A's may rebuild or reload in Nashville
General manager Beane has decision ahead for franchise
OAKLAND -- A's general manager Billy Beane often speaks of "due diligence," and he's had quite a bit of it to do in anticipation of next week's annual Winter Meetings.
That work has been done in an effort to answer the big question pertaining to Oakland's immediate future as the club brass descends on the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., for the baseball bonanza known as the Winter Meetings, running from Monday through Thursday. That question: Rebuild or reload?
Beane, of course, isn't letting on as to which direction he's leaning.
"Ideally, you'd like to do both. We've always kind of taken that approach," he said. "But I suspect whatever answers there might be will be more clear [after Nashville]."
The 2007 season was an injury-plagued struggle for the A's, and their pool of talent in the farm system is as shallow as it's been in years. That's essentially the case in favor of an overhaul.
On the other hand, the 76-86 record -- third place in the four-team American League West Division -- Oakland posted a year after reaching the AL Championship Series was heavily influenced by major injuries to key players, and the team has a core of talented young players at the big league level. That's why Beane might be tempted to count on healthier days, add more talent and take another shot at contention.
"It's a difficult situation to evaluate, no question about it," Beane said. "The injuries, how guys are recovering from them. ... There's a lot of information you have to take in before you make any sweeping decisions."
Oakland tied a club record by using the disabled list 22 times in 2007, and among those who missed more than 1,200 games combined were projected ace Rich Harden, fellow starting pitcher Esteban Loaiza, closer Huston Street, top setup men Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero, third baseman Eric Chavez, shortstop Bobby Crosby, first baseman Dan Johnson and starting outfielders Mark Kotsay, Milton Bradley and Travis Buck.
By September, Bradley and catcher Jason Kendall had been traded, Loaiza had been picked up by the Dodgers on waivers, and Chavez, Crosby, Kotsay, Harden, Duchscherer, Calero had been shut down for the year.
Not surprisingly, the A's, who won the 2006 AL West title and won their first playoff series since Beane took over as GM in October 1997, finished 18 games out, behind the division-champion Angels and one game ahead of the last-place Rangers.
"We felt like the team we had coming out of Spring Training would be right there [in the pennant race], absolutely," first-year manager Bob Geren said late in the season.
Geren also noted that, despite the departures of Kendall, Loaiza and Bradley, the expected loss of free-agent designated hitter Mike Piazza, the potential loss of free-agent outfielder Shannon Stewart and the recent trade of super-sub Marco Scutaro, the players still on board -- if healthy -- could be as strong as the hoped-for 2007 club.
In Kendall's place as starting catcher is Kurt Suzuki, who struggled early after inheriting the job, but finished with seven homers and 39 RBIs in 68 games. Righty Chad Gaudin was moved from the bullpen to the rotation when Loaiza went down with an injury late in the spring, and had a huge first half (8-3, 2.88 ERA) before appearing to wear down as his innings piled up. Buck, an early Rookie of the Year candidate before injuries cut short his season, is a more-than-capable replacement for the oft-injured Bradley. And Jack Cust, acquired when Piazza went down, led the team in homers and RBIs.
"The injury situation gave some other guys a chance to show what they can do," Geren said. "And some of them really took advantage of it and earned a role in the future of this team."
So with the exception of a clean bill of health, it's unclear exactly what the A's, who won four division titles and reach the playoffs five times from 2000-06, need to return to a position of prominence in the AL.
"The reports we've been getting on everyone have been great to this point, but there's always some uncertainty -- no matter what the reports are," Beane said. "Part of you wants to say, 'If we get healthy, we'll be fine.' But you can't assume anything, and that'd be a lazy way of looking at things. So you have to look at every facet of what you do and, as you do every year, look for ways to get better any way you can."
It's unlikely that Beane will look to improve his budget-conscious club by making a big splash in free agency. The Loaiza trade took more than $7 million off the books for 2008, and Piazza made $8 million last season, but the A's have several players moving into more lucrative years in their current contracts, and Gaudin, Duchscherer, Calero, Street, No. 2 starter Joe Blanton and lefty swingman Lenny DiNardo are in line for raises via arbitration or multiyear deals.
"You can't just look at the money freed up and say it's play money," Beane said. "It's not. You have to take care of the guys you have, too."
Thus, Beane's time in Nashville is likely going to be spent exploring trades big and small. Three years ago, he stunned the baseball world by dealing aces Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder a few days after the Winter Meetings, and already this winter, there have been rumors suggesting that Blanton, Harden and ace Dan Haren might be on the market.
"I think our history shows that we're willing to listen to anything that might make us better, be it right now or for the future," Beane said. "That hasn't changed, but nor does it mean we're dying to trade our best players."
If Beane is trying to reload, he'll likely be in the market for a starting pitcher and a reliable reliever; Harden's history makes him a perennial question mark, and Duchscherer, a question mark himself, in that he's coming off hip surgery, is going to get a shot at following Gaudin from the bullpen into the rotation.
With third baseman Chavez coming off three surgeries (left shoulder, right shoulder, back) and Crosby a frequent visitor to the DL since being named the 2004 AL Rookie of the Year, the A's might also be looking for an experienced backup infielder -- particularly with Scutaro out and inexperienced Donnie Murphy in as the top utility man.
If Beane is in rebuilding mode, anyone on the roster could be dangled as trade bait. Either way, Beane expects to be busy.
"There could be a lot of activity, and I don't often say that," Beane said of the meetings in general. "There was a lot of preliminary discussions at the GM Meetings, and that's not typically the case, so a lot of groundwork might already be laid."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.