Fresh off the heels of the Loaiza deal coverage, Mychael Urban took time to answer some pressing questions for AN.
Blez: What do you think of the Loaiza deal? Is this the end of the line for Zito in Oakland?
Mychael Urban: Not knowing the answer to your second question makes the first one diffucult to answer, so I'll give you two answers to the first one, with each answer to the second one in mind. (Jeez, I sound like Billy Beane right now, don't I?)
If this does not mean the end of the line for Zito, I love the deal. As much respect as I have for Kirk Saarloos, whom I thought was either the best or second-best No. 5 starter in the AL (Cleveland's Scott Elarton had a fine season as well), a starting rotation of Zito, Harden, Loaiza, Haren and Blanton looks pretty damn good. Perhaps the best in the league. And if the A's don't trade Saarloos and/or Kennedy, adding Loaiza also strengthens the bullpen; Saarloos was a great closer in college and has pitched well in relief throughout his career, and Kennedy was far better in the bullpen for Oakland last year than he was as a starter. What's more, they'd be impressive insurance should one fo the starters get hurt, and if one of the starters gets bombed early, Macha would have a righty and a lefty accustomed to working multiple innings to choose from based on the opponents' lineup. That would give the A's a bullpen, from back to front, of Street, Calero, Duchscherer, Witasick, an undetermined lefty specialist, Saarloos and Kennedy. That's pretty damn good, too.
If this does mean the end of the line for Zito, it's still a nice deal because a rotation of Harden, Loaiza, Haren, Blanton and Saarloos is pretty solid. I'll admit to a certain bias toward Barry in answering this half of the question, though, and say that I think his departure could stunt the development of Haren in the short-term. Haren and Zito are of extremely like minds and have become very close friends, and Dan gave Barry all the credit in the world for helping him get through his early-season struggles. Should Zito leave and Haren struggle again, he might feel a little lost. I also think Zito's departure would put a little more pressure on Harden and Blanton, although both seem very mentally tough, and it might not sit well with some of the veterans who think the A's have enough to compete for a championship as is.
I'll add this, too: Even if Zito stays for 2006, adding Loaiza absolutely means the end of the line for him when his contract expires. If Loaiza is worth an average of $7 million over three years this winter, Zito, who is much younger, more marketable, more accomplished and left-handed, is probably going to be worth $10-12 million, or more, on the free-agent market next winter.
Blez: If they trade Zito, what would that mean for your paperback version of Aces?
Urban: I guess a Zito trade would be fitting in a way, providing even more closure on that great era of A's baseball, and it would mean another mad scramble to rewrite the ending. I just finished a 7,500-word "afterword" for the paperback (it comes out in April) that takes the reader through their first season as the former Big Three, and it has a lot of inside stuff from all three guys, with whom I was in touch throughout the year. If Zito is traded, that afterword obviously will need to be updated -- if there's time in the publishing schedule -- and I'll probably be given about three days to do it. Either way, the paperback will provide a lot of new information.
Blez: What kind of year do you expect from Loaiza?
Urban: If he's healthy, I expect him to pitch a lot of innings. As Jason Kendall, who played with Loaiza in Pittsburgh, told me Monday evening, "He'll take the ball every five days and get you deep into games." I think coming back to the AL will be a great thing for him because he knows the league, the parks, and a lot of the hitters. I also expect him to pitch well at home, because he pitched very well at spacious RFK Stadium last year (6-4, 2.86 ERA vs. 6-6, 4.71 on the road), and McAfee Coliseum is a big field, too.
If you're looking for a prediction, I'll go with something very similar to what he did in 2005. Let's say 13-9, 3.67 ERA. I should note that I probably would have projected something less impressive had it not been for Mark Mulder, who called me Monday after he heard about the trade and raved about the two-hitter Loaiza threw at the Cardinals last year.
Blez: The A's wind up losing a draft pick for signing Zito. In the past, those draft picks were treasured by Billy Beane. Why do you think he was willing to let go of a pick to get Loaiza? (for the record, I did mean Loaiza, not Zito)
Urban: You meant they lost a pick for Loaiza, not Zito, right? Maybe that's a bit of a Freudian slip on your part, and it's applicable here. If the A's let Zito play out his contract and lose him to free agency, they'll get the first-rounder they lost for Loaiza right back. I asked Billy if that factored into his thinking in this case and he said he wasn't looking that far into the future, but that knowledge has to be of at least some comfort. You're absolutely right, though; Billy hated giving up that pick. He said it was the hardest part of doing the deal. But let's face it: Not every first-rounder pans out, and sometimes you have to take the bird in hand, which in this case is Loazia.
