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A's, Tribe in unfamiliar territory

Special to

May 25

They are the fallen lords -- the Oakland Athletics at the bottom of the AL West cellar stairs and the Cleveland Indians, after an 11-1 start, struggling to stay ahead of the Tigers in the AL Central after being swept in Detroit earlier this week.

The A's are coming off 91 and 102-win campaigns in each of the respective last two seasons with what appears to be one of the best Big Threes of any pitching staff in the game. The Indians are coming off eight years of power and glory, six division championships, two trips to the World Series and seasons of sellouts at The Jake.

Bartolo Colon
If they're able to strike the right deal, the Indians may trade Bartolo Colon before the July 31 deadline.

But now the A's and Indians are retreating, trying to regather and reassemble the talent to return to the top in the next two years. The A's this week essentially sold off Jeremy Giambi, sending him to the Phillies for John Mabry, and by this time next week likely will have shipped out two or three more veteran players so they can afford to sign their draft choices -- they have nine of the first 39 picks in the upcoming draft -- and restock their farm system.

The Indians, meanwhile, have let it be known they will entertain inquiries on a number of their veterans -- Bartolo Colon, Jim Thome, Ricardo Rincon, Travis Fryman -- as they attempt to restock their franchise with young corner players and hope that they are ready to restore themselves to the top of the AL Central by 2004.

"This is life on margin," says Oakland GM Billy Beane. "When we don't have our pitching, it makes us seem thin." Indeed, what was the league's prime rotation front in 2001 has been derailed; Tim Hudson has been hit hard four straight starts, Mark Mulder has struggled in his two starts since coming off the disabled list and the only one of their prime starters to have won this month is Barry Zito.

"We knew our margin for error was thin," says Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro.

The two young outfielders who were the keys to the reshaping the Indians this past offseason, Milton Bradley and Alex Escobar, have been hurt, Thome and Fryman have had dreadful starts -- the once-powerful Tribe offense has scored the third fewest runs in the league -- and, to worsen things on a team being redesigned around pitching, C.C. Sabathia, who won 17 games as a rookie last year, has been going through a painful growing process.

What it demonstrates should be obvious. In both cases, unless one is in the revenue upper class, it is practically impossible to compete for a prolonged time period (and while the Braves are in the top six or seven in payrolls, it is still remarkable they have maintained their excellence for 12 straight seasons). Oakland is trying to make do with the second smallest payroll in the league, less than one-third that of the Yankees, 37 percent of that of Boston. Cleveland is coping with the evolutionary reality that ballpark revenues alone do not make a rich franchise, and as the Indians -- remember, they haven't won a postseason series since 1998 and with the exception of the 2000 White Sox had been playing in the league's weakest division since they rose to power -- got old, had to be reobstructed and had to downsize and the luster came off The Jake.

Neither Beane nor Shapiro is asking for sympathy. "We have to get turned back around, but while we do what we have to do, we're not touching the core of this team," says Beane. Look, signing nine of the first 39 picks is going to require a scouting signing budget close to $10 million, even if Oakland drafts some seniors (fortunately, there are some very good ones, such as Harvard right-hander Ben Crockett, Clemson shortstop Khalil Greene and Wake Forest right-hander David Bush).

And with Hudson and Mulder struggling, the losses of Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen have been too great to replace; Damon's defense (the A's are second-to-last in catching balls put in play), speed, energy and ability to allow Terrence Long to be comfortable in left field are irreplaceable. And while Beane was able to get Billy Koch to fill Isringhausen's role, the fact is that he had to deal Eric Hinske to get Koch, and not only is Hinske a front-runner for AL Rookie of the Year, but if not for being traded he could be in the middle of Oakland's order either playing first base or left field.

Tim Hudson
Tim Hudson is 3-6 with a 4.60 ERA in 11 starts this year for the A's.

So Beane has to further pare the fringe of his roster of seven figure players who he must determine tangible from amongst Cory Lidle, Mike Magnante, Mike Holtz, Olmedo Saenz, David Justice, et al. Eric Chavez, Jermaine Dye, Miguel Tejada, Hudson, Mulder, Zito and kids like Esteban German and Carlos Pena are not going anywhere, just awaiting the next group of players Beane can uncover.

Unfortunately, German is the last of the positional players near the top of the farm system, and the next group of pitchers out of last year's draft -- left-hander John Rheinecker and righty Mike Wood -- have just recently reached Double-A.

Then Beane fights another clock, for even if he's able to have a boffo draft and, say, he gets North Carolina's Russ Adams, Green and a couple of college pitchers who come quickly, by the time they're getting established, it will be time to play truth or dare with Chavez, Tejada and the pitchers unless there is a significant change in the market social structure.

Few general managers have received more praise for creativity, work ethic and evaluation skills than Beane, but at a $40 million payroll, there is no escape for a two-month slide when the starters' ERA is over 5.00; the Twins and Blue Jays know about this, precisely. Baseball is a reflection of the ethics of the '80s and '90s where the dichotomy between economic classes widens geometrically, as both the owners and players see the average and means go their separate ways and an increasingly smaller percentage get an increasingly larger share of the pot.

In Cleveland's case, the shift from the '95 to '54 Indians turned out to be more complicated than expected because so many of the remaining veterans have struggled. Shapiro wasn't going to be able to keep Juan Gonzalez (who still doesn't have an RBI through Friday). Shapiro also wasn't going to be able to keep Roberto Alomar past this season.

