Spring is in the air, and that means A's beat reporters have been with the team for a few weeks now.
Diverting our attention away from the A's winless Arizona season so far, San Francisco Chronicle A's beat writer Susan Slusser recently answered some questions regarding our A's, spring storylines and the upcoming season. You can check out her daily coverage of our A's from the Cactus League here.
Blez: First off, how was your offseason? I know Billy cut you short with all of his wheelings and dealings. Have you had a word with him about that yet?
Susan Slusser (SS): Kind of a brutal winter. The Hudson deal was anticipated, but Mulder? A real shocker. All that and Kendall, plus the non-stop Byrnes rumors. Billy kept us all very busy. I remember one year he made an offseason deal on a Saturday night and started to apologize about it on the conference call, then said, "Wait....you're sportswriters. You aren't doing anything on Saturday night anyway." The sad part is that's probably true.
It's a lot of nights and weekends and vacation time spent working, but it's part of the deal. And if we're working, that just shows how much the front office is working. I'm not sure David Forst has even managed to go on a honeymoon with his wife yet, and they got married in November.
Blez: You went to the Dominican Republic to cover some winter ball there. Tell me something that surprised you about the place. What did you take away from you? Give AN some color from what the place looked like outside of the ballpark.
SS: It was just fantastic. The only way I can describe the passion for baseball there is like a Southern college football rivalry. It's intense and it's so fun, whole towns turn out. Plus the quality of the games is superb. It's a madhouse outside the stadiums (which are all '50s era, so there's a real throwback feel to the games). Vendors, kids, fans, scalpers, it's mayhem. No parking controls, not a lot of security, just craziness, especially when Licey plays Aguilas.
My favorite part was the press box -- reporters pounding beer, rum, you name it, and cheering and taunting. It was like sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park for a Yankees series. Now that's a fun way to cover a game. They all kept trying to get me to cheer and high five, and I was having trouble explaining the concept of no cheering in the press box when the Sominican writers were in each other's faces and shouting on every play.
It's a beautiful country, but there's a lot of poverty, a big gap between rich and poor, not a lot in between. The people are so friendly, though, in every walk of life, and the weather was perfect every day for three weeks, about 75-76 degrees and just a touch of rain here and there.
Blez: Tell me what you think the starting lineup is going to look like on a daily basis for the A's this year. Who do you, just your gut feeling, think will get the most starts at second base?
SS: That's a toughie. It sounds like Macha doesn't have qualms about stringing a lot of left-handed hitters together, and with not a lot of right-handed power, it could be Chavez, Durazo, Hatteberg in the middle, although Macha's also mentioned putting the three top on-base guys, Kotsay, Kendall, Durazo, in front of Chavez. The key is - who hits behind Chavez? Chavez votes for Durazo, because he's a power threat (and Chavez doesn't want Durazo clogging the bases in front of him), but it would be nice if one of the right-handed hitters emerged to fill that role......Crosby, Ginter, maybe Byrnes. It's such a toss-up right now, and it could change nearly daily during the season.
Ginter has the edge at second because of his 19 homers in 386 at-bats last year. He makes a lot of solid contact, from what little we've seen so far. Of course it would be fantastic to see Ellis be fully healthy after all he's gone through with his shoulder, but the decision-makers don't seem sold on his throwing yet. There has been some discussion of all three guys making the team, which I suppose could happen if they keep 11 pitchers instead of 12, but someone won't be getting much playing time if that's the case. Scutaro had a real nice winter in Venezuela, and his on-base percentage shot up. Barring a trade or an injury, this is nearly as difficult to call as how the lineup as a whole will take shape, or who the fourth and fifth starters will be. Remember last year when the only question was whether Duchscherer or Harville would make the team?
Blez: You said the other day that you didn't think Byrnes would be traded on the Webcast. Do you think he'll be with the team for the entire season?
SS: It would take a phenomenal offer for someone to pry Byrnes away. Billy says often that he's not looking to trade him, that teams have been calling him about Byrnes rather than the other way around. I think there are maybe two players Billy would consider moving Byrnes for (and no, one of them is NOT Mike Cameron) and even then he'd have to be convinced that Thomas or Kielty (and Swisher,too, for that matter) can play every day. Byrnes is the second-most proven commodity in that outfield, after Kotsay. While I'm not going to guarantee that he'll be around on Opening Day, I think it's far more likely than not.
