It's been a while since I caught up with the prolific Susan Slusser, who covers our Oakland A's for the San Francisco Chronicle. So I figured it was about time that I got an insider's view on a few of the most prevailing topics affecting our Athletics this offseason.
Without further ado, here is my chat with Susan Slusser:
Blez: First of all, do you think that the A's have had a good offseason? The general consensus seems to be that the Angels are the favorites in the division right now despite the A's holding the crown.
Susan Slusser: I see the division as much more even overall this year - Seattle is improved, Texas is better, the A's about the same or maybe a tiny bit worse, and the Angels.....well, I'm never sure what to make of them. They underperformed last year, but they still have such great pitching and Vlad. I don't understand why, with all their resources (money and great prospects), they don't do more in the offseason, and I'm not sure adding Matthews makes them the division favorite. If their defense really steps it up and the offense wakes up, they're the team to beat, but I don't think it's a given. The A's at full health are equally capable of winning the division.
Blez: Without question people seem to believe that Rich Harden is the key to the A's fortunes this year. Have you spoken to him and is he doing anything differently this offseason to try and avoid his injury-plagued past rearing its ugly head in 2007?
Slusser: I haven't spoken to Rich this offseason, but knowing him, he's working like a maniac to be in the best possible condition for this year. I know his work habits have been suggested as a possible reason for his injuries in the past (i.e., too much weight training, etc.), but it's impossible to know that for sure and I think that theory is unfair to Rich, who has done everything possible to avoid injuries, including having surgery on his non-throwing shoulder.
The understanding last September was that he was totally recovered from his strained elbow ligament, so I don't think he'd be doing anything out of the ordinary this winter. No one wants to avoid injuries more than he does. Whether he's somehow predisposed to getting hurt or if he's just had a terrible run of luck......impossible to say.
Blez: How about Bobby Crosby and his brittle bones? Is he at least drinking more milk this offseason?
Slusser: This is another player who wants more than anything to play a full season, and I'm pretty sure he's tired of jokes about getting more calcium or living in a bubble. Again: injury prone, or victim of bad luck? He's had some strange breaks, too: I know he was upset about how difficult it was to properly diagnose his back injury toward the end of last season, but I've been told since then that discovering a stress fracture in the lower back can be extremely tricky. Nothing seems very clear-cut when it comes to Bobby's health. Everyone will be much happier if he can get back on the field soon and stay there.
Blez: Do you think Joe Blanton or one of the other starters will be moved before the season starts and if they are, do you think that's waving the white flag on 2007?
Slusser: I think someone, probably Blanton, will be moved either before the season or by mid-season, in a package to (finally) get Lastings Milledge to Oakland. I don't see Beane dealing any of the starters without getting another major-league ready starter in return, though (Heilman, Maine, you know the list). So no white flag. I'm not sure that's in the Billy Beane signal book, anyway.
Of course, I was convinced Zito was going to the Mets at this point last year (and also at this point last month), so don't put too much stock into my predictions.
Blez: I know Billy Beane made reference to this in the Cisco Field press conference, but do you think the new ballpark will have a huge impact on the A's keeping their stars?
Slusser: No. I think as long as Beane is affiliated with this franchise, they will keep a select player or two (ala Chavez) as long as it makes good financial sense, and let the rest go if their costs are out of line with running a club on a reasonable budget. The A's aren't ever going to break the bank, even with a new ballpark. A new stadium might translate into keeping two home-grown players rather than one - or maybe not, if salaries keep heading upward.
Blez: Which of the following has a bigger impact on 2007 for the A's, Dan Johnson or Daric Barton?
Slusser: Excellent question. Tough call. I believe Johnson could be a factor if he is, indeed, handed the job at first and left alone; I'm not entirely convinced that's what will happen if the A's do manage to bring in another young outfielder - something that Beane has said remains on his wish list. That would mean Swisher back at first, and .... what, exactly, for Johnson and Barton? Johnson probably gets moved, Barton comes up in September, I'd guess.
If no new outfielder arrives and if Johnson doesn't turn things around, Barton gets a shot in late May or early June and he certainly has the talent to make things interesting at that point.
I'll say Johnson, for now, but there are too many variables to assert that very strongly.
Blez: What do you think of the decision of Bob Geren over Ron Washington?
Slusser: Educated guesses and projections are fine, but as a beat writer, I'm supposed to be as objective as possible and not throw out a lot of personal opinion. I'd have to think this falls in that category. So all I can really say is that I'm very happy both men have jobs as major league managers and I believe they both have the qualifications necessary to succeed.
Blez: How much will Texas and Seattle be improved?
Slusser: I touched on that a bit - I think both are better and they will make it a tighter race in the AL West. No way Seattle gets smoked by Oakland again, which turned out to be a major factor in the division last year. Texas has some new pieces, and Washington will be good for the Rangers. They're intriguing teams - definite flaws, but then, the A's and Angels have some of those, too. I don't see either team winning the West, though.
Blez: Who is your favorite in 2007 in the AL West right now?
Slusser: The Angels, but only by a whisker and based solely on that phenomenal pitching staff. As I said above, a healthy A's team is a top contender, too. Should be an amazing race in the AL West.
Blez: Thanks for your time and visiting with AN.