Big bats could carry A's far
Arms are still there, but offense has serious potential
PHOENIX -- While using uncannily reliable second-half surges to reach the playoff in five of the past seven seasons, the A's were defined by a stellar starting rotation that somehow made do with inconsistent offensive production.
The 2007 A's might flip the script -- with a little help from what looks to be the team's best bullpen in years.
Several scouts are pegging Opening Day starter Dan Haren for a breakout season, and fellow righty Rich Harden is one of the most electric talents in the game. But for the first time in years, Oakland will open the regular season with a rotation that is not clearly the class of the American League West.
Fortunately, the lineup supporting the rotation this year appears capable of weathering a 4.56 ERA from a starter or two.
Or, to put it another way: How many teams have as their No. 6 hitter someone coming off a 35-homer, 95-RBI season?
The A's do, in outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher.
"I think we could be pretty darned explosive if everyone stays healthy," Swisher says. "Eight of the nine guys in the lineup can take you deep at any given time, but the great thing is that we don't have to rely on power. We've got some great, pure hitters who know what they're doing up there, so if we have to walk and gap and extra-base you to death, I think we can do it."
The lone member of the lineup who won't hit many out of the park is catcher Jason Kendall, who has tremendous bat control and seemed to spark the offense to life last year when he was inserted into the leadoff spot at midseason.
Everywhere else you look, there's pop.
Left fielder Shannon Stewart, first baseman Dan Johnson and second baseman Mark Ellis aren't sluggers, but each is capable of hitting double-digit dingers. Center fielder Milton Bradley hit 14 homers last year in just 96 games, shortstop Bobby Crosby hit 22 homers as a rookie in 2004. Swisher, third baseman Eric Chavez and new designated hitter Mike Piazza are the team's true sluggers, each capable of hitting 30 or more if things go their way.
"I like our lineup a lot," says Haren. "We seem to have a good mix."
First-year manager Bob Geren agrees.
"We do have nice power up and down, but what I like the most is that we have some smart, veteran, experienced hitters with some speed at the top, with Kendall and Stewart. In the middle we have those kind of dynamic, impact guys, with Milton and Piazza and Chavvy and Swish. And our bottom three is three really good hitters who, I think, are right on the verge of breaking through [in Crosby, Johnson and Ellis].
"And when we're facing a righty, we've got two lefties [Chavez and Johnson] and two switch hitters [Bradley and Swisher], so there's balance, too."
There's plenty of balance in the bullpen, too.
Or, to put it another way: How many teams have five relievers with whom they'd be fairly comfortable handing the ball in the eighth and ninth innings?
The A's do, in Huston Street, Justin Duchscherer, Kiko Calero, Alan Embree, Chad Gaudin and Jay Witasick.
"That's such a luxury as a manager," Geren says. "It's going to allow me to keep everyone down there fresh with days off, because everyone down there can fill any role at any time."
Geren isn't quite buying the notion that his starting rotation is iffy, and he makes a good case for himself. Haren, Harden, Esteban Loaiza and Joe Blanton all have had plenty of success in the big leagues, he noted, and if things break the right way and everyone stays healthy, it could very well be the best of the AL West.
But he concedes that there are question marks, ranging from Haren's reaction to being labeled the club's No. 1 starter, Harden's ability to stay healthy, Loaiza's age (35) and the poor springs of Blanton and No. 5 starter Joe Kennedy.
Loaiza, in fact, will start the season on the 15-day disabled list with a strained trapezius, temporarily -- the A's hope -- moving Gaudin into the rotation.
"If things go our way and guys are healthy and pitch the way they're capable, the rotation will be great," he says. "But you can't always count on that."
What Geren probably can count on, Swisher says, is an offense that -- again, if healthy -- can put up runs in bunches despite the offseason departures of Frank Thomas and Jay Payton.
"I think it's gonna be a mess of fun," Swisher says. "I think our pitching's going to be fine, but they've had our backs here the past couple years when the offense was struggling, so if they need us to have their backs this year, we'll be there."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.