Now that my disappointment from this past season has somewhat subsided and I've gathered my thoughts as to what I think this team needs going into the winter, I'm going to attempt to put down on (virtual) paper my plan for making the A's more competitive in 2010 than they were in 2009.
First off, I'm going to admit that some of my plan involves a bit of "wishful thinking" and "sentimentality". From my perspective, 2010 will be the last time that we as fans will likely see life-long A's Eric Chavez and Mark Ellis wear the Oakland uniform (at least as players). Both guys have been class-acts both on and off the field, have represented the organization extremely well and have played instrumental roles on the field over the past decade in creating some of the best memories us fans have of this team. While I don't think that the future should be mortgaged or tens of million should be spent just to ensure that the last year of Ellis and Chavez in Oakland is a memorable one, I do think that some efforts should be made to give this team some hope of contention in 2010 before a full wave of youth overruns this organization and ushers in a totally new era of A's baseball.
In short...I think a component of the 2010 season will be the symbolic "passing of the torch" from the Big 3/Chavez/Ellis era to the Suzuki/Wallace/Carter/Anderson era, and the construction of the roster should reflect that gradual transition through the season. I would like to give these guys one last chance to win in an Oakland uniform, while still keeping the door open for the guys that should comprise the next great A's team once they prove they are fully major league ready.
Without further ado...
1. 40 Man Roster Maneuvering: To prepare for the off-season moving and shaking, the 40-man roster will need to be set with any Rule V eligible guys and potential free agents/dead weight will need to be jettisoned, while DL guys will need to be reinstated. With all that being said, I think two Rule V guys will need to be added (Chris Carter & Pedro Figueroa). At the same time, some dead weight should be removed from the roster such as Casilla, Reinecke, Carson and Denorfia.
Casilla- because he's just not that good and will arby-eligible for the first time this winter.
Reinecke- because I hope the A's will not consider him worthy of a big league job.
Carson- nice story and all but he doesn't have much of a future with this team or with MLB baseball.
Denorfia- just can't stay healthy enough to contribute.
When all the free agents (Tomko, Duke, Crosby, Nomar, Kennedy) file for free agency, they will also be removed from the roster. By my reckoning, that will leave 4 open spots on the 40-man, assuming that all arby guys (Cust, Devine, Rajai) are tendered contracts and retained.
2. A's trade Jeff Gray to D-Backs for Eric Byrnes + $9 million: I'm going to start off my maneuverings by explaining my most sentimental/most potentially controversial move. Byrnes will likely bring a spunk to this team and a link to the recent glorious past, but he could also be utilized effectively for this 2010 team. Byrnes has always performed well against lefties. Even in his mostly ineffective 2009, he slugged .494 against them and in recent years he's averaged a .470+ slugging against them. The A's were dead-last in slugging in the AL last season, so he brings a needed corner power bat. Byrnes also brings some speed on the basepaths and has been a pretty decent fielder in left over the course of his career (as per UZR). I see him as the righty-portion of a left-field platoon with Cust, whom he'll also replace defensively and on the basepaths late in games. Will the money involved, he'll also only cost the team $2 million in salary.
The D-Backs are on the verge of releasing Byrnes and would surely jump at the chance to unburden themselves of even a fraction of the money still owed to him, while picking up a decent reliever in Gray that could immediately help their pen.
3. A's trade Scott Hairston & Michael Wuertz to Atlanta for Kenshin Kawakami, then Kawakami & Eric Patterson to Milwaukee for JJ Hardy: I brought this idea up in another thread, and it was met with some resistance. I see it as a pretty fair trade for all involved. Atlanta is looking for a right-handed hitting outfield bat, while looking to shed some salary and open up a rotation spot for Tim Hudson, who they'll likey re-sign. With two of their late-inning relievers eligible for free agency, the Braves could also use Wuertz, who is likely at the peak of his value right now.
The Brewers are looking for stating pitching of all stripes, but mainly guys that they can plug-in behind Yovani Gollardo to provide some decent production and eat innings. Kawakami's no ace, but he performed fairly well in his introduction to American ball, is signed reasonably for two more seasons (about $13.5 million) and with some tutelage from new pitching coach Rick Peterson, could easily blossom into a reliable mid-rotation type.
(Some have insinuated that the A's should just keep Kawakami instead of trading him to the Brewers...I disagree. Kawakami may have performed adaquately in the non-DH league, but I think he'd take a hit moving to the AL and the A's have several young starters that have the talent to quickly blossom into much-better starters than Kawakami at a fraction of the cost.)
