AN Visits with MLB.com's Mychael Urban Part II

Last week Mychael Urban caused a bit of uproar around here with the first part of his interview with AN.  This is the second part of my interview with the Oakland Athletics reporter for MLB.com.  But before we get to that, Mychael wanted to address the situation from last week:

Before I tackle the rest of your questions, Blez, I want to thank the many people who read and weighed in on the first half of this interview. Obviously I'm something of a polarizing figure with your members, but I really do appreciate the passion and sense of humor with which even those who bash me express themselves. I read the site regularly and often find really thoughtful threads that shine the dim bulb in my head onto a story idea.

And message received: No more jokes. I thought it was pretty damn funny, but I understand why some people thought it was overkill. I would, however, like it known that I really wasn't as hacked off as it seemed to some. I was just rolling with a pretty silly situation. And as for the criticism of my work that appears on this site, I'm well aware that my profession makes me fair game for criticism, and I know what a subjective business I'm in. Some people think I'm good, some people think I'm a hack. That's fine. I just do my best. I know I make mistakes -- as I did in not realizing the market would collapse and bring Jason Giambi into the A's financial wheelhouse -- and when I do, nobody can make me feel worse than I already do.

So bring it. It's just baseball, right?

Thus endeth thy rant ... Mychael Urban

 

Blez: Was there anything behind moving Carlos Gonzalez? If someone is that talented and that much of a sure thing, why has he already been with three organizations?

Mychael Urban: The A's couldn't have gotten Holliday without giving up Gonzalez, whose talent is undeniable. If he reaches that potential, he's going to be a ridiculously good player. But aside from the fact that he was a must-get for Colorado in the deal, there might have been two reasons the A's were willing to part with him.

One is a straight company-line thing: The team really does have a lot of good young outfielders, so it was truly dealing from an organizational strength. Sweeney is clearly a keeper; my guess is that he'll be able to add home run power to an already impressive skill set with less of an inside-out swing. And at the risk of slapping the poor guy with my Crosby Curse, I think Buck is going to be a heck of a big leaguer, too. I'd love to see him eliminate all that movement in his setup, but even with it he was a heck of a hitter in the Minors, and it wouldn't shock me to see him hit 20 or so homers if he ends up with regular playing time. So that's conceivably two young studs -- Sweeney is still just 23, Buck 25 -- in your starting outfield for the next several years. Who's the third? I'm not sure, but I did like what little I saw out of Aaron Cunningham late last year, and he's 22. Richie Robnett can't seem to stay healthy, but he's still only 25 with a load of potential. And don't forget about Javier Herrera, another young (23!) but injury prone guy with true five-tool upside.

And hey, feel free to dream a little. Say everyone stays healthy this year, all of the team's young pitchers really throw down, and the offense is a beast. Say the A's make the playoffs, maybe win a series or two. Say the market still sucks next winter. Now say it out loud: Holliday re-signs. Sure, it's a reach of Inspector Gadget proportions, but even if it doesn't happen, I do think the A's outfield will be fine moving forward.

Here's the other possible reason Gonzalez has been moved not once, but twice: He's one of those players who makes everything look so easy at times, it almost looks like he's not going all-out. Fair or not, those types of players sometimes get labeled as lazy, selfish or uncoachable.

Remember Carlos Pena? Similar deal. I'm not saying the A's feel that way about Gonzalez, but it is possible.

Blez: Huston Street claimed that he figured out his mechanical issues and his September seemed to prove that as his numbers were pretty damn good again. Will he return to form at Coors Field or has he seen better days?

Urban: I fully expect Huston to have a nice year with the Rockies, and I don't think he gets enough credit for playing with pain while he was in Oakland. Granted, sometimes it's in a team's best interest for a player who isn't at his best physically to shut it down. But trust me, guys who shut it down and say they're doing what's best for the team get accused of being a member of the feline family in a hurry.

A lot of Huston's mechanical issues were health-related; he'd try to pitch through a minor injury by making delivery adjustments that made the injury playable. A lot of pitchers do it, and the problem comes when the injury heals, because by then the muscle memory has often locked in the adjustment, making it difficult to go back to the original delivery.

