There was plenty of laughter at the press conference on Wednesday when Jason Giambi’s return to Oakland was confirmed. Reacquainting himself with journalists he had known from his previous stint with the team, Giambi’s playful spirit reminded many A’s fans why they had loved him so much and why his defection to the Yankees in 2001 was so painful.
What’s more, the good humour was mixed with a genuine sense that 2009 could be an enjoyable year for the green and gold (and I don’t mean the Aussie cricket team).
‘Forgettable’ is probably the kindest word you could use to describe the A’s second half to 2008. Prior to the season beginning, GM Billy Beane had made no secret about the fact that the team was embarking on a rebuilding project. The promise of a successful future made many accept the decision, but that didn’t make watching an aimless team going nowhere any more entertaining.
While you need to lay foundations for the future, patience is sorely tested when you’ve got no choice but to sit and watch the cement set.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I lost interest somewhere along the way after Joe Blanton was traded to the Phillies. The daily excitement of checking the boxscores first thing in the morning faded away almost to an afterthought. Another season like that would be difficult to take.
Thankfully there is reason to be optimistic that the A’s may be worth watching this year. The Matt Holliday trade looked like a masterstroke at the time and, as the free agent market continues on its largely unimpressive course, it looks even better now. Adding Jason Giambi into the batting lineup, albeit the 2009 version rather than the MVP of 2000, will make the three and four spots a much more dangerous prospect for opposing pitchers and should lead to a more threatening lineup all together.
Lord knows that additions were needed. The A’s offense in ’08 barely merited the term, aside from it being offensive to A’s fans and pitchers. Averaging just 4.01 runs per game (worst in the AL and ahead of only the Nationals, Giants and Padres overall), the team struggled despite the cobbled-together rotation surpassing all expectations.
With Holliday and Giambi joined by Jack Cust, the heart of the A’s batting order should provide plenty of power alongside high on-base percentages. Some would say that’s the prototypical Billy Beane offense. A healthy and effective Eric Chavez would really be a boost as well, but let’s not get carried away. The same old stories are already circulating about the third baseman:
“Recovering from shoulder surgery, Chavez has been hitting in the batting cage at his Phoenix-area home and wowing everyone who’s seen him swing.
‘Everyone I’ve talked to says he looks incredible,’ A’s manager Bob Geren said on Wednesday. ‘I mean, really, really good. Better than anyone expected.’ “
Unfortunately they said the same things last year and the year before that. Maybe this time Chavy’s bad luck will come to an end and the A’s will have four players capable of 30 homers and 100 RBIs.
That’s promising news whichever way you look at it, but more than anything it would be a big positive for the young pitching talent that the A’s will be developing this season. Throwing them into a situation where the offense struggles to score runs is far from ideal. Frustration and a desire to do too much is a sure path to injury. Without the pressure to keep teams to two or three runs every time out and with the confidence that comes from a winning ballclub, the likes of Gio Gonzalez will have a better chance to make their mark.
The AL West is still there for the Angels to win. Losing Mark Teixeira and Francisco Rodriguez is a blow for them, but they had a twenty-one game cushion on the ‘chasing’ pack last year and that’s a lot of ground for the Rangers, A’s and Mariners to make up. Still, there are definite signs that at least one of the other teams could push the Angels all the way and, with a few more additions, the A’s could well be the team to do it.
Such optimism would be very hard to find in Atlanta at the moment. Short of Bobby Cox deciding to retire, the off-season couldn’t have gone any worse than it has so far for the Braves. First the proposed trade for Jake Peavy fell apart, then they were outgunned by the Yankees for Burnett (something that they might be thankful for in the future) before the sour on-off return of Rafael Furcal ended in an embarrassing public mess. Now John Smoltz has agreed to join the Red Sox and Braves fans are eyeing GM Frank Wren with murderous intent.
No sooner had news of Smoltz’s shocking imminent departure been announced then the Braves were being linked with a meeting with Scott Boras concerning free agent starter Derek Lowe. Scott the Shark can smell panic from a thousand miles away and if anyone is in a position where they will rashly pay over the odds out of sheer desperation, it’s the Braves right now.
However we still have the best part of three months before the season begins. That leaves Frank Wren with plenty of time to conjure up a bit of hope for the Braves faithful in the same way that Billy Beane has done for fans of the A’s.
Particularly in the harsh cold of January, a bit of hope goes a long way.