My argument for pursuing Hardy is as follows: I don't think Cliff Pennington is a starting caliber shortstop for a competitive team, no matter what Billy Beane says to the media. His defense, according to both my own eyes and his small sample size defensive-metrics, indicate that he is not a great defenisve shortstop and his minor league track record indicates that it's very very unlikely that he continues to slug over .400 as he gets more at-bats in the majors. Hardy, even after his ugly 2009 with the bat, remains a very solid defensive shortstop who, in my opinion, is much more likely to hit for power in 2010 (since he's done it for most of his career) than is Cliff Pennington- who has not. Furthermore, groundballing youngsters like Anderson, Cahill, Mazzaro and even Mortensen deserve a top-notch defensive middle infield at the very least, and with Hardy, the A's will have that.
Keep in mind also a relatively minor, but interesting fact: the A's returning hitting coach Jim Skaalen was Milwaukee's hitting coach in both 2007 and 2008, coincidentally, the two best offensive seasons of Hardy's career, where he averaged 25 homers, 76 RBI, 162 hits and hit about .280 overall. It's worth noting that a reunion between Hardy and Skaalen could at least lead to some constructive work towards getting Hardy back to that type of production. Although, it's possible Hardy will just improve all on his own.
4. A's sign Troy Glaus (1-year, $6.75 million) and re-sign Adam Kennedy (1-year, $1.25 million with second year $1.75 million option/$250,000 buyot): Nothing like getting the old-2002 ANAHEIM Angels band back together, right? In all seriousness...after looking at Glaus's stats over the past few years, I started to get really excited. He's exactly the type of addition this offense needs. He takes walks, hits for a decent average and even in his down (post-steroid?) years, is bascially a lock to hit over 20 homers. The health and age factors apply to Glaus, but I think he's a decent risk at under $8 million. He's nothing special with the glove at 3rd, but in recent years, he's been about average it seems, according to UZR.
I know, I know, Kennedy got really lucky with BABIP in 2009, will never OPS close to .758 ever again, is a poor defender, is a bad person, chews tobacco, sets a bad example for children, etcetera, etcetera...however, I still think it's would be a fairly good idea to bring him back. I definitely forsee Kennedy regressing next season, probably back to his career norms, something like .280/.340/.380. Yet, I also see him transitioning into an ultra-poor man's version of Mark DeRosa (without the power). Kennedy showed that he could at least handle 3rd base on a part time basis in 2009...he was definitely over-exposed there by the end of the year, but with a full off-season of practice, he could improve over there and be an adequate insurance policy for Glaus/Chavez and/or an adequate placeholder for Wallace/Cardenas. He could also spell Ellis at 2nd occasionally and has some experience in the outfield corners, where he could also take reps-at during the off-season and Spring Training to add a bit more utility to his game. If he plays adequate defense at the corners in limited playing time, steals some bases and puts-together some decent at-bats, then I think he'll be a solid contributor and valuable asset, especially since he'll likely only play a prominent role on the team in the beginning of the season as the team awaits the blossoming of Wallace and Carter. PLUS...the guy actually LIKES playing in Oakland and wants to be an Athletic! That's just unheard of!
5. Re-sign Justin Duchscherer (1-year, $4.5 million + $3.5 million in performance incentives) and re-sign Brett Tomko to a split major/minor league contract ($500,000 for minorleague portion, $1 million for major league portion): The Duke is such an odd-case, some might even call it an unprecedented case. A guy who's talent is undeniable but is afflicted with such a debilitating malady that really has no medically-based timetable for recovery (if one can ever really "recover" from clinical depression in the first place). I have no idea when Duke may be ready psychologically to return to a big-league mound...all I know is, looking at things from Duke's perspective and the A's perspective, whenever he does feel comfortable returning, coming back to Oakland would seemingly be a good fit for him both professional and personally.
Think about it...he's familiar with the organization and the park and facilities and whatnot...it's a completely no-pressure situation for him, since the team is coming off three straight subpar seasons and will likely not have a ton of money or resources dedicated to making the playoffs at all costs...the A's play in a perfect home park for a guy that puts a lot of balls in play...the A's have the payroll flexibility to offer him more guaranteed money than other teams that might just offer him more incentives...the A's have been willing to use him in any role on the pitching staff where he'd be most successful...and last but not least, the FANS will most definitely re-embrace him, knowing his history and easing him back into dominance!
As for Tomko...he pitched reasonably for the A's last season and is also somewhat of a perfect fit for Oakland Coliseum as a guy traditionally bedeviled by the long ball but that has decent stuff and pounds the strikezone. His arm tweekage of late this season is troubling, so I doubt he'll have suitors lining up around the corner to offer him a major league deal, but I think a split contract that offers him some guaranteed cash and the legitimate opportunity to break camp with the team from Spring Training should be a solid incentive for him to come back to the A's and provide some depth.
6. Start Carter, Wallace and Mazzaro in AAA: Carter and Wallace should get a month or two of additional seasoning in AAA to start 2010, mainly so that they can work on the defensive side of things and also so that they can get in an offensive rythm in a lower-pressure situation than the big leagues. Mazzaro really flamed out at the end of his major league stint in 2009 and succumbed to injury , so he could also use some low-pressure innings to start the year and get back into ryhthm. Should Duke need an extended time to return to the mound or another starter goes down, Mazzaro can step right back up into the MLB rotation.
