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Mychael Urban Visits AN

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Mychael Urban is part of the excellent trifecta of A's beat writers (along with Slusser and Suchon). He writes at oaklandathletics.com and I would suggest that you make him part of your daily reading in case you're one of the few here who doesn't. He recently spent some time to offer his perspective on the A's and where they are now.

He also wrote the fine book Aces, which recently came out in paperback version in case you didn't catch the hardcover version about Hudson, Mulder and Zito's last season together in green and gold.

Blez: First of all, even though Billy Beane seemed to prepare for all these injuries, do you think the team will weather this storm better
than May 2005?

Mychael Urban: In general, yes. Mainly because the injuries aren't to Eric Chavez or Nick Swisher. Last year, as the numbers so clearly showed, Bobby Crosby's presence was absolutely vital to the offense, so when he went down, the offense essentially shut down. This year the offense seems to go as Chavvy and Nick go, and they're healthy, as is Crosby.

Losing Milton Bradley has been a bummer, especially since the apparent insurance against an injury to Milton -- Jay Payton -- isn't hitting. But Bradley wasn't exactly lighting it up before he got hurt, so it didn't kill the offense the way Crosby's did.

Granted, the offense as a whole isn't lighting it up, but I think Chavvy, Nick, Crosby and feast-or-famine Frank (Thomas) will be enough to keep it afloat.

That said, the injury to Rich Harden is definitely a killer. No matter how much depth Beane and company built into the pitching staff, they couldn't possibly have built in enough for the loss of the ace to not hurt in a big way. Losing Esteban Loaiza obviously isn't too big of a blow because Saarloos is just as good if not better, but if Rich is out for a month or two, it's bound to cost the club a few games.

Blez: Why do you think this team is struggling so badly offensively - last year everyone was blaming Hudgens - what's the problem this year? Any inside scoop?

Urban: First of all, it wasn't Hudgens' fault last year. In my opinion, he was simply the fall guy for the lack of clutch hitting. It's also my opinion that the early season struggles aren't Gerald Perry's fault, although Perry's lack of familiarity with most of the hitters can't be helping much.

I think there are a variety of explanations for what's been going on, and there's reason for optimism in most cases. Thomas, for one, shouldn't really be judged until he's had 150 at-bats; he deserves a little leeway given his relative inactivity over the previous two years. Crosby's swing, it seems to me, has a little more uppercut to it than it has in the past, but it's leveling out a bit lately, so he's starting to come around. Jay Payton is off to a slow start, but that's been his history, as has streakiness. Dan Johnson's troubles have been well-chronicled, of course, but he's handling the outside pitch better lately. And as your readers know, I will go to my death bed insisting that Jason Kendall is thisclose to snapping out of it and getting back to being the high-average hitter he was in Pittsburgh.

The puzzlers to me are Bradley and Mark Ellis. I haven't seen enough of Bradley in the past to know why he hasn't hit better, but the fact that he doesn 't have a single double is downright shocking. As for Ellis, my guess is that advance scouts have spent a lot of time dissecting the swing that made him so soccessful last season and found a hole or two. Nowe it's on Mark and Perry to find a way to Little Dutch Boy the hole.

Not much of an "inside scoop," I know, but that's the best I can do.

Blez: Everyone has a different theory as to why Eric Chavez seems to have finally busted loose early in the season - whether it's fatherhood, the new hitting coach or Frank Thomas hitting behind him. What's your theory?

Urban: My theory is two-fold, and it has absolutely nothing to do with fatherhood, Perry or added muscle.

The first half: He isn't putting nearly as much pressure on himself now that he has more proven hitters around him -- even when the proven hitters, such as Thomas and Bradley -- aren't hitting all that much. I'm sure he also has a great deal of confidence in Crosby, and Nick Swisher's progress has to lighten Chavvy's mental load, too. In short, Eric doesn't feel like he's the only run producer anymore, so he's not going outside the strike zone nearly as often as he did in 2004-2005.

The other half of the theory? The man is simply way too talented NOT to have gotten off to a hot start sooner or later.

Blez: Nick Swisher also seems to have quickly matured into something special. I don't think anyone expects him to keep up this pace all
year, but did you suspect he was this good or did you have your doubts after last season?

Urban: You're right; I don't expect Nick to stay on his 58-homer/145 RBI pace, or whatever it is now. But I do think he's more than capable of 30/100, and maturity is a big part of it. Nick's made a concerted effort to tone it down this year, and he's become an asbolute sponge when it comes to seeking and taking advice, particularly from Thomas. He's like little puppy the way he follows Frank around, and I see them talking about hitting all the time.

Nick has also become far more selective at the plate this year, going back to the patient approach that made him a "Moneyball" guy in the first place. And the confidence that he gained from hitting 21 homers as a rookie despite enduring some pretty nasty slumps is a factor, too.

Did I suspect he'd be this good? Well, it's awfully easy for me to say yes right now, but that's what I'm saying nonetheless. If you're around the game at this level long enough, I think you develop something of an ability to see which players have that hard-to-quantify "it," and Nick has always exuded "it." You also learn to listen to people who know a lot more about that game than you do, such as scouts, longtime coaches and veteran players, and most of those types of people have been singing Nick's praises for quite some time.

Blez: Can Rich Harden officially be tabbed with "injury-prone" at this point? And will we ever see a season in which Harden starts 35 games?

