far as upside goes. Buck's recent injury history is a concern (whose isn't on this team?), but I think they're both going to be mainstays in Oakland for a long time. I think Barton will eventually hit for more power, but Buck is a more complete player at this point. If I had to give someone's upside an edge, I'd give it to Barton, but only because he's 22 and Buck is about to turn 24 (Nov. 16).

Blez:  You took a lot of crap on AN two years ago for the column about Milton Bradley being a negative presence in the A's clubhouse.  I imagine you must've wanted to get tee shirts printed up this past season when you were pretty much proven right that said, "Urban was right."  Did you feel vindicated?

Urban:  No, and I really mean that. It was frustrating to fall out of AN's good graces so quickly after a nice little run of favored-nation status, if only because I thought I'd built up enough respect as a reporter for fans to give me the benefit of the doubt on something like that, but I knew I'd take a little heat for what I wrote. I went after "their guy", they didn't like it, and in protecting "their guy," they went after me. I get it. The various theories I'd see on the site about my sources for the column were kind of funny, though. No, people, I didn't ghost-write it for Mark Kotsay.

What I would like people to know, and I'm sure the people who really follow my coverage already do, is that I don't make a habit of going after guys. In fact, that's the only time I can remember doing it, and I did it because it was indeed a major issue in the clubhouse at the time. Several players -- I'm talking about eight or nine guys -- provided information for the column, and here's some previously unreported proof that it was indeed a big problem within the team: A day or two after the column appeared, a high-level meeting was called. Bradley and his agent, on speakerphone, were in attendance. The message: Clean it up, Milton.

And he did. Until this year.

Trust me, if I really wanted to bury Bradley out of spite or something, I could have done it a bunch of times. I decided against reporting several incidents that would have made people realize that my column wasn't just a poison dart, and I made those decisions after asking myself the same question I ask when confronted with any difficult call, be it in my work or personal life: Who benefits?

I decided to write the column because I thought it could affect change in a positive way, and it did. I got slammed, but it benefited the team in the long run. Milton mellowed out and went on a tear.

I decided NOT to write about the other incidents because the only benefit would have been selfish, i.e. personal vindication.

Nothing about what happened with Milton this year made me feel good in any way. It actually saddened me a little. I had a chat with Milton about the column this spring, and I took more time to try to get to know and understand him a little better as the season progressed. I didn't really succeed, but there no disputing that he's a sensitive, smart, talented, complex, and tortured man. Very strong and frail at the same time. Fascinating, really. And while it didn't surprise me to see everything unravel the way it did, I took zero pleasure in it.

Blez: Bradley came out and essentially charged that the A's front office was racist.  And yet we just recently read that Shannon Stewart is interested in coming back and that he loved his time in Oakland.  Was this just the ramblings of a man hurt by the deal?

Urban:  Definitely the result of injured pride. I wrote a column about this deal, too. It was written in response to another columnist's suggestion that Beane is racist, before Bradley popped off, but it still applies.

And here's some information I left out: The A's director of player personnel, Billy Owens, is black. So is the team's big-league strength coach, Clarence Cockrell. So is the manager at Double-A Midland, Todd Steverson. Bradley's claim was irresponsible and unfair. Bad for ball.

Blez:  Billy Beane said that he didn't really know what his team was all about in 2008 yet. How do you view this team going into 2008?  Contender for the AL West or should Beane just throw things out and start rebuilding?

Urban:  I kind of answered this earlier. I think they can contend with the team they have coming back, with health being the caveat. But Billy isn't going to sit back and hope the team gets healthy. He's going to move, and he's going to move big. I'm almost sure of it, and I'm looking forward to covering it.

Blez:  Do you think that the team is finally doing the right thing to correct the injury issues that have ballooned the last three seasons and if you were in Beane's position, what would you do?

Urban:  I'm assuming you're talking about the reshuffled medical staff and the vow to monitor the players' winter workouts more closely. Is that the "right thing"? I have no idea. But it's a different thing, and that was an imperative step. Unfortunately, in this era of baseball the cause and frequency of injuries are very tricky to pin down, and every athlete has a different physiological and psychological makeup, with a different tolerance level for pain. Has it been bad luck, bad training, bad medicine or a combination of all of that? Nobody knows. What's important is that the A's are trying something new, and they having more dialogues about what they're doing. If I were Beane, I'd do what he's doing, and looking into doing more of it.

Blez: Do you think Eric Chavez will rebound now that he's had a couple of nagging injuries fixed?  Will we see the 30 homer, 100 RBI guy of seasons past?

Urban:  Well, we don't really know yet if everything's been fixed, and we won't until this spring. There was a lot of hope in his voice when he explained that one injury probably led to another, and so on and so on, and he won't know if those theories are correct until he gives his body some serious baseball pounding.

But yeah, if he's healthy, 30 and 100. And a Gold Glove. That's who he is.

Blez:  Does Chris Denorfia steal a lot of ABs from Mark Kotsay next season?

Urban:  I've never seen Denorfia play, but based on what I've heard, you might be onto something. Here we go with the health thing again, though. Denorfia didn't play at all last year, and Kotsay didn't play very much, so who knows? But if they're both healthy and productive, I think Kotsay, who is entering the final year of his contract, would be a prime candidate for a trade before the deadline

Blez:  If you were to build a lineup right now with the current group of players, what would it be?

Urban:

  1. Buck, LF
  1. Barton, 1B
  1. Swisher, RF
  1. Chavez, 3B
  1. Cust, DH
  1. Mark Ellis, 2B
  1. Kotsay, CF
  1. Crosby, SS
  1. Kurt Suzuki, C

Note: I'd like to see Suzuki and Rob Bowen compete for the catching job this spring. If Bowen won, I'd plug him into the No. 6 spot and move everyone else down.

Blez:  Finally, I know the A's used to be big-time Halo fans.  Who is the best Halo 3 player? Street, right?

Urban:  Street will say Street, Harden will say Harden, Haren will say Haren. Beyond that, I have no clue. I'm old-school. I'm still trying to get past the damn conveyor-belt-in-hell level of Donkey Kong.

Blez:  Thanks so much for your time, Mychael.

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