When all is said and done, here's how the roster shapes up:
1 - Braden (deserves to be Opening Day Starter again due to last season's success & ascension of leadership)
2 - Duke
3 - Anderson
4 - Cahill
5 - Gio
6 - Bailey
7 - Devine
8 - Ziggy
9 - Meloan
10 - Breslow
11 - Blevins
12 - Kilby
13 - Byrnes
14 - Cust (DH/LF)
15 - Sweeney
16 - Rajai
17 - Glaus
18 - Hardy
19 - Ellis
20 - Barton
21 - Suzuki
22 - Powell
23 - Kennedy
24 - Chavez (DH)
25 - Pennington
By my pretty liberal estimations of projected salaries, that roster would cost just a bit over $51 million dollars, even including Giambi's $1.25 million buyout. That's more than $10 million less than opening day payroll in 2009 and would generally re-set payroll obligations to 2003-levels. I think that number is perfectly do-able, even considering last season's pitiful attendance.
As far as projected lineups, I'd go with this, against righties:
CF - Rajai
RF - Sweeney
DH - Chavez (yes, this is part of my sentimental/wishful thinking line of thought)
3B - Glaus
LF - Cust
C - Suzuki
1B - Barton
SS - Hardy
2B - Ellis
CF - Rajai
2B - Ellis
LF - Byrnes
3B - Glaus
C - Suzuki
DH - Cust
SS - Hardy
1B - Barton
RF - Sweeney
This is far from a perfect team, filled with plenty of health question marks and my plan is fairly reliant on a few guys regaining past forms (Cust, Byrnes, Hardy. Chavez)...however, I think this roster at least has the potential to click together well and really boost the offensive side of things for the A's in 2010, while keeping the pitching staff on track to remain the strong-suit of the organization going forward. The middle of the order has some 20+ homer bats from both sides of the plate, and there is some speed at the top of the order, and there is some length to the lineup with a (hopefully) rebounding Hardy and a (hopefully) more developed Barton.
The outfield is a little thin depth-wise, but in this situation, Sweeney can cover center in the event Raj goes down or is ineffective, Byrnes can take a more full-time role if need be and Kennedy can cover left in an emergency. At the same time, Buck and Cunningham will presumably be in Sacramento, ready to fill in whenever necessary, while Carter and Doolittle will likely also be available should ineffectiveness or injury open up an opportunity in the outfield.
In the infield, you've got a capable 2-person depth at every position (Kennedy at 3rd, Pennington at short and 2nd, Powell at 1st) and you can rotate several guys (Chavez, Glaus, Cust) through the DH slot for specific matchups and to give guys days off in the field.
In the bullpen, I like this configuration of 3 lefties, since all 3 lefties can get righties out and go multiple innings. Meloan is a much better garbage-time/middle reliever than Casilla or others of the recent past while still possessing the ability to be a quality set-up guy, while Ziggy, Devine and Bailey can split-up late inning duties with ease. Demel, Mortensen, Marshall and H-Rod will all be in AAA in case of need.
The offense is rebuilt here without making a short-term play like the Holliday deal last season...the big move, for Hardy, is one where two useful but "getting expensive older guys" are exchanged for someone that fills a position of need while still being young enough and talented enough to be a major piece of a playoff team in 2010 or 2011.
And I think that this type of roster gives the A's a chance to contend from the get-go next season and run with what they've got right now, rather than rushing a couple of prospects (Wallace, Carter) up to the show when they could still refine their overall games with some time in the minors. At the same time, once these guys are ready, there shouldn't be any huge impediments on the major league roster for them to overcome...if Wallace is ready in May or June, then he can take over 3rd and Glaus (if healthy) can move to DH or 1st, ditto for Chavez...and if Carter is ready, he can supplant Barton or the Cust/Byrnes platoon in left or even Sweeney if he doesn't start hitting for power. On the pitching side, Josh Outman should be ready at some point in the 2nd half of the season, at which point he and/or Mazzaro could easily bolster the big league starting rotation.
In short, what I'm saying is: bring in a few guys to give this team some depth and some chance to compete from the get-go next season without sacrificing any young players and for an overall minimal cost. Bring-in fan-favorite Byrnes to give the team a little personality and some lefty-mashing. Tighten up the middle infield defense with Hardy, add some depth to the starting rotation and roll with it. If it works and people stay healthy, great, you've got a good little team. If it doesn't, wait a little bit for Wallace and Carter and then play it from there...which was the main plan anyway...
I don't think this an infallible plan...but I think it's a much more palatable version of the strategy Beane tried to employ last season, with the added benefit of a full season of maturation for the young players that were so green last year...I think it could work...but then again, I think it all could blow up and fall apart...but, while the cost is just a couple fungible assets and a few million dollars, I think the team should try it out...