The A's were on the borderline of contention when they traded Rich Harden and Joe Blanton in July. But their 24-42 record after the All-Star break was predicated more on bad hitting than bad pitching. The A's finished last in the American League with a .242 team average and 646 runs.
On the brighter side, however, GM Billy Beane stockpiled young talent with those trades, as well as preseason deals that cost the A's pitcher Dan Haren, outfielders Nick Swisher and Mark Kotsay, and infielder Marco Scutaro. The A's used an Oakland-record 21 rookies in 2008, and also set a record with 25 uses of the disabled list.
The A's desperately need to shore up their offense, and will be looking for a big bat or three. Beane may try to find an under-the-radar talent on the free-agent market (one of his favorite exercises) or he may package some of his young pitching for an impact bat.
The A's are also talking about putting injury-riddled veteran Eric Chavez at first base. Chavez has had shoulder and back problems that limited him to 23 games last year, but first base may be less of a load on his body. A return by Chavez, who hit 27 homers and drove in 101 runs as recently as 2005, would help considerably.
The A's hit it big on the Big Hurt in 2006 (39 homers, 114 RBIs), but not so much last year (five HRs, 19 RBIs in 55 games). It's unlikely he'll be back, and the other two almost certainly won't be. Beane, meanwhile, loves to find hidden gems in the free-agent market, and is willing to wait until the end of the process to do so.
Any player who is nearing free agency with Oakland is ripe for a trade. That list includes shortstop Bobby Crosby and pitcher Justin Duchscherer, who made the AL All-Star team but was shut down with a hip injury in the second half.
The A's are loaded with prospects, including Carlos Gonzalez, acquired in the Haren trade. He will be the everyday center fielder after hitting .242 in 85 games last year.
Gio Gonzalez (no relation) came from the White Sox in the Swisher trade, and the A's love him despite some struggles last year (1-4 with a 7.68 ERA in 10 games, seven of them starts). He'll compete for a rotation spot. Look out also for lefty Brett Anderson, a member of the U.S. Olympic team who came in the Haren deal, and first baseman Chris Carter, who led the organization with 39 homers at Class A Stockton.
The A's lived and died -- mainly died -- with their youth in 2008, especially on offense. But their hope is that once-heralded prospects like Daric Barton and Travis Buck will rebound in 2009 from poor seasons. If Beane picked up as much talent as he believes with his trades, there are many more bats (and arms) on the way up.
The A's believe their pitching is in excellent shape after finishing fourth in the AL with a 4.01 ERA (second in relief ERA at 3.50) with an exceedingly young staff; 58 of their 161 games (36 percent) were started by rookies. And two rookie relievers were particular standouts -- Ziegler, who led all major league relievers with a 1.06 ERA, and Joey Devine, who set a major league record for ERA among pitchers with 40 or more innings (0.59).
Larry Stone is the national baseball writer for The Seattle Times. Click here to visit the Times' Web site.