By September, Huston was 100 percent healthy. He'd gotten his mechanics back to where they were in 2005-06, too, and the results -- 1.74 ERA in nine appearances -- lead me to believe that as long as he stays healthy, he'll win Colorado's closer job and do very well. He's only 25 years old, he's an exceptionally bright young man, and I think his best work is actually ahead of him.

Blez: The A's have quite the mess at 1B, DH and left field now. Does Cust play left field most of the time in 2009? Does Barton perhaps go to Sacramento if he doesn't have a good spring? Or is he even possibly moved? How does this situation shake out?

Urban: Holliday has never played anything BUT left field in the majors, so that's where he'll be with the A's. It's right field that factors into the situation with which Bob Geren will have to wrestle until people play their way into set roles.

Personally, I'm big on having the same lineup every day. So is virtually every player on the planet -- as long as that player is starting. Baseball is a game of routines, and players chafe if part of their daily routine is cruising past the clubhouse corkboard to see if they're in the lineup. But the A's have been juggling situations like this for years, whether it's three guys competing for playing time at first base and DH, five guys thinking they deserve to start in the outfield or some other combination. The A's always say they're OK with it, that versatility and that having "too many good players" isn't a problem. I can think of a couple instances in which I disagreed with the notion that some of the players in question were all that good, but things do generally work out. Guys get hurt. Guys rake. Guys stink. Problem solved.

All things being healthy and equal, I'd go with power, experience and outfield defense to start the season: Jason Giambi at first base, Cust at DH, Travis Buck in right, Barton coming off the bench. I definitely wouldn't send Barton to Sacramento. There's so much he can learn from Jason, and it's not like Jason is going to play 145 games at first -- he'll DH some, Cust will play some outfield, and Buck will sit some.

Four guys for three spots really isn't all that big of a mess, in my opinion. They'll all get enough at-bats.

Blez: Should the A's be concerned about stunting someone like Travis Buck or Aaron Cunningham by having a Cust-Sweeney-Holliday outfield?

Urban: Again, if those are the three guys in the outfield, it'll be Holliday-Sweeney-Cust, left to right And I have no doubt that Travis is going to play a lot no matter what. Cunningham might be better served by opening the season at Triple-A; he only played there for 20 games last year, so I don't think he'd be stunted at all by spending a full year at that level.

And at this point, I'd be more comfortable with Rajai Davis as my fifth outfielder because of his speed and defense.

Blez: Is there any other move the A's might make that might surprise us?

Urban: Good question. Adding another reliever, which the team definitely would like to do for the right price, wouldn't qualify as a surprise. The Orlando Cabrera rumors mildly persist, and that would be a massive surprise, but I don't see him as a dramatic improvement at shortstop, and I don't see the A's giving up the top draft pick -- Cabrera is a Type A free agent -- it would take to get him.

That leaves adding another bat as the only surprise possibility, but adding one of the bats still out there (Abreu and Dunn are probably the best aside from Manny) definitely would stunt someone, so I'd say it's unlikely.

Blez: The A's made a decision to implement a health program last year around this time with the goal of making a difference in the team's health issues yet once again the team was breaking records for using the DL. This has been something like three or four years in a row where the injury issue has gotten progressively worse. People can talk all they want about signing Giambi, trading for Holliday, but this team will wind up having its third straight losing season if they don't get healthy somehow. What is the issue in your opinion and what would you do to rectify things?

Urban: Short of a complete house-cleaning, I'm not sure there's much more the team can do. They made the changes to which you alluded and also re-assigned the head trainer before last year, and they ditched their longtime strength-and-conditioning coach this winter. Maybe that will help.

As helpless a feeling as it must be, they just have to hope their luck changes. Not a very exciting answer, I know, but injuries are part of the game. If the trend continues, though, of course another losing season is a possibility. If Holliday, Giambi and Chavez are hurting for long, so will be the A's in general.

Blez: There has been some speculation on the Web that injuries have been up all over baseball because steroid testing came into play. Do you think there is any truth to that speculation?

