Fresh off a visit from John Sickels, I recently had the opportunity to ask Mychael Urban several questions about the A's spring so far.
Urban is not only the featured reporter for MLB.com, but he also has a book about our pitchers called Aces coming out in just a few short days.
He graciously took time to give us the lowdown on the A's early spring.
Here is our discussion:
Blez: Are you surprised that Watson was sent down this early? He was having a stellar spring and Swish has struggled a little bit so far.
Mychael Urban: I wasn't surprised at all. Watson, as you noted in your excellent diary the other day, is simply caught in a numbers game. With Byrnes, Kotsay, Swisher, Thomas and Kielty in camp and needing at-bats to get ready for the season, Matt just wasn't going to play enough. He's a good player, but the club obviously sees the aforementioned five as being ahead of him, so he's going to have to play the waiting game and hope for some sort of break. As for Swisher's early-spring struggles, I don't think the A's are concerned at all. They know he can play, they know he's coming back from an injury, and they're very confident that he's going to play a key role this season.
Blez: Do you think it's a forgone conclusion that Street makes the roster now with Bradford being gone for several months?
MU: Well, it seems like nothing's ever a foregone conclusion with the A's, but Street certainly deserves a spot based on what I've seen so far. He's performed way better than any other candidate, and delaying the arbitration clock just doesn't wash with me as a good enough reason to start him at Triple-A. The best players should make the team, and he's one of them.
Blez: How do you see the bullpen shaping up - who do you think is in, who is out?
MU: I think they'll keep 12 pitchers, with the seven bullpen spots going to Dotel, Calero, Cruz, Rincon, Duchscherer, Street and Yabu.
Blez: Is anyone concerned that Dotel's had a few rough outings and Kendall was quoted the other day saying his velocity and location just aren't there yet?
MU: Macha sounded a little concerned that day, and given Dotel's arm troubles late last season, there should be some concern. But Octavio pitched much better his next time out, and he insists that he goes through this every spring. The bells will be soundng a lot louder if he isn't up to 92-95 come late March, but right now it's too early to panic.
Blez: Has Zito said anything about using his two-seamer more with guys on base? He seems to be inducing quite a few double plays.
MU: He hasn't said much about it, but there's no doubt that he's using it in those situations. He'd be dumb not to. The two-seamer has become a nice weapon for Barry, mainly because it gives him some downward movement. His four-seamer moves, too, but it runs more than it sinks. And when you need a two-ball, you want sink.
Blez: The kids, specifically Blanton and Meyer, seem to both pitch a lot better with Kendall behind the dish. Is that a coincidence?
MU: That's a tough one to answer, but it makes sense that a young pitcher would be a little more confident throwing to a take-charge All-Star like Kendall. And confidence is everything in pitching. But it's probably unfair to say that the other catchers are affecting these young guys when they don't pitch well. These young pitchers are under a little pressure here, and I think a little inconsistency is inevitable no matter who's behind the dish.
Blez: Where do you think Jeremy Brown is now on the A's catching depth chart?
MU: I think he's fallen a few spots. The coaches don't seem real high on him, but they'd never say that publicly about a "Moneyballer." I think John Baker and Kurt Suzuki are both ahead of Brown right now, so he's no higher than fifth on the organizational depth chart, and he might be sixth or seventh if Landon Powell wasn't injured and Daric Barton wasn't so young.
Blez: Who has been the biggest surprise so far in camp and why?
MU: For my money, Mark Ellis. He's been awesome in every phase of the game, and it's really cool to see because I know how hard Mark worked to get back on the field. This guy is a smart, tough, fundamentally sound player who absolutely loves playing the game, and I think he's going to have an excellent season.
Blez: What does Suzuki look like behind the plate and hitting? I'm really curious as he's 4-4 in throwing out potential base stealers.
MU: Kurt's arm is very strong and very accurate, but don't forget that the pitcher deserves a lot of credit when a runner is thrown out trying to steal. If the guy gets a walking six-foot lead and a great jump, you're not going to throw him out no matter how good your arm is. But Suzuki has been impressive behind the plate, and he's got a nice swing. I don't think we'll see him in Oakland any time soon, but he has all the tools to be a very productive player. Unfortunately for him, catcher is where the A's have a lot of depth right now.
Blez: How do you see the outfield shaping up at this point? Who starts the year in left, center and right?
MU: I'd be shocked if it were anything other than Byrnes in left, Kotsay in center and Swisher in right. But Charles Thomas has looked very good at times this spring, and with an eye toward what seems to be a certain Byrnes-free future (either this season or next), the A's need to work Thomas in as much as possible. They'll probably do that by giving Swisher some time at first base and giving Byrnes some strategic days off.
Blez: What do you think is going to happen with Tyler Johnson? Back to St. Louis?
MU: Yeah, unless the A's can work out a trade that lets them keep him in their own system, and that's a distinct possibility because from what I've heard, the Cards aren't that high on him. Why? Because he's wild. He has a live arm and a scary curveball, but until he can throw them for strikes, he's Nuke LaLoosh without the Porsche and a freaky cougar like Susan Sarandon reading him Walt Whitman in bed.
Blez: I'm asking everyone this, but who do you think will have the best year out of the following, Hudson, Mulder, Zito and Harden?
MU: Hudson, if he's healthy. Facing NL lineups, where the No. 9 spot is essentially a free out and the No. 8 spot often isn't much more dangerous, is going to make his job much easier than it was in Oakland. I honestly think all four of them are going to have very good years, but there's something about Tim that's impossible for me to bet against.
Blez: How are you feeling as the release date of Aces draws near?
MU: It sounds corny and a little too ain't-I-the-shit, but I think the word that sums up my feelings best is "proud." I'm a big believer in the power of setting and meeting goals, and getting a book published has always been one of my goals in life, so to be able to cross that off the list is very satisfying to me. Whether it sells 10 copies or 10 milllion (yeah, right), I will always have a book with my name on it on my bookshelf, and that's a big deal to me.
I'm also proud of the relationships that I've built with the Big Three, because they're three very different cats, and to have gotten them all to be so comfortable, open and honest with me was something of an accomplishment in itself. Beyond that, I'm excited, relieved and very curious to see how it'll be received.
Thank you so very much, Mychael. We really appreciate your time. I look forward to seeing you next week at spring training and celebrating the release of Aces in grand style.