Blez: What else do you think might be in the pipeline in terms of deals and free agent signings? Will the A's get a big bat? I'll put you on the spot and ask who you think is the most likely to join the team.
Urban: There's no doubt that Billy's not done. He WILL get another hitter. Unfortunately, I have no idea who it might be. I doubt that it's going be a big name unless Zito does indeed get dealt, but Billy will find a way to add someone capable of providing a boost, and he'll likely do it via trade. He has a lot of talent in the minors and the aforementioned "extra" starters -- I'd include Juan Cruz in that group, too -- to dangle, so I can see him putting together a nice package of promise to get an under-the-radar guy that might be undervalued by his current club.
There's also that undetermined lefty specialist I mentioned. I don't think Rincon will be back, and the A's badly need someone who can get the Mark Teixeiras of the world out on a semi-regular basis. A backup infielder who can play a solid third base wouldn't be a bad idea, either, although I still think Keith Ginter might be that guy.
Blez: Billy Beane talked about being somewhat quiet this offseason. Did you believe him at the time?
Urban: Nope. I've covered this team long enough (since 2001) to know that there's no such thing as a quiet offseason for Beane. Too many times I've had to pull my car back into the driveway, seconds after pulling out on the way to give my daughters a tour of the area's Christmas lights, because of a phone call from the team's PR director informing me that something big has happened. Billy is a tinkerer, and he loves making moves that make people scratch their heads. Ergo, no offseason will ever truly be quiet for Oakland while he's calling the shots.
Blez: Who will make it to the majors first, Daric Barton or Andre Ethier?
Urban: Ethier. He's older, he's more athletic, he's more mature physically -- and he has a defined position. I expect to see Ethier before September 2006, maybe even as a suprise "make" out of camp. Barton needs to show that he can dominate at Double- and Triple-A for an extended period of time, and he need to find a defensive home and hone his skills there. I just don't think it makes much sense to bring a kid that young to the Majors if he can't play the field somewhere.
Blez: Eric Chavez chose not to have offseason surgery to fix that shoulder and put it off. Do you think the team is concerned about that?
Urban: They kind of have to be, don't they? It's been bothering him for a long time, and he's said that he's going to have limit his throwing quite a bit next year, so you'd think a lot of thought is being put into using him as a DH more often. That brings us back to the need for a backup infielder who can play a solid third base, and while I'm sure Ginter doesn't excite a lot of A's fans, he's better than he showed last season and should get a long look as a non-roster invitee to camp this spring.
Blez: I already asked Slusser this, but I want to ask what you think about the health of Rich Harden. Do you think he'll make it through the whole season? What about Crosby?
Urban: I mentioned in a recent mailbag that I'd tone down Rich's work in the weight room and focus more on core strength and flexibility. Rich, apparently, read it and took slight umbrage to it; he left a voicemail razzing me about it last week. I'll stand by what I wrote, though. It wasn't a criticism of Rich, who busts his ass as much as the next guy, but when you look around the game for guys who don't get hurt very often, you see a lot more Zito and Blanton types -- i.e., far from candidates for the cover of bodybuilding magazines -- than Harden and Huddy types. I'm a little old-school that way. I think bulk is bad for pitchers, and Rich is pretty yoked and tightly wound.
I'm not saying he's destined for an injury-riddled career or year by any means, though. If his lat is fully healed and the left shoulder surgery was as successful as he says it was, he should be fine with the right regimen.
Blez: Finally, a lot of the offseason manuevering hasn't happened yet, but do you think this team will be able to win the West in 2006?
Urban: I do, especially if they keep Zito. I'll always go with the team with the best pitching, and I think they A's have it as things stand right now. The Mariners are a year or two away from being a serious contender, the Rangers are two very good starters away (and they'll never get them as long as they play in that pitchers' nightmare that is Ameriquest Field), and if the Angels lose Bengie Molina and don't get Paul Konerko or a similar offensive threat, the A's as currently constructed match up with them very well. It'll be a two-horse race again, to be sure.
Blez: Thanks so much for your time, Mychael.