Shapiro makes it clear he isn't "shopping" Colon or Thome. "But, I'd be crazy not to explore the market to see what's there in case we decide we need to move later on," he says. "I think everyone knows this isn't a strong sellers market, because there aren't many teams taking on money." There is also another serious problem hovering over any team that may want to take chips or free agents and move them for rebuilding tools, like the Tigers (Jeff Weaver), Orioles (Scott Erickson), Blue Jays, Marlins (Cliff Floyd), Pirates or Royals (Jeff Suppan) -- the threat of a strike.

"No one is going to take a short-term answer, a free-agent-to-be like Floyd, Thome or Justice, at the trading deadline and give up anything if there's a chance the game is going to be shut down three weeks later," says one NL GM.

As a reminder, this is what happened in 1994 when the potential of a strike loomed on the horizon (and hit on Aug. 12), and then few had any idea what suicidal disregard and disrespect both sides have for their sport, or business. These are the five biggest trades made in June and July of that year, and, yes, this was the end for Tom Brunansky, Steve Farr, Dave Valle and Jeff Russell:

The Five Biggest Trades, June 1-July 31, 1994

  • Boston traded catcher Dave Valle to Milwaukee for outfielder Tom Brunansky.
  • Boston traded right-hander Jeff Russell to Cleveland for lefty Chris Nabholz and righty Steve Farr.
  • Philadelphia traded right-hander Shawn Boskie to Seattle for a player to be named player (Fred McNair).
  • Pittsburgh traded first baseman/outfielder Brian Hunter to Cincinnati for a player to be named later (Micah Franklin).
  • Houston traded righty Tom Edens to Philadelphia for outfielder Milt Thompson.

    That list inspires this comparison: if, on June 16, the Marlins trad Marty Malloy to the Pirates for Mike Benjamin, and that turned out to be the biggest trade made before this upcoming July 31 trading deadline.

    "It may be that if you're going to be able to make a trade, it has to be made earlier rather than later," says Shapiro. "So that necessitates some decisions. We'll see."

    Thome is a fit for some teams, but some, like Boston, have no high-level positional prospects in their systems to use as trade bait. There is no question Thome is a better hitter than his current performance indicates, and he is a tremendous person. But Thome's 1.040 OPS from last season altered a career line that makes one wonder if 2001 were an aberration. Check out this line:

    2002: .872; 2001: 1.040; 2000: .929; 1999: .966; 1998: .997; 1997: 1.002; 1996: 1.062.

    It's a trend line that will be noticed if there is a free-agent market this offseason, and it's a line that may come into play before July 31, as well.

    Colon is a totally different proposition. He is almost 29, he is a free agent in two years and by then he may be too expensive for Cleveland's taste. By 2004, Shapiro hopes that Sabathia, Danys Baez, Ryan Drese, Billy Traber (7-2 at Double-A) and Brian Tallet (3-0, 1.74 at Double-A) will be solid big-league starters. So, if Colon could get him a building block corner positional player, a young pitcher and another prospect -- and Colon's contract is more attractive that that of Jeff Weaver -- then the Indians would have to consider trading him.

    Problem is, who fits that bill? The Red Sox, Giants, Mariners and Cardinals would love to get Colon, but don't have the chips Shapiro seeks. The Twins do have the chips between Mike Restovich, Mike Cuddyer and Justin Morneau, but aren't likely to do such a deal in their current state. The White Sox might, but it's hard for the Indians to give the White Sox a second No. 1 starter to go with Mark Buehrle. How about Scott Rolen for Colon? It only works for Cleveland if Vice President of General Counsel Larry Dolan decides to overpay for character as well as talent, knowing Rolen would love to play in Cleveland.

    So, realistically, the only teams that might fit are the Yankees, Rangers and Reds, and right now before Shapiro could even ask for young prospects Kevin Mench and Hank Blalock, the Rangers aren't buying. And to move Colon to Cincinnati could require the Reds giving up either Adam Dunn or Austin Kearns and that's not going to happen. Would the Yankees deal Nick Johnson, left-handed prospect Brandon Claussen and another prospect (teams have really cooled on outfield prospect Juan Rivera)? If Andy Pettitte breaks down in his upcoming two rehab starts and David Wells and Orlando Hernandez can't stand up straight, then maybe.

    The Indians are deep in pitching, from the majors all the way down to the Class A South Atlantic League. Omar Vizquel and Ricky Gutierrez will be in the middle of the infield for two more years. The catching is fine, with Einar Diaz, Triple-A receiver Josh Bard for defense and Victor Martinez in Double-A, hitting .324 with a .956 OPS, a 22/22 BB/K ratio and five home runs. Escobar should be ready by next spring, Bradley has shown ability and while Matt Lawton hasn't yet hit as he did in Minnesota, his Alomar comparison is interesting (statistics are through Friday):

    Player Avg. R 2B 3B HR RBI SB OPS
    Lawton .250 36 8 2 8 24 5 .805
    Alomar .254 27 6 1 4 17 5 .666

    It's a stretch to believe that Cory Smith, Ryan Church or any of the Indians' better young prospects -- as well as their seven picks in the first 97 selections in the upcoming draft -- could be ready to open the season as regulars in 2004. And if Colon can't bring a truckload, fine, Shapiro will keep him and try to find corner bats in someone else's basement. But it would be folly not to look.

    That's the way it has to be when you're on the downside of the mean wave. Or, in Oakland's case, constantly confronting the perfect storm.

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