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Suddenly, I'm Feeling Good About The Future Too

I will confess that there was a portion of the 2006 season I spent skeptical as to whether the A's, in 2007, could stretch their "contending years" streak to nine. I'm one of those fans who looks at the World Series as something 29 teams miss, and that no team has even a 50/50 chance of winning, and who just wants his team to be competitive every year and play meaningful games all season. The rest I look at as somewhere between a crapshoot and gravy, depending on how hungry I am.

For a while, the outlook for 2007--once thought to be the year Oakland would likely peak--was rather grim. Harden's bubble-wrap had proven too thin while it became even clearer that Boras was going to leave and take Zito with him. Meanwhile, thanks to Loaiza the A's had two people pitching batting practice but no 4th starter. Thomas was clogging up the bases like a big-rig on 880 at rush hour, while Chavy was frantically checking WebMD for links on aromatherapy and feng shui. Bradley was clogging up the DL, but was showing he had learned how to share--with Crosby, who was only looking like an MVP only if you meant Most Vexingly Puerile. So it looked like the A's might be faced with a rotation that, pre offseason moves anyway, might include both Saarloos and Halsey, with a middle of the order consisting of "If Healthy," "If Younger," and "If Healthy and Younger were hitting, I could produce," and a bottom of the order consisting of the A's excellent up-the-middle defense: four Mark Belangers, if you will. Oh, and original Plan A (Dan Meyer) was continuing to move backwards and original Savior A (Daric Barton) was hurt too, rendering neither a likely contributor in 2007.

Suddenly, the glass feels half full for the A's to compete with what should be an improved Angels team, and any other AL West team that might happen to add pitching. The only "if" I put on as a condition for optimism is the leap of faith that Rich Harden is healthy in 2007. History suggests Harden has difficulty staying healthy, but at least on the face of it, there is no reason to think he should be less than 100% come Spring Training 2007. All old injuries should be fully healed, presumably by this September, and an entire off-season of rest and conditioning should ensure a healthy start to the 2007 season. And if Harden is healthy...

The rotation: Despite Zito's 100 career wins, and yesterday's near no-hitter, one could actually consider replacing him with Harden to be the rare upgrade from Barry Zito to another starter. No opposing team wants to face Zito, but perhaps one of the few pitchers they want to face less is a healthy Rich Harden, who is regarded as an automatic Cy Young award candidate if he can just make more starts than Cy himself. Add to that a more seasoned Haren and Blanton, who are still improving with age, and the rotation looks just fine--especially with Loaiza proving that his April/May performances were related to health and not to complete inanity.

The bullpen: The bullpen is one of the areas that has separated the A's from the competition this season, and all the crucial components are under contract for 2007. I am thoroughly convinced of how important it is to have three relievers you feel great about throwing in the 8th or 9th inning of a tight game. Unless the A's move one of them, with Street, Calero, Duke, and Gaudin, the A's can have three even if Gaudin (or, in theory, Duke) should join the rotation.

The lineup: Not since Dye first joined the A's have they had the right-handed impact bat they have been searching for ever since the Dye was (in a) cast. Frank Thomas is just amazing. Thomas needed a full two months to get his groove back, but he has, as it turns out, lost nothing from his "Hall of Fame credential" years as a premier power hitter with an unmatched eye. In 2007, he will be one more year removed from his last foot injury, and he has spent a season learning how to make it work lumbering on the bases, which means he could arguably be healthier next year than he was this year. With a core of Bradley, Thomas, and Chavez--and yes, there are health questions with all three--the A's lineup looks plenty fearsome for a team with such good pitching and defense.

Additions: The kicker is that the A's should actually have a little payroll flexibility, with Zito's salary coming off the books and Kendall's salary becoming cheaper for the A's, so as to enable Billy Beane to make key additions as he sees fit. Perhaps that comes in the form of another decent starting pitcher, perhaps it comes in the form of a better hitting "plus-defense" player at one of the positions, perhaps it just secures The Big Hurt and Duchscherer through his arby years, who knows? But the A's are not as financially strapped as they are some years.

There are plenty of unknowns, from Payton's and Kennedy's futures, to whether the A's disrupt or maintain the current bullpen depth, to the continuing health sagas of the 3-4-5 hitters. But where the A's looked thin for the future, I'm feeling now like I can enjoy the 2006 season without that ominous sense of "enjoy it while you can" that I'd like to delay as long as possible...