01/30/2003 7:07 pm ET
Athletics Spring Training preview
Bench, bullpen pose questions after key losses
By Mychael Urban / MLB.com
Spring Training rundown
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Phoenix Municipal Stadium
OAKLAND, Calif. -- At first glance, the 2003 A's are all shiny and cool.
They've got the reigning Cy Young, and he fronts a trio of young starting pitchers who don't go 1-2-3 in the rotation as much as they go 1a-1b-1c.
They've got the reigning league MVP, too, and he happens to be an electrifying shortstop.
And then there's the 25-year-old third baseman coming off back-to-back seasons of at least 30 homers, 100 RBIs and a Gold Glove.
Shiny, right? Impressive stuff, all. But for all of their considerable star power, the A's are all shiny and cool in a Lamborghini-that's-always-in-the-shop sort of way. Heading into Spring Training, Oakland -- as always -- is a work in progress.
"Our [low-payroll] situation is such that change is inevitable and regular," general manager Billy Beane said at the winter meetings. "It presents some difficulties, definitely."
That's not to say the A's shouldn't be among the favorites to win the 2003 American League pennant. With the aforementioned elite -- Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez -- on the scene and Beane on the prowl, the A's of this era are always a threat.
But as Oakland and its A-listers head to Arizona in preparation for what they hope to be a fourth consecutive playoff appearance, there are all kinds of questions surrounding the B-list portion of the roster.
B-list as in the bench and the bullpen. After offseason overhauls, plenty of roster spots are up for grabs in both units. And both units will be critical in Oakland's defense of its 2002 West Division crown.
"I'd definitely say that's a fair assessment," said new manager Ken Macha. "That's where we're, quote-unquote, 'unproven.'"
Thus, much of Macha's time at his first camp as a big-league skipper will be spent assessing the talent that will battle for baseball's most thankless jobs. Another star would be nice, of course, but the A's don't really need another star. They need middle relievers and backups.
In the bullpen, the only holdovers from last year's bullpen are Ricardo Rincon, Chad Bradford and Micah Bowie. Right-handed setup man Jim Mecir will miss the start of the season with a knee injury, closer Billy Koch was traded to the White Sox, and the A's let Mike Venafro and Jeff Tam sign elsewhere.
That means there will be three or four new faces in the mix when the regular season opens in Tokyo, and while there's no shortage of candidates, we're not talking about household names here:
Right-hander Jose Silva, 28, was signed to a minor-league deal in November. He's appeared in 154 big-league games with Toronto, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, posting a 25-28 career record with a 5.41 ERA. He made 12 appearances with Cincinnati last season (1-0, 4.24 ERA) and was 1-2 with a 2.27 ERA in 20 games at Triple A-Louisville.
Right-hander Jeremy Fikac, 27, was acquired in a January trade with San Diego. He led the Padres in appearances last year, but he was far more impressive in 2001.
Right-hander Buddy Hernandez, 23, was picked up in a Rule 5 Draft-day trade with San Diego. He was in Double-A ball last year, going 4-0 with a 1.22 ERA in 40 relief appearances.
Right-hander Michael Neu, 24, is another Rule 5 guy. He was with the Reds' organization last season, going 3-3 with 23 saves and a 2.94 ERA in 61 relief appearances while splitting the year between Double- and Triple-A.
Right-hander Joe Valentine, 22, was part of the Koch deal with Chicago. He's a long shot because he's never pitched beyond Double-A, but he was the top closer in all of minor-league ball last year and could earn an apprenticeship as a setup man for new closer Keith Foulke, who also was part of the Koch deal.
Right-hander Roy Smith, 24, was picked up in a November deal with Cleveland. He spent the 2002 minor-league season at Triple-A Buffalo, posting a 5-4 record with a 3.84 ERA in a team-high 36 appearances, before making a couple of starts with the big-league Tribe in September.
Right-hander Heath Bost, 28, is one of the few relief candidates who was in Oakland's system last year. He made 52 relief appearances for Triple-A Sacramento, going 1-5 with a 3.35 ERA.
The bench is no more stout. John Mabry was the top left-handed bat off the bench and could play left and right field and first base. Olmedo Saenz was the top right-handed bat off the bench and could play first and third base. Randy Velarde could play every infield position. Greg Myers hit over .300 in the pinch. All are gone.
"What that means is that some of the youngsters are going to get a real good chance to show what they can do," Macha said.
Young outfielders Adam Piatt and Eric Byrnes will join infielder Frank Menechino as frontrunners for bench jobs, but the A's have signed a number of players to minor-league deals and invited them to camp. Among those with big-league experience are catchers Mitch Melusky and Adam Melhuse, first baseman David McCarty and outfielder Billy McMillon. Prospects worth a look include second baseman Esteban German and another Rule 5 guy, center fielder Rontrez Johnson.
Not exactly household names there, either, but that doesn't seem to overly concern Macha. This will be his fifth season with the A's, so he knows the drill.
"We're by no means a finished product heading into camp because there are jobs to be won," he said. "But the guy we've got here (Beane) has a pretty good track record of being creative to fill some holes, so I'm sure the cupboard's not bare. We'll be fine."
Mychael Urban is a reporter for MLB.com and can be reached at email@example.com. This report was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.