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Oakland Marginally On Fantasy Radar

I’m sure I can’t be the only one who has had an incredibly fast winter, but here we sit on the day before Spring Training, ready to kick off another season of Oakland Athletics’ baseball, killing time until we can open a game thread to decipher the Buan-casting on the radio.

In preparation for the season, mixed with some genuine curiosity, and not a small amount of coercing from a fantasy junkie, I found myself attending the First Pitch Forum, hosted by Baseball HQ. As some of you may well know, the Oakland portion of this forum was held on Saturday, and the Los Angeles forum on Sunday. Ron Shandler was supposed to be speaking, but due to a severe case of the flu, he was unable to make the trip. He left Todd Zola, Jeff Erickson, and Jock Thompson in his stead. If you ever have the chance to go to one of these forums, you should go. Even as a non-fantasy player, I was captivated for the entire time. It is always good to hear about MLB for the year, and there’s something fun about intimately knowing a team, and being able to discuss all facets of that team intelligently, even if nothing else.

As I predicted, the fantasy baseball world is not made up by a high percentage of women, as evidenced by the 99% of men in the room who either couldn’t or wouldn’t drag their wives or girlfriends along. I was surprised at the median age of the audience; it was about 40, which is older than I would have suspected.

As many of you already knew, I don’t play fantasy baseball--and that decision comes both from focusing more on a single team rather than trying to follow players around the league, and my own reluctance to put wins, stolen bases and batting averages on par with other baseball statistics--but in my opinion, some of the best baseball analysts out there right now come from the fantasy mindset.

Due to copyright restrictions, and because this tour is still continuing around the U.S. for a couple more weeks, I will not share the overall content of the forum, but I thought I would touch on a couple of points and conversations that these brilliant baseball minds had on the 2008 Oakland Athletics.

Huston Street

Street fell into the category of “Injured Players Worth Speculating On”, whether or not he completes the year in Oakland. It seemed like half of the panel thought Street might rack up 25 or so saves before an eventual trade, but most seemed to feel he was healthy enough to bounce back in a big way. The good news for A’s fans is that most of the experts point to Street’s performance in his return last season as a great sign for this year. Couple that with the prediction that if the A’s are winning a game in ‘08, it is very likely a save situation, since the A’s offense is just not going to blow anybody out. Now, if we could only replace Duchscherer in the ‘pen to get to the save, we would be all set.

A’s starting pitching

To my great surprise, about halfway through the session, I heard Jeff Erickson make an off-hand comment about the A’s pitching being better than everyone predicted. This intrigued me, since I don’t think they’re very good, and I’m a fan! I questioned him during a break about his thoughts, and he spoke highly of Chad Gaudin, of all pitchers, which, again, really intrigued me.

Jeff also is high on Justin Duchscherer as a starter, and feels that barring injury, he could be a legitimate threat in the new role.

Interestingly enough, it seems as if AN is more negative about Rich Harden (and I would argue that that’s because we’re the ones who see him pitch) than anyone else on the panel. Most of them think he will pitch at least 60 innings, giving him about 10 starts. I hope Harden pitches 150+ innings, but I actually think he’ll pitch about 40-50, so I guess anything over that is a bonus for the team. Of course, there is a difference between pitching x number of innings and pitching well, but I think by this point, we all have to hope that the talent we see in Harden comes through as long as his health holds up.

And poor Joe Blanton can’t escape a joke; I believe the phrase ‘stuck with Joe Blanton on my team’ may have been used to describe a fantasy team last year. As an A’s fan, I actually feel pretty good about being ‘stuck’ with Joe Blanton. While I don’t think he’s much better than an 3.75-4.00 ERA pitcher who will give you 200 innings, I think there is great value in being a consistent pitcher also happens to a) be healthy and b) give the A’s 200+ innings. However, in consulting my fantasy oracle, I have discovered that Blanton’s lack of K’s will affect his fantasy value.

Travis Buck

Buck fell into the category of ‘Players Most Likely to See an Increase of Playing Time’, which translates to “We Hope So!” If A’s fans had their way last year, Buck would have started the season, and played as many innings as possible until the very last game. Unfortunately, as we know, Buck fought injuries (and not ones easily repaired) all year, and struggled to stay in the lineup and on the field. Which is a shame, really; he showed tremendous potential at Spring Training, and looked like he could have easily challenged for Rookie of the Year with a healthy season (not to mention, help the A’s abysmal offense).

Daric Barton

I brought up Barton in the Q&A session, and he drew comparisons to Casey Kotchman and Kevin Youkilis, so take that for what it’s worth. I’m not as sold on Barton as many are, but considering the lack of talent in the 1B position in the AL this year (a phenomenon touched on during this lecture), I think Barton will be have to be it for the A’s. The lack of power is a concern for everyone; it seems like it should have developed more than it has, but we aren’t exactly overstocked with other options right now. That being said, Barton performed when called up last year, and I hope those numbers continue.

Gio Gonzalez

Gonzalez, who came over from the White Sox in the Swisher trade, also received a mention in the proceedings, as possibly getting a chance to pitch with the A’s in this ‘rebuilding’ year.

Nick Swisher

Speaking of one of the off-season’s biggest trades, it’s entirely unanimous that Swisher will benefit from his new ballpark. Leaving Oakland and its cavernous foul territory in favor of hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field should turn fly balls into homeruns for Swisher, and might give him new life on the foul pop-ups. It will certainly be interesting to see.

Mark Kotsay

Referred to as Mark “I think my back is broken” Kotsay. When someone in the audience asked if he said “back” or “bat”, the response was “Either. Both”. Hilarious.

And just for AN fun, there was also a comment about: Darin “I Play The Game The Right Way” Erstad, and I didn’t make up that moniker; it came with his name.

Bottom line: I was surprised to see the A’s discussed as much as they were, even though not a single player fell into the ‘fun’ categories, like ‘Best Pitchers’ or ‘Best Hitters’, but maybe they’ll have to be satisfied with ‘Best Hair’ or ‘Dreamiest Eyes’. Most of the panel still picks the A’s to fall between 65-75 wins, so nothing has changed in that regard.

I’m not sure I can argue with that. Everything--absolutely everything--is going to have to go right for the A’s to be competitive. That means everyone stays healthy, at least half the team performs to career highs, all rookies must pan out, the pitching has to a) include Harden, b) work with Duchscherer in the new role, and c) be pretty darn good to offset an offense that will score between 2-4 runs a game; and the offense actually has to score the 2-4 runs a game.

I’m cautiously optimistic for the future, and will accept being pleasantly surprised, but expected bad team or not, the possibilities are endless. Before the team ever steps on the field, anything can happen, and this could be the year, you know. Does it EVER get any better than March?