Blez: Has there been something that's surprised you about this team so far?
SS: Keiichi Yabu lends kind of a different air to this camp - we've never dealt with hordes of Japanese reporters on a daily basis, and because everything is so new to Yabu, it's kind of neat, like seeing camp and major-league baseball through new eyes. He seems like a terrific guy, always smiling, enthusiastic. It's really fun to see. Rene Lachemann also has added to the fun quotient....he's a hoot. This seems
like a loose, happy camp. Which it usually is, but maybe even a touch more so this spring.
The absence of Mulder and Hudson seemed strange for a day or two, but this team is so used to major components leaving, it's back to normal now.
Blez: Who is the best interview of the new guys likely to be on the roster and why? Calero, Cruz, Haren, Meyer, Kendall, Ginter...or anyone else.
SS: Haren and Meyer are both good talkers, especially considering how young they are, and Kendall is a pro's pro. Catchers are always the best guys on the team to talk to, because they know everything that's going on and can break down so much for you, all the pitchers and a lot of the hitters. I think he's going to fill that
leadership role beautifully, and fill the notebooks, too.
Blez: Who appears to be in the best shape coming off the offseason? Anyone look like they gained a few pounds (and not muscle)?
Rich Harden is in unbelievable shape, and he is constantly in the weight room. Blanton and Rincon slimmed down, and Rincon looks like he's been hitting the weights more. The hitters always come in looking like they've been working out hard; Ellis,Chavez, Kotsay, you name it, they're all ready to go. Richie Robnett looks like a superhero, he's in such great condition.
Blez: It's early in camp, so it will probably be hard to guess this right now, but who do you think might surprise some A's fans and make the team?
SS: This won't be a surprise to any AN regular: Huston Street, Huston Street, Huston Street. Terrific arm, terrific poise - he is the real deal. Chad Bradford's back injury makes it even more likely Street makes the big-league club. He's also perhaps the most polite athlete I've ever met. Impressive kid in every way.
Blez: Do you have any good clubhouse stories about Kendall yet? That one you told the other day about him and his brother was classic.
SS: I'm sure when the regular season starts, there will be some good stories -- the guy is just such a competitor. He's a veteran, so I think he'll save up that fire for when it counts. He seems to really be enjoying himself with this team; I think he and Kotsay, as fellow SoCal guys, former National Leaguers, and both fairly recent new fathers, have clicked, which is nice to see -- two such total pros, great
examples for all those young players.
Blez: Who is going to have the best season of the following? Harden, Zito, Mulder or Hudson.
SS: I would never, ever bet against Tim Hudson, and I think he'll give NL hitters fits. He could win 20-plus if he stays healthy. The former Big Three all say Harden has the most talent of all of them, and I won't argue with them.....so I'll say Hudson has the best NL season, Harden the best AL season of the four. But then again....Zito believes he might have his best season ever, and he's got a Cy Young
Why do you ask such tough questions, Tyler? Always stick with your first answer, so I'll say Hudson.
Blez: How are the A's players reacting to the steroid scandal? It seems like the A's are related to the scandal through so many former players, Canseco, McGwire, Giambi. Yet at the same time, the A's also seem somewhat disassociated from it because they're all former players. How's it playing out in the clubhouse?
SS: It's been very quiet on the steroid topic in the clubhouse - only a few of them were around for Giambi, and those guys (Chavez, Zito) really just feel bad for Jason. I think the general feeling is that testing needed to be strengthened, it has been, and they hope that takes care of the issue. I hope it's that simple. I think it only really gets discussed much when reporters bring it up. You hear guys joke about it here and there, but that's about it.
Blez: And a bonus question, the one that is burning in every A's fans' head right now:
Do you think the A's have what it takes to make the playoffs this year? Or are there too many variables?
SS: The AL West is tough enough without losing two of the best starters in baseball, so my gut reaction is no. I've learned not to pick against Billy Beane, though -- he thinks they could surprise people this year, so maybe, just maybe...... I don't think they're quite a 90-win team, maybe just a bit under that, but if Anaheim or Seattle gets off to a bad start or has a key injury, the A's could slip in there. No
matter what, I think they'll contend pretty much all the way, and as always, they will be one of the most interesting teams in baseball.
There you have it. Thanks to Susan Slusser for her time and offering us some insight. I'll look forward to reading her stories in the Chronicle from spring training and throughout the season.