It's the start of another season, so it's time to check in with resident A's expert and beat writer extraordinaire Susan Slusser. She answers all the pressing questions on our A's and what to expect from this season. Thanks to Susan for taking the time out to do this. Enjoy!
Blez: I'll start off with the simple question. Will the A's be able to hang with the Angels and Mariners in the division race this "rebuilding" year?
Susan Slusser: It's going to be really tough. Although the injuries the Angels (Escobar, Lackey, Shields) and Mariners (Putz) have had might open the door a tiny bit, the A's are young enough that they'll probably be all over the map this year. We've kind of seen that already; they played so well in Japan and then came back and the offense went kaput in Oakland. I do think the A's will be much better than expected. People chuckled when Lew Wolff said he expected them to be over .500, but that might be a possibility if they're relatively healthy and some of the kids come on faster than expected. There's no lack of enthusiasm or self-belief, that's for sure.
Blez: Do you think the team thinks it can compete with those teams this season?
Slusser: Their confidence is high after such a strong spring, and there's a sense that everyone in the clubhouse knows the kind of talent that is there - some of it a little raw, sure, but talent nonetheless. Plus, the expectations for them are low, and A's teams always tend to like that. They like the idea of surprising people, proving experts wrong. They look at what some other young clubs - Arizona and Colorado last year, for instance - have done and they feel as if they could do the same.
Blez: Out of the offense, starting pitching and bullpen, what do you expect to be the team's strongest aspect and what do you think will be its weak link?
Slusser: At the start of last year and again this spring, I thought the bullpen would be a real strength, with Huston Street closing and experienced set-up men, but I'm starting to think the rotation is the best unit - until Blanton and/or Harden are traded. Harden is ovbiously a star when he's healthy, and Blanton is so reliable and durable, all the usual stuff you hear. Duchscherer has the stuff to turn over lineups a few times, and he really believes starting will be better for him physically than relieving. Gaudin's dropoff in the second half last year apparently was related to his injuries, which he never mentioned nor used as an excuse, and he's looked sharp as he's come back this spring. And Dana Eveland has been sensational this spring. Plus, if and when Blanton and Harden are dealt, Greg Smith looks ready to pitch in the big leagues regularly, and Gio Gonzalez is very close.
Blez: Do you expect Rich Harden and Joe Blanton to both be traded this season?
Slusser: Yes. The only caveat is if the A's do make a super strong showing in the first six weeks or so - if they get on a roll and convince the powers that be that they could make a run - there's a chance the team will remain intact. Given their schedule to start the year, that's going to be hard, and Harden has looked so phenomenal out of the gate, he could be gone sooner rather than later. The Yankees have already made some noises about him, and the Mets are likely to. The first club that makes a realistic offer (i.e., doesn't want a big discount because of Harden's injury history), he's probably gone. If he's traded, Blanton's likely to go by the trading deadline, which is about when Gio Gonzalez might be expected to come up.
Blez: How do you think Harden's health will hold up?
Slusser: He's a smaller guy who throws hard, which might always make him more prone to injuries than someone with a larger frame, but he's healthy enough right now that he's starting to bristle when people ask him how he feels (something that happens constantly). The A's are going to be careful with him, which should help, but it's just impossible to say - as it is with any pitcher, really. I've always felt the idea of Harden being injury-prone is slightly overblown, especially when he's twice been hurt reaching for comebackers and he's twice had injuries either recur or become aggravated when being sent back out too soon or put in a role that wasn't optimal for his health, like the bullpen. Those things are unlikely to happen now.
Blez: Since you've seen many of the prospects in person down in spring training that Billy Beane traded for, which of the prospects do you think has superstar written all over him?
Slusser: Carlos Gonzalez looked like the real deal during spring training; a five-tool, can't-miss kind of player. He'll be up soon, potentially very soon, and he could make an immediate impact. He wowed everyone to the point that there were some veterans who grumbled when he was sent out after the game against the Giants at the Coliseum.
Blez: Who are some of the other ones that may be a little under-the-radar at this point who could have an impact on the big club sooner than we might think?
Slusser: We saw Fautino De Los Santos once during the spring, and a scout told me he has a great arm and just needs a ltitle polishing. Lefty Brett Anderson is someone the scouts rave about, too, and there's a strong feeling around the A's that Anderson might be the Mark Ellis of the deal - the secondary kind of figure in a major deal who winds up being a major factor down the road. That probably doesn't answer your question, because both those guys are probably a ways away. The Gonzalezes are the two who are closest, and Aaron Cunningham might have had a shot at some point (he also impressed this spring) but he broke his wrist.
Blez: How soon until the A's bring up Carlos Gonzalez?