Urban: You can't NOT slap that label on him at this point, can you? I'm pretty sure he's missed starts with injuries in each of his first four seasons, and it looks like this will be his third extended stint on the DL in two years, so we're well past the "unlucky" point.

I feel bad for Rich, because he works his ass off to stay in shape. But while he actually got a little bit upset with me for suggesting that his workout routine needs to change, I'll risk another verbal spanking by reiterating my claim here.

Will we ever see a 35-start season out of him? I don't know. As a baseball fan, I sure hope so, because if we ever do, I'm certain we'll see something amazing.

Blez: Since you're so close with Barry Zito and I'm sure you've probably seen the overflowing negativity Zito's starts sometimes garner on AN, can you tell us why you think it is that he seems to have such a hard time with consistency? I think a lot of people get really
frustrated with the walks and the HBP's.

Urban: To be honest with you, Blez, I don't pay attention to your site the way I used to, so I haven't noticed the negativity. The negativity, in fact, is what started putting me off a bit in the first place. Not in regards to Barry, but in general. When you first got started, I thought the discussions on the site were refreshing -- informed, polite and passionate. But as your audience has grown, the number of flat-out haters has exploded to the point where the intelligent folks too often get drowned out by the people who seem intent on bashing anyone and everyone who might have a different opinion.

Now I'll get off my soap box and answer your question.

My friendship with Barry doesn't really afford me any insight into the reasons for his inconsistency outside of what anyone who has read "Aces" already knows: Barry's problems are often in his head. Truth is, now that I'm done with the book, I don't talk to him about pitching at all when we're not at the park because I know that it's the last thing he wants to talk about when he's not there. But we do talk about pitching at the park enough for me to know one reason for his inconsistency this year, and to have a theory on another reason.

What I know is that Barry, prior to his start in Anaheim, had been throwing his fastball to right-handed hitters on the inside half of the plate about 70 percent of the time, and teams had identified that pattern. It's in every scouting report you'll ever see on him, and in Anaheim he started throwing his fastball to righties on the outside half a lot more to counter the reports. He doesn't throw hard enough to live inside against righties, even with that great curveball and changeup, so taking a page from someone like Tom Glavine, who has been living on the outside half for years, is a smart thing to do.

My theory on his inconsistent command -- which he disputes -- is this: Adding a slider has messed with his mechanics. His over-the-top curveball required him to stay over the top on his fastball and changeup, too, but his slider is thrown from more of a three-quarters arm slot. And while some pitchers -- El Duque, for instance -- can change arm angles regularly without losing their command, I don't think Barry is one of them. He's been throwing from over the top for so long, I can't help but think the occasional deviation throws his delivery out of whack from time to time, and he's not the kind of pitcher who can get away with being behind in the count as much as he's been early this year.

Blez: Should the A's possible consider doing the unthinkable in that maybe they should trade Harden and try and re-sign Barry long-term
because despite Z's inconsistencies, he is at least consistently healthy?

Urban: No. Injury-prone or not, you don't trade a talent like Harden because if makes 35 starts a year for the next 10 and wins 200 games over that span, you'll forever be the clown who gave up on him way too soon. Besides, I don't think there's any chance that the A's will either try to be able to sign Zito to a long-term deal. Too many signs indicating otherwise.

Blez: Are you surprised at how many people want to call the Loaiza signing a bad deal already despite the fact that he's very obviously been hurt from day one?

Urban: Not at all. That's the nature of the beast. Fans want results right now, and in this case I don't blame them. I don't think Loaiza's been hurt since day one, either. I think he just plain stunk the first couple times out.

Blez: Of the many, many A's hitters who have been struggling, which surprises you the most?

Urban: Antonio Perez. Dude needs to pick it up BIG-TIME, and don't give me that not-enough-at-bats garbage.

I'm kidding, obviously, and only because I think I already answered this to an extent. If I had to pick one, I'd pick Johnson. He was the king of the quality at-bat last year, and while I've never been sold on him as a superstar, I thought his swing was pretty slump-proof. I was wrong in a huge way, but that's nothing new. I had Giambi re-signing with the A's way back when, too.

Blez: Do you think the A's are happy with what Frank Thomas has provided so far?

Urban: Yes and no. They love his presence, in the lineup and in the clubhouse, but I don't think any team is ever happy with a regular batting under .200.

Blez: OK, the caveat is that it's obviously very, very early, but what are your impressions of the AL West so far?

Urban: The A's are still the best team. Their starters are underperforming, and so are a lot of the hitters, but they're still right there. We all know the hot streak is coming at some point, and when it does, I think they'll start to separate themselves from the other three teams, all of which have at least one glaring weakness.

Blez: When talking with Suchon recently, he mentioned a story about Kotsay remaking the Creed song "With Arms Wide Open." Care to share any of the words from that tune, or do you have an equally amusing story to share? (he already told us about the huge Zito head)

Urban: Suchon drinks too much. I have no idea what he's talking about. Then again, I haven't been on the road as much as he has this year, so my library of funny 2006 stories is limited thus far. I did enjoy an exchange between Zito and Swisher before one of the games in Anaheim, though. They were watching the Red Sox-Yankees game, and after a two-strike pitch on the black was called a ball, Zito stood up for his fellow pitcher and said he got squeezed. At that very moment, ESPN put up that ridiculously inaccurate "K Zone" on the screen, and when it showed the pitch to have slightly missed their hologram box, Swisher said, "See, bro? That's a strike! The 'K Zone' don't lie, my man."

Blez: Thanks so much for your time and insight, Mychael.