Urban: I'd have to see some serious data to address that with any real depth, but based on what we know about the effects of long-term steroid use, the theory is certainly plausible. To be honest, the steroid story kind of glazes me over. I'm just glad there's a testing program with some teeth to it now, and if a test for HGH comes soon, I'll be the first in line asking if I can turn the ceremonial page on this ugly era in the game's history.

Blez: Is the team being foolhardy by chasing older guys like Giambi considering all the issues they're already dealing with?

Urban: I think Jason was close to a perfect signing. Really. They got him relatively cheap, they got him on a short-term deal, and I've seen first-hand what he can do for young, impressionable players and a mostly young team trying to find its way.

If he gets hurt, they have Barton waiting in the wings and the financial loss is minimal by baseball standards. Same thing if he stinks, which I seriously doubt will happen. If he rakes, the benefits are many. I don't see a downside.

Blez: What will the A's lineup and starting pitching wind up being in 2009?

Urban: The lineup depends on who is in right field and at first base. If it's Buck in right and Giambi at first, I see Buck or Sweeney leading off. Until very recently I figured Sweeney would bat second, but something one of your members posted in response to me thinking Cust would bat sixth swayed me a little. Given his on-base percentage, he might be a decent -- albeit highly unconventional in terms of bat control and running ability -- fit at in the two-hole to start setting the table. Plus, you want your big sticks to get as many at-bats in a game as possible, and you'd hate for the game to end with runners in scoring position and Cust on deck in the six-hole. So I'm changing my mind in the middle, because if Cust bats second, I'd assume Geren will want to go left-right-left and put Holliday in the No. 3 spot and Giambi batting cleanup. I'll stick with Chavez in the No. 5 spot, but I don't have a real strong feeling after that. I'd probably go with Crosby or Suzuki batting sixth because they bat from the right side and have decent pop; Sweeney or Buck seventh, Suzuki/Crosby eighth, and the second baseman batting ninth.

I'd love to say Mark Ellis will be ready for Opening Day, but I've been hearing a lot of qualified hedging about him lately, so that's a wait-and-see deal.

The early-season rotation will lead off with Duchscherer, of course. Sean Gallagher is the most talented of the guys coming back with big league experience, so he'll probably be the No. 2 or No. 3 guy, with Dana Eveland getting the other one of those spots. And Geren says Dallas Braden will have to lose a job rather than win one this spring, so pencil him in at No. 4, although I'm not entirely sold on him as a starter. That leaves one opening, and it's got Gio Gonzalez's name on it for now. But if any one or two of those back-end guys struggles early and any of the MACs -- great nickname one of you gave Mazzaro, Anderson and Cahill, by the way -- are carving at Sacramento, changes might come in a hurry.

Blez: Who will be the pitcher who pitched in the minors last year to make the biggest contribution to the big club in 09?

Urban: Sounds like a trick question, so I'll give a trick answer: Joey Devine.

Is that cheating? He did make four appearances for the River Cats last season. Anyway, I absolutely LOVE Devine's game and think he'll be the full-time closer sooner rather than later. Ziggy's game, in my opinion, is better suited for the seventh and eighth innings.

Blez: How would you grade the A's offseason?

Urban: I'll give it a strong B. They addressed their biggest 2008 weakness -- offense -- in a big way. They've gotten what appears to be a really solid setup man in Russ Springer, whose experience will really help the youngsters in the ‘pen -- I spoke with Ziggy today, and he said a friend of his who played with Springer called him the best teammate he'd ever had. What would have made it an A? Well, as much as I believe in Crosby, Furcal has long been one of my favorite players to watch. Furcal in the leadoff spot would have made what I think will be a very strong lineup downright scary.

Blez: Where will the team finish in the AL West in 2009?

Urban: Second place, 84-78, three to five games behind the Scioscias. For one thing, I'm conditioned to expect a big-time injury or two. Second, I just haven't seen enough to think the starting pitching can lead this A's team to a title.

But you know what? Beane's plan is solid, and I'm not being a house organ in any way here. This team is going in the right direction. And they're going to be a million times more fun to watch this year. It should be a pretty fun summer for AN. Cheers ...

Blez:  Thank you, Mychael, for everything.

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