Slusser: I wouldn't be entirely surprised if it was within the month. I don't think they care about the arbitration clock, but they do care about how long he's under contract. Waiting a couple of weeks will get them almost an extra full year of service time. If not, by midseason at the latest, unless Gonzalez takes some kind of huge step backward at Sacramento. I suppose if Denorfia or Sweeney were to really get hot, that also might change the landscape, but Gonzalez appeared to be the best option in center most of the spring.
Blez: What are you hearing about Eric Chavez's health? Will we see him before June?
Slusser: Backs are kind of a mystery. I know Kotsay said it took him nearly a year to feel right after the same procedure, and while Chavez can swing a bat no problem, the discomfort has come when fielding grounders. The A's don't need him to come back to DH, they need him to play third, and they aren't going to rush him, or let him rush himself. He clearly wants to be back as soon as possible, but he needs to be entirely pain free, plus he needs conditioning and rehab games - realistically, May at the earliest, but there's no way to say. It's possible he won't be completely himself much of the season, given the nature of the surgery. I'm sure he's immensely frustrated, because he did everything he needed to, getting three surgeries and doing all the rehab exactly as instructed. The main hope is that, whenever he's back, even if it's much later in the season, he is finally 100 percent sound and able to perform to his capabilities. So taking it slowly seems like it would be well worth it.
Blez: Which of the A's big three youngsters (Buck, Barton and Suzuki) do you think will have the best offensive season?
Slusser: I think all three have the ability to hit well at this level. Buck might have a slight edge, based on a bit more experience, but Barton might be the more consistent because of his strike-zone judgement. Suzuki has the added degree of difficulty of having to catch, which will make it tough for him to match the numbers the other two put up. So I'll say Barton, and that's no disrespect to the other two - Barton looks like he could be pretty special offensively.
Blez: Bobby Crosby had a pretty decent spring and appears to have made some adjustments to his approach at the plate. Do you think we'll finally see something approaching his potential this year?
Slusser: I'm not sure what his potential is, exactly, because his track record is spotty to this point. He had that great second half his second season, and I think that's what people look at when they talk about his potential, but he's had some disappointing seasons apart from that, as he would be the first to say. The interesting thing about Crosby is that he knows exactly what he's doing wrong when he's struggling, and he works enormously hard to get back on track. He feels comfortable with the changes his made this winter, and he's continuing to sharpen things up, so I think at the very least, he will have a much, much better year than what we've seen the past two seasons.
Blez: Is the A's clubhouse still the same kind of atmosphere it was in years past? There was a ton of turnover this year and the team has changed quite a bit over the past couple of years and I'm wondering if it's still that happy-go-lucky place it got a reputation for.
Slusser: The team is so young, it's really upbeat - and then the addition of Mike Sweeney was sure to make for a great vibe, too. He's cheery, friendly, optimisitic and he's proactive about helping all the younger guys. (He's also very funny, which I didn't realize. That helps, too.) Things don't really change much with the A's clubhouse atmosphere, the teams generally seem to be good groups from year to year, for the most part. Not a lot of big egos or prima donnas. Also, great from a media standpoint: Always lots of good talkers.
Blez: I know you have written a book about the Oakland Athletics that a lot of ANers have been looking forward to for a while. Can you tell us about the book and when we might get a chance to see it?
Slusser: The book, Tales from the A's Dugout, was finished last summer, because I had an October deadline, but the publication date has been pushed back until spring of 2009 - a fact that I learned through a third party several months ago and that was only confirmed by my publisher, Sports Publishing LLC, this past week. I'm irked about the lack of communication, especially considering that the publication date hadn't been changed on many retail sites.
I had figured it wasn't going to come out any time soon, though - I haven't sent them the final third of the book because they hadn't paid me for the second third, which I had provided them early last year. It's been a frustrating experience, especially because the publisher contracted me to do the book in the first place. And I'm very diesappointed about the delay, because a book on the A's history would be such a nice fit this season, with the team celebrating its 40 years in Oakland. I think the publisher dropped the ball in failing to take advantage of that.
Given the firm's financial difficulties (nonpayment, publishing delays), my biggest concern is that the book won't be marketed or distributed well when it does come out next year. One of the editors has assured me otherwise, but considering the lack of communication and the other issues so far, I'm not convinced. So I am strongly considering pulling it back and taking it elsewhere. It was an enormous amount of work: It covers the entire history of the franchise and when it comes to living figures, I talked to almost all of them first-hand, even including three members of the Philadelphia Athletics. I loved doing it, and I was very happy with the final product, so I'd like it to be treated properly.
I'm so sorry to those of you who have already ordered the book and expected to get it in the next week or so. My fondest hope is that a publisher might want to pick it up pronto and try to get it out later in the summer, to coincide with the A's major celebrations of the 40 year anniversary in September.
Blez: Thank you so much for your time. Keep up the great work and we hope to see you around AN a bunch this season.