Baseball Season Preview: Oakland A's

You might remember, from back at the beginning of the NFL season, when we previewed each team by having a writer we liked write about their favorite team.

Well, we're less than a month away from the start of baseball — spring training is here! — so it's time to do the same thing in the baseball world. Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.

Today: The Oakland A's. Your author is Melissa Lockard.

Melissa Lockard writes the AthleticSupporter site, and she also began the OaklandClubhouse.com site on the Scout.com network, where she covers the A's minor league system. Her words are after the jump.

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It's a storyline so clich , you would have thought it was written by Paul Haggis. Every year, it seems, the obituaries are written during spring training. The once powerful Oakland A's are dead at last, destined for third place in the AL West, thanks to the loss of XYZ superstar player. Then the season starts and the team stumbles out of the gate, usually punctuated by a late-April/early-May series sweep in New York, followed by some horrible loss in Tampa Bay or Kansas City. Wasting no time, national "writers" such as Phil Rogers and Murray Chass jump at the chance to conclude that, once and for all, computers cannot play baseball (usually while at the same time concluding that college punters are exceptionally good at it). By the time these scribes finish pecking away at their Smith Corona Classic 12 typewriters, a funny thing has happened: The computers have rebooted and the A's have started winning.

This generally happens right around the start of interleague play (the A's are tied with the Yankees for the most interleague wins since the start of the schedule; thanks Bud Selig!) and usually doesn't end until some horribly painful, but all-important series in late September or early October. By the time September rolls around, the same scribes are manually typing the same incredulous stories about how Billy Beane has once again pulled a rabbit out of a hat and guided his team into postseason contention.

The ending of this story is also sadly predictable. The exact date and location may change, but the meltdown always occurs. In 2000-2003, the meltdowns took place during the American League Divisional Series. To keep it fresh, the team found different ways to take a win and make it a loss every time. One year, it was a routine flyball lost in the dusk by a man who should have never been allowed to play centerfield (but, amusingly, was allowed to continