A's put positive spin on rotation taking hit

Hudson, Mulder are gone, but Oakland has thrived in past despite turnover

April 04, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Two years ago, the questions were about Jason Giambi. Last year, it was Miguel Tejada.

From the time the Oakland Athletics opened spring training in late February in Arizona, through today's season opener against the Orioles at Camden Yards, and probably for the next month or two, the questions will be about pitchers Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder.

Simply, how do the A's plan to stay competitive in the free-spending American League West after trading Hudson to the Atlanta Braves and Mulder to the St. Louis Cardinals this winter? The answer is not forthcoming, but history is in favor of the A's finding a way.

"It's always harder when you lose some of the best players in the game," third baseman Eric Chavez, whose six-plus seasons in Oakland make him the longest-tenured player on the A's current roster, said one morning last month at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. "You look at the list of the players we've gotten rid of the last couple of seasons and I can't imagine a team doing better."

The A's overcame Giambi's departure to the New York Yankees by finishing 96-66 in 2003, good for first in their division but a seven-game drop-off from 2002. They managed to go 91-71 without Tejada last season, but took another dip in the standings and ended a four-year playoff run.

Is Oakland headed for an even bigger decline this season given what Hudson and Mulder had accomplished? The A's are hoping to have the same kind of success the Seattle Mariners had after losing Ken Griffey, Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez, and show the kind of improvement the Texas Rangers did after Rodriguez was traded to the Yankees last season.

"You're putting a good team out there," said Chavez, a four-time Gold Glove Award winner. "The thing about the last couple of years with the Big Three - Huddy, Mulder and [Barry] Zito, they've always gotten the credit for everything, but the way our payroll is, if you don't have 25 guys contributing, there's no way we compete in this league."

This season's payroll of $60 million is reportedly a tad higher than it was last year, but the departure of Mulder, who led the A's in wins (17) last season, and Hudson, who led the team in wins in 2003 (16) and in ERA the past two years, has left gaping holes in the starting rotation.

Not only are the A's counting on Zito returning somewhere near the form that made him a 23-game winner and the league's Cy Young Award winner in 2002, and on promising right-handed starters Rich Harden and Danny Haren helping fill the void, but that the bullpen, with the acquisition of right-handers Juan Cruz from Atlanta and Kiko Calero from St. Louis, will be better than it has been in years.

"The bottom line is get the pitching," said veteran catcher Jason Kendall, who came over in an offseason trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates. "We lost two of the special young pitchers in the game, but what I tell people is, `I've faced Danny Haren and Kiko and Cruz, and these guys are legit.'"

Shortstop Bobby Crosby, the league's reigning Rookie of the Year after finishing with 22 home runs and 64 RBIs, understands what the A's new arms might be feeling right now in their heads.

Asked how much pressure he experienced last season, Crosby said: "I think more of the pressure came after the first three weeks when I started to struggle a little bit and I put a lot of it on myself. Everyone knows how good Tejada is, and I tried to put up Tejada numbers my first year. It ain't going to happen."

Many think that a franchise that sainted general manager Billy Beane built on the principles outlined in the book Moneyball will need more smoke and mirrors to succeed than cold, hard statistics. The A's have been picked to finish behind both the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Rangers in their division.

"It's human nature when people doubt you to kind of want to show 'em up, and maybe surprise people," Crosby said.

It won't be a shock if the A's find a way to remain in the hunt, given what Beane has done with this team in recent seasons. New owner Lewis Wolff, the hotel mogul whose purchase was approved last week, thought so highly of his general manager that he gave Beane a piece of the team.

"Billy has a track record," Kendall said. "The expectations are here because of Billy."

And Zito. In the final year of a four-year contract, Zito can't have the kind of lackluster season he had in 2003 (14-12, 3.30 ERA) or barely mediocre year he had in 2004 (11-11, 4.48 ERA) and expect to keep the A's competitive.

Zito is looking forward to being the leader of the pitching staff, if not the entire team.

"Leadership is kind of hard to define, I think," the 26-year-old left-hander recently said in an interview with MLB.com. "Huddy's fire out there on the mound, and how vocal he is on and off the field, that's one form of leadership. But there's more subtle forms of it that I think I've been contributing all along. I've always been a guy who's tried to take new guys under my wing and help them along, and I'm still doing that now."

Although Zito showed signs this spring of becoming a dominant pitcher again, the signals from the rest of the rotation are not promising. Haren struggled until his final spring training start, and Harden, who signed four-year, $9 million extension last week, was inconsistent. Left-hander Dan Meyer, who came in the deal for Hudson, was sent back to the minors.

"I was the guy they got for Hudson ... and I think I tried to do too much," Meyer said.

Third-year manager Ken Macha understands that the team he has now is different from the way it was a year ago, or two years ago. The team's economic profile might change with the recent sale, but for now the A's are trying to get more out of lesser names, and perhaps lesser talent.

"These are the people we have here, and we're trying to focus on those people," Macha said. "We'll get as much as we can out of these guys."

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