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The 2006 A's Are Contenders, But What Kind?

With Harden's future uncertain, to say the least, the prospect of losing Barry Zito and getting nothing immediate in return, leaves the 2007 rotation looking somewhat grim at the moment. The 2007 rotation was supposed to feature "4 young studs" in Harden Haren, Blanton, and Meyer, all with 2-3 full years of major league experience, along with the veteran Loaiza. At the very least, this looked like "the new 3 aces," and "2 solid innings eaters," piloting the 2007-09 dynasty that the A's so carefully assembled.

Boy how things have changed. Harden and Meyer have fallen about as far backwards as you could conjure up in your most draconian nightmares. Blanton has wobbled in place, and Loaiza still has several solid starts to go before he can erase our vivid memories of watching "batting practice without the cages".

And so the question is being raised, in its various forms, "Should the A's see Zito through to the end of the year and go for it in 2006, or should they use him to acquire another Haren or Meyer, and hope to God it's Haren and not Meyer?"

A lot of it depends on what the A's are in contention for in 2006. Here's how I see it. There are various levels of "contention" and they are:

I. "Legitimate contention" This is where your team is good enough to win 95+ games. Any team that can win 95 games can win the World Series, plain and simple--they just have to play well and/or get the breaks, because for any and all of their flaws they have enough strengths to win any series any time. Thanks in large part to Harden's injury, the A's, unfortunately, do not appear to be this team.

II. "Contention" This is where your team is good but not great--probably good enough to win 90 games and take a weaker division, but ultimately too flawed to win a stronger division. Teams good enough to win 90 are also bad enough to win 85, so it's touch-and-go all the way. But teams good enough to win 90 are also a deadline-trade away from becoming legitimate contenders. Whether these teams are viable World Series contenders, however, is a tough call. Billy Beane would argue that say are, because short series are such crapshoots, and I tend to agree with him--the flurry of Wild Card-to-World Series champions suggests this much. The A's may be this team, and if so I think they ought to hang on to Zito, while there's a division weak enough for the taking. But are the A's this team?

III. "Padre contention" This is where your team could still win a weak division, but isn't even good enough to win 85 games and should expect to be trounced in the first round of any playoffs. These teams are not World Series contenders, as only the graded-on-a-curve division enabled them to be in contention for anything. If this is the A's, they should trade Zito before July 31st, even if they have a shot to win the AL West.

I do think the A's may be just good enough, even in their crippled state, to lay claim to "contention" and not merely "Padre contention". But is it worth hanging onto Zito to try to scratch out a playoff berth in a weak division, perhaps only to be slaughtered in the first round by a "real team"?

Yes. First of all, playoffs generate revenue--directly through TV revenue, added ticket sales, concessions, and souvenirs, and also indirectly through added publicity, fan interest, excitement, and ultimately even added season-ticket sales. Do not overlook the financial impact of making it even to just one post-season series. And maybe this time Pierzynski will forget to slide, or Youkilis will stop running, or...As long as the playoffs are a possibility, keep your best team out there, because baseball is too crazy a game and too much can happen in any given week.

Unless, of course, we're just "Padre contenders"...This is a tough call...