One of the great things about being a A's fan is that almost every year we pick up some completely under-the-radar guy who goes on to play pretty darn well. Sure, there are plenty who don't work out (Eric Karros and Keiichi Yabu), but enough of them play well that it is usually one of my favorite storylines of the season.
Sometimes these players are such a good fit that they end up sticking around for quite a while (like Scott Hatteberg and Marco Scutaro). Others, for a variety of reasons (like money, retirement, or the fact the weren't really that good but had a string of luck in the green and gold) go on their way after a year or two. Those guys, I call Transition A's.
In honor of Big Frank's return, I present my Top 10 rental A's from 2000-2007. It is not a list based on stats or anything attempting an objective analysis of which Transition A's performed the best over that span. It's just my favorites, and though I thought about who I might want to put in each spot, I could probably change my mind. Feel free to make suggestions in the comments.
10. John Mabry (2002): Mabry was acquired from the Phillies for Jeremy Giambi during the great Purge of 2002. I'm pretty sure Beane would have traded Jeremy for a pack of bubble gum (and at the time many accused him of doing exactly that), but instead he snagged a man who, to my mind, was the best pinch hitter we'd had in a long time. Despite only a 322 OBP, he managed to slug 523 (leading the team in SLG, I just looked it up!) and get stuck in my mind as a man who always made big hits in the great summer of '02.
8(t). Shannon Stewart (2007): For the second year in a row, Billy picks up an outfielder who can hit close to .300
8(t). Jay Payton (2006): Ditto Shannon Stewart. Except for that "second year in a row" bit, this was the first one. If forced to, I'd put Jay over Shannon because of his defense. I LOVED having 3 CF quality outfielders that year.
7. Ray Durham (2002): We picked Ray up at the trading deadline looking for a strong leadoff hitter. I don't know that Ray fulfilled that wish, but he did hit an inside-the-park homerun in the playoffs. I love inside the park homeruns. And Rental A's with standout playoff performances are big on this list.
6. Billy Koch (2002): Well his playoff performance certainly wasn't standout, but I can't overlook the fact that his overall 2002 performance really was remarkable. 11-4, 44 SV, 3.27 ERA, and nearly a strikeout an inning. And having a rubber arm, going out day after day with the A's continually in close games. I don't really like him, but I have to admit: somehow he got the job done and then some.
5. Steve Sparks (2003): Steve Sparks?? Who the heck is Steve Sparks ? Maybe the fact that he is #5 on this list means that the A's really haven't had many jems in the rental player department. Sparks is a journeyman knuckelballer who stepped up in one of the most tension filled moments for me as A's fan. 2003 playoffs, game 4 , the A's coming off a walk-off loss the night before, and we all feel the dread of another early exit from the post-season. Early in the game we are filled with despair as Tim Hudson leaves after the first inning with a mysterious injury. While I consider ritual suicide, enter Steve Sparks. His line was not remarkable (2 ER on 2 H and 3 BB in 4 IP), but then Sparks was not a remarkable pitcher. He was 0-6 that year with an ERA north of 5.00. In 12 months he would be out of baseball. He had no business being thrust into this moment. But in a game where panic ran wild, the A's managed to score 4 runs and Sparks, outmatched and outgunned against an imposing Red Sox lineup, for that day turned himself into an effective pitcher. It was vintage David vs. Goliath, and enough to earn him my #5 spot on this list.
4. Ted Lilly (2002 & 2003): Lilly, a mediocre back end starter for most of time in Oakland, turned on the gas at the end of 2003, going 7-3 with a 3.45 ERA after the break. But, like Sparks, it is his playoff performance that earns him his spot here. With the A's in their familiar 2-0 series lead, Lilly went into game 3 in Boston determined to slam the door. In a game mostly remembered for its baserunning blunders, I can't overlook Lilly's standout performance. With all of Fenway taunting him, he shut down a powerful Sox lineup that had its season on the line. 7.0 IP, 1 R (unearned), 2 H, 2 BB, 5 K. The A's lost in extras, but damn if Lilly didn't give us every chance to get over that hump.
3. Keith Foulke (2003): Here we are again in the 2003 playoffs, though Foulke did not win any kudos from me for his performance there. Much like Koch, I have to overlook the playoffs, and see the remarkable regular season effort for what it was. And unlike Koch, in Foulke's case it is probably the greatest season performance by an Oakland closer not named Eckersley or Fingers. 9-1, 2.08 ERA, 43 SV, 86.2 IP, 88 K, and a 0.89 WHIP.
2. Cory Lidle (2001 & 2002): The late Cory Lidle was an average back-of-the-rotation starter for the A's for most of 2001 and 2002. But in August 2002, Lidle turned in the greatest one month pitching performance I have ever seen. 5-0, 45 IP, 1 ER for an ERA of 0.20 and a WHIP of 0.68. All of a sudden, no one could score off this guy. His performance, likely more than any other one player at the time, propelled the A's to the 20 game win streak that is still one of my favorite fan memories.
1. Frank Thomas (2006): After a less than ideal departure from Chicago (White Sox GM Kenny Williams declared: "He's the Oakland A's problem now"), Thomas came to Oakland and after a slow April, some wondered if his career was over. They were, to put it mildly, wrong. Frank picked up his trusty on-deck circle rebar on a road trip to Chicago in May and never looked back. He was the big bat we'd been searching for all these years. In September, he hit 10 HR, had 31 RBI, slugged 602, practically willed the team into the playoffs and caused Nico to repeatedly say "I really like Frank Thomas-- a lot." At first I really didn't believe it was true that we finally had a bat that would consistently win games for us. I kept expecting him to cool off. But by the middle of that September I felt like a Bulls fan from the early 90s must have felt. It doesn't matter if the team is down a few points and the game is getting late. Chill man, Frank's got it.
Welcome back, big guy.