After nearly a decade of Billy Beane weaving his small-market Moneyball magic, Oakland had a reality check last season. The A's -- who'd averaged 94 victories over the previous eight years, with four AL West titles and five playoff appearances -- finished 10 games under .500 and just a game ahead of last-place Texas.
Beane must answer two key questions: Do the A's need to be rebuilt, or was last year just an aberration caused by an unfathomable amount of key injuries that cost the team 1,259 games missed by players on the disabled list?
1. The A's must stay healthy. That is especially vital for Rich Harden, who has the stuff to be a dominant No. 1 pitcher, but has started just 13 games the past two years because of shoulder and other problems. Also, shortstop Bobby Crosby (back, hand) hasn't played 100 games in any season since winning rookie of the year in 2004, and third baseman Eric Chavez will be coming back from shoulder surgery in September and back surgery in October.
2. The A's need to add right-handed power. They have decent left-handed pop with Jack Cust (26 homers in 395 at-bats), Nick Swisher (a switch-hitter, but 43 of his 57 homers the past two years were from the left side) and, if healthy, Chavez, but they are lacking a middle-of-the-order hitter from the right side.
3. The A's need to restock their once-thriving farm system. The key to competing with a modest payroll ($79 million in 2007) has been Beane's ability to keep churning out young talent, but it appears that pipeline is drying up. Look for the A's to beef up their Latin American scouting, and at least consider moving an established player in exchange for prospects.
Beane tried to milk one more big season from Piazza, but he was largely an $8 million bust as DH, and won't be re-signed. The A's wouldn't mind bringing back Stewart (.290, 12 homers, 48 RBIs), but only at the right price. The big question, of course, is whether they will go after the slugger across the Bay, former Giant Barry Bonds, who fits the Beane Moneyball profile to perfection. But they have a cheaper alternative in Cust, who doesn't come with baggage. The A's could also dip into the free-agent market to find a back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher after basically selling Esteban Loaiza to the Dodgers (who assumed more than $8 million in guaranteed salary when they claimed Loaiza off waivers in late August).
First baseman Dan Johnson, once a hot prospect, is expendable with the emergence of Daric Barton in September. Harden could possibly be dealt if the A's get tired of waiting for him to get healthy. And if Beane decides to opt for a full-bore rebuilding campaign, then Joe Blanton and even All-Star Dan Haren could be in play.
After hitting .293 for Triple-A Sacramento, Barton was highly impressive during his 18-game September showcase in Oakland, reaching base in every game. He hit .347 with four homers in 72 at-bats and had a .429 on-base percentage and 1.068 OPS. He'll be the everyday first baseman in '08.
No other rookies are being counted on, but keep an eye on second baseman/shortstop Gregorio Petit, who opened eyes at Sacramento last year and could be a factor if Crosby gets hurt again.
This year will test the genius of Beane, who has been a master at keeping the A's in contention through a productive farm system and innovative trades and signings. Except for Barton, the farm system pipeline may be drying up, so don't be surprised if Beane works one of his patented multiteam deals or pulls off an under-the-radar signing or two to jump-start the rebuilding process. After the A's used the disabled list 22 times last year, tying the Oakland record set in 1992, it would help if their key players could stay healthy. But if the A's stumble, Beane could hasten the team's rebuilding process.
Larry Stone is the national baseball writer for The Seattle Times. Click here to visit the Times' Web site.