Billy Beane has been credited as the mastermind behind the Athletics' four division championships and 901 wins in his 10 seasons as general manager. Baseball people hail him as the guy who brought into the mainstream the use of statistical research in game strategy, draft approach and roster construction. There is even a book, "Moneyball," about his exploits. Perhaps you have heard of it?
But after 10 long years of squeezing something out of seemingly nothing, Beane decided this winter, finally, that it's time to start fresh, go young, rebuild. Sure, you could call many of his past attempts to plug holes created by trades or free agency "rebuilding," but in those past years, Beane's stance was adamant: His team could nay, his team would contend that upcoming season. And, for the most part, it did.
Not this year.
Beane went the clear rebuilding route this winter, dealing off Dan Haren and Nick Swisher, and letting Mike Piazza and Shannon Stewart depart via free agency. He frequently was rumored to be shopping Joe Blanton, Eric Chavez and Huston Street, the last vestiges of the 2006 division-title winner. In these players' places are younger, cheaper options -- younger, cheaper options than ever before in the Beane era.
As you can see by our forecasted lineup and rotation, there no longer are a lot of exciting fantasy players in Oakland, and most folks believe this is a 100-loss team. Don't automatically condemn a Beane team to that fate -- he is the "mastermind," after all -- but rank this squad among the most likely candidates. Ultimately, there will be Athletics players fantasy owners will have to select. However, this is the kind of rebuilding project that could take a couple of years to fully pay off.
Ballpark: During the Beane era, McAfee Coliseum has quietly, yet consistently, ranked among the most notable pitchers' parks in the game. In 2007, it ranked as the American League's most pitching-friendly environment in terms of runs scored and second-most in home runs. That was in spite of its virtually symmetrical outfield dimensions and merely league-average measurements to the outfield fences.
So what, then, makes McAfee such an advantageous place for pitchers? Its spacious foul territory, easily the most generous foul grounds in all of baseball, especially down the outfield foul lines. Countless popups that might drift into the stands in another park remain in play for outs. Athletics pitchers had a home ERA of 3.79, nearly a full run better than their road ERA of 4.81 in 2007. And with this year's offense considerably thinner than last year's model, expect a noticeable benefit when your pitchers are at McAfee.
Intriguing spring battle: It's all in the outfield, where the Athletics feature a motley crew of up-and-comers (Travis Buck, Chris Denorfia, Carlos Gonzalez and Ryan Sweeney) and late-blooming veterans (Emil Brown and Jack Cust). The key to the three spots might hinge upon center field, where Denorfia is widely considered to be the favorite, assuming full health. If he is good to go -- and all indications are he will -- then Brown and Buck can man the corner spots, barring a spring surprise by one of the kids, Gonzalez or Sweeney, or the emergence of Dan Johnson as the designated hitter, which would push Cust to the outfield. In all likelihood, Brown and Buck will see the most at-bats of the bunch, but if Gonzalez, Johnson or Sweeney stands out in the spring, you will have yourself a deep-league sleeper.
Platoons: A team looking to rebuild can't help but piece together several positions, which might end up being the case at left field and designated hitter. It's at those two spots that the team has a right-handed power source who can mash left-handed pitching: Brown and Mike Sweeney. Though neither Brown nor Sweeney has much upside in the event either sees regular at-bats. More likely, both Brown and Sweeney will stand in the way of regular at-bats for Daric Barton, Cust and/or Johnson, which actually isn't a good thing for fantasy.
Schedule preview: Check your league's rules, because this team kicks off the 2008 MLB season with back-to-back games against the Red Sox on March 25 and 26 in Japan. Will those statistics count? If not, that means only 160 games' production from your Athletics, and since both of those outings are Athletics "home games," that means only 79 will be played at McAfee this season. Another thing to consider: The last time two teams began a season in Japan, in 2004, the Yankees returned to the States and underperformed, going 7-10 in their next 17 contests, while the Devil Rays went an awful 9-27 in their next 36. It's very possible this team could look sluggish in early April, especially playing no one but the Red Sox, Indians and Blue Jays in its first 13 contests.
Trainer's room: In 2007, for the third consecutive year, Rich Harden could not dodge the disabled list; in fact, he spent more time on the shelf than ever before. He also looked better than he ever had in the spring, fooling a good share of fantasy owners and further demonstrating his high-risk, high-reward status. Harden already is raving about his health, but he could look extraordinary in the spring and still rank as one of the riskiest picks around. That's his deal; he had a 2.92 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and .199 batting average allowed the past three seasons combined, but he pitched 200.1 innings.
The aforementioned Denorfia should be fully healed from Tommy John surgery come March, and he was a .296 hitter with an .818 OPS in his career in the Reds' minor league system. Chavez, now 30, is coming off three surgeries -- one on each shoulder, another on his back -- but is expected to be fine for spring training. His skills have eroded in recent years due to his poor health, and he will need a standout exhibition season to be trusted by most fantasy owners. Justin Duchscherer had hip surgery last July but should be healthy enough to compete for a rotation spot once camps open. The Athletics believe asking him to pitch fewer days will maintain his health.
Chad Gaudin is coming off December surgeries on his hip and foot and is not assured of being ready for Opening Day. Bobby Crosby, who fell short of 100 games in each of the past three seasons, said in January that he is ready for the start of spring training. Like Harden, though, he ranks among the game's biggest health risks.
Prospects to watch for 2008: Barton played every inning of the Athletics' final 18 games in 2007 and batted .347 with four home runs and a 1.068 OPS. That put him in line for regular at-bats and, most likely, the No. 2 spot in the lineup, where he batted in all but two games last year. Although the Athletics' lineup won't be particularly potent, Barton's high OBP (.412) and contact rate (one strikeout per 6.22 at-bats) in his minor league career suggest he will be a safe bet in both batting average and runs scored (at the very least). That will keep him useful to fantasy owners while he develops power, which, since he is only 22, might take a couple of years.
The two Gonzalez boys -- Carlos, acquired in the Haren trade, and Gio, picked up in the Swisher deal -- provide the highest upside of the Athletics' other prospects. Carlos might lack the high OBP the team generally favors, but he is a future middle-of-the-order slugger, and he is maybe only a half-season away from being big league-ready. His ceiling might be higher than that of any current Athletics hitter other than Barton. Gio, meanwhile, is a future No. 2 or 3 big league starter who should get a shot in the thinned-out Oakland rotation sometime this season. He will get a long look in the spring and is a strikeout machine, having led the minor leagues in the category in 2007 with 185.
Future closer: Although Alan Embree was Street's fill-in while the latter spent time on the DL last season, Joey Devine is the name most often mentioned as Street's potential long-term replacement. If that name sounds familiar, it should; he was considered a sleeper for saves in Atlanta entering 2006, before a degenerative disc in his lower back cost him much of the season. Fully healthy last season, Devine dominated as a closer in the Braves' minor league system, notching 20 saves with a 1.89 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 50 appearances. He will need a strong spring to emerge as the primary setup man to Street on Opening Day, but with his talent, it won't be long before he elevates himself into that role.
Prospects to watch for the future: Keep an eye on Brett Anderson, also included in the Haren deal, and Faustino De Los Santos, acquired in the Swisher trade. Both pitchers should be on the fast track with the Oakland franchise rebuilding, and each profiles as at least a No. 3 big league starter in the long term. We might see both sometime in 2009.
The Athletics also might have picked up both their future right fielder (Aaron Cunningham) and DH (Chris Carter) in the Haren deal. Cunningham could reach Triple-A this summer and profiles as a modest five-category performer in the long term, while Carter, a tremendous power source, has an outside chance at getting to Double-A.
Base-running philosophy: Beane's philosophy long has been "don't risk outs," which, when applied to base-stealing tactics, means "don't ever steal." The numbers back it up. The 2007 Athletics attempted fewer steals than any other team with just 72, and under Beane, the Athletics haven't ranked higher than 27th in the category. In fact, from 2005 through 2007, the Athletics totaled 206 stolen-base attempts; by comparison, the Mets had more than that, 246, in 2007 alone.
Granted, Beane might not be the manager, but this team consistently has kept the steal out of its playbook regardless of manager, whether Art Howe, Ken Macha or Bob Geren. That tells you who really is calling the shots. In other words, if you were counting on a repeat of Brown's 12 steals or Crosby's 10, prepare for disappointment. This is a lumbering, walk-driven offense -- always has been -- and it's possible no current member of the roster will crack double-digit steals in 2008.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.