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Oakland Thrilled to Start Season With Its Stars

April 02, 2006|From the Associated Press

OAKLAND — Eric Chavez half expected to receive the dreaded call this winter that Barry Zito had been traded and yet another of Oakland's star players was headed out of town.

It never came.

Zito is still the Athletics' ace, almost the entire roster is returning, and General Manager Billy Beane's off-season decision making showed everyone he is serious about winning now.

That meant Beane signed proven slugger Frank Thomas to be designated hitter support for Chavez. Beane added reliable starter Esteban Loaiza to fill out an already solid rotation. The GM acquired switch-hitting Milton Bradley to be the right fielder and help boost the A's paltry offensive production.

On top of that, Beane brought back Manager Ken Macha after they parted ways for about a week before agreeing on a new contract.

"Since Lew Wolff has been here, it's been nothing but a pleasant surprise," Chavez said, speaking of the team's owner, who took over last season. "The fact that he kept Zito around -- he could have easily traded him -- said 'Go ahead and take a shot at Big Frank,' and brought Milton here. It's been fun."

Fun, and a complete change of approach.

A year ago, the A's prepared for life without the Big Three of Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. Oakland swapped Hudson and Mulder in a three-day span in December 2004, leaving many wondering whether Beane had gone mad.

He stood by the decision, which has since allowed him to land the other key pieces he believes the A's need to end a two-year playoff drought.

"All the pieces are there for it," said Chavez, who has won five straight Gold Gloves. "[Billy's] got such a good track record, he doesn't need approval from anybody. At times, with the Hudson and Mulder thing, I was a little bit disgruntled and I think fans were a little bit disgruntled. Look at the position we're in now."

The additions of Bradley and Thomas were not without risk. Bradley is known for his volatile behavior, including a run-in last season with Dodger teammate Jeff Kent. Beane and Bradley have said a fresh start might be the best thing for him.

"For me, it's more about the people," Bradley said. "There's not one 'leader' or vocal guy. It's pretty much a team effort. That's what I like about it."

The 37-year-old Thomas, who needs 52 homers to reach the 500 mark, played in only 34 games last season because of two separate left ankle fractures while with the Chicago White Sox. He hasn't appeared in a regular-season game since July.

Thomas, who has vowed to "suck it up and play as much as possible," is confident he can stay healthy and even compared this A's team to the World Series-winning White Sox.

"There are great young pitchers, guys who can go the distance," Thomas said. "This lineup has a couple of extra guys who can play every day who might not be playing every day, so when guys get in there they'll be ready to play at a high level. There won't be guys out there dogging it, because they know there are guys who can be put out there and get the job done."

Zito was always the first of the Big Three rumored to be on the trading block. In the end, he's the last one still around despite rumors he'd be gone in the offseason.

Although it still could happen before his contract is up this fall, Beane is committed to doing all he can to try to keep the left-hander -- though that will be a huge challenge considering the kind of money he could demand. Zito has never missed a start and he's a former AL Cy Young award winner.

Having Zito around this season is what means the most to Chavez.

"Everybody wants to talk about how loosey-goosey he is, but he's so committed to the game," Chavez said.

And Zito has quite the supporting cast of pitchers, including reigning AL rookie of the year closer Huston Street. Rich Harden is ready for a big season after injuries slowed his 2005 campaign, and 14-game winner Dan Haren and 12-game winner Joe Blanton begin their second full years as starters.

Health was a big problem for the A's last season.

Harden won 10 games but missed more than a month after going down Aug. 19 with a strained muscle beneath his throwing shoulder. Shortstop Bobby Crosby spent two stints on the disabled list, first sidelined from April 5 to May 29 with two broken ribs after an opening-day injury at Baltimore.

The A's went 55-24 for a .696 winning percentage from the day he came back May 30 to Aug. 27, when he got hurt again -- also at Camden Yards, in a collision with Oriole catcher Sal Fasano.

But Oakland is now better fit to handle the times it's short-handed.

"That's always been one of the problems with our team. We haven't had a lot of depth," second baseman Mark Ellis said.

"This is the first time since I've been here that we've actually had depth on our team. It's a credit to our management, and it also says that we're ready to win. We want to win now and we want to go deep in the playoffs."

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