Marty Lurie Talks San Francisco Giants Baseball

Not Just Frank Thomas for A's

by Glenn Dickey
Jan 27, 2006

THE BEST part of the Frank Thomas signing is what A’s general manager Billy Beane has done before.

Because he acquired Milton Bradley from the Dodgers, the A’s can view Thomas as frosting on the cake. If he can stay healthy for at least 100 games, he’ll provide a very important power boost. If he doesn’t. . . well, the A’s still have a very solid lineup.“We’re in a position we haven’t been in before (since he’s been GM),” said Beane before the media luncheon with manager Ken Macha yesterday. “I’ve always had to replace players who had left. This year, we’ve been able to add players without subtracting any.”

Macha made the same point in a different way. “Everybody wants to talk about our new players,” he said, “but we like the players we have returning, too.”

Beane has had an eye on Thomas for a long time. In my October 26, 2005 column, after an interview with Beane, I mentioned Thomas as a longshot possibility for the A’s – longshot because there was a question at the time whether the White Sox would release him and, of course, about his health. I didn’t quote Beane at the time but my evaluations of Thomas and other right-handed sluggers in that column came from the A’s GM.

Yesterday, when I congratulated Beane on finally getting his man, he called Thomas the “ultimate Moneyball player,” using the term that the media has adopted. “Moneyball” actually refers to the A’s economic system, of getting the most bang for their buck. For years, for example, the A’s drafted college players who could get to the majors quickly, or be used for trade value. This year, they shifted their emphasis to high school pitchers, because Beane felt they were undervalued.

The actual baseball philosophy used by the A’s has little to do with that, and it isn’t particularly new. At least since the days of Branch Rickey, teams have valued hitters with high on-base percentages, though it’s only been in recent years that the OBP has become a widely used barometer in the media. The A’s last three World Series teams, 1988-90, were built on an offensive formula of high OBP plus power. Then general manager Sandy Alderson often talked to me about the high correlation of OBP with runs scored, while noting that teams with a high batting average but relatively low OBP didn’t have the same correlation.

The configuration of the Coliseum is also a factor in the A’s offensive formula. Because of the huge foul areas around home plate. foul balls that would be out of play in most parks (especially, PacBell), are caught at the Coliseum. With fewer second chances, batting averages suffer. So, high OBP and power are essential.

That offensive formula has broken down recently for the A’s because they haven’t had enough power. If he can stay healthy, Thomas will certainly provide that. Thomas is one of 10 players in baseball history with at least a .300 career averae, 400 home runs, 1000 RBIs, 1000 runs scored and 1000 walks. The only other active player on that list is Barry Bonds. The retired players are Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. All are in the Hall of Fame.

Earlier in his career, Thomas was putting up numbers that reminded me of my childhood idol, Williams. In the five years, 1993-97, for instance, he hit from 35 to 41 homers each season, while putting up OBP numbers, ranging from .426 to .487, with runs-scored and RBI totals exceeding 100 each season.

He’s fallen off from those lofty marks – though he did hit 42 homers in 2003, his last full season – but he hit 12 homers in just 105 at-bats last season. The power is still there, if the A’s can keep him reasonably healthy.

THE A’S are an intriguing team going into this season. When I asked Macha if he thought this was his strongest team, he said, “It’s the deepest.”

That depth will mean that there will be times when a quality player is on the bench. The A’s have not been in that situation for at least 15 years.

Macha was reluctant to talk in anything but generalities with Opening Day still more than two months away, though he did say that “(Mark) Kotsay will be playing a lot of centefield.” You’d probably figured that out already.

There are other certainties: Eric Chavez at third, Bobby Crosby at short, Mark Ellis at second, Jason Kendall at catcher. Unless they need rest -–Macha is hoping that Antonio Perez, obtained in the Bradley deal – will be able to spell Chavez, for instance – they’ll be in the lineup.

I’d expect that Thomas will be the DH every game for which he’s physically able, because he’s able to handle both right-handed and left-handed pitchers. One writer asked Macha if Thomas would play any first base. “We got him for his bat,” Macha said. “You’d hate to see him get injured playing first.” He didn’t add the obvious: Thomas was a mediocre defensive first baseman in his youth; now, he isn’t even as nimble as Erubiel Durazo.

There’s going to be a lot of mix-and-match elsewhere, though. Assuming that everybody is healthy, the Opening Day lineup will probably have Jay Payton in left, Bradley in right and Nick Swisher at first, with Dan Johnson on the bench. There will be times, though, when Johnson is at first or at DH, if Thomas can’t make it, and when Swisher is in right. Kotsay’s bad back will no doubt sideline him from time to time, but Macha now has two possibilities in center – Payton and Bradley.

Macha likes the defensive possibilities of his outfield. I believe Kotsay is the best centerfielder the A’s have had since they’ve been in Oakland, and Payton did a solid job in left after the A’s acquired him in midseason. “I saw Bradley when he was playing for Cleveland,” Macha said, “and he made plays in the gaps with ease. He’s got a lot of ability. He can run, hit with power.”

This team will have more speed than any A’s team in many years. That doesn’t mean they’ll steal many bases. Beane feels, and I agree, that stolen bases are the most overrated offensive stat. But they will be taking the extra base on base hits, setting up more scoring opportunities. When Kendall bats behind Kotsay, they may even use the hit-and-run, because Kendall will put the ball in play.

LAST SEASON, the A’s fell just short when September injuries cut down Crosby and staff leader Rich Harden.

This year, they’ve added a starter, Estaban Loiza, who would be the No. 3 man in most rotations but will only be No. 5 in this one. If there’s another injury, to Harden or whomever, Macha can bring in Kirk Saarloos, a credible fifth starter last season, as a starter. If there’s a key injury to a starter, he has replacements.

Macha cautioned the media against high expectations, noting that “Everybody’s a contender in February.” But it’s hard not to get excited about this team. In terms of quality and depth, I think this is the best yet since Beane has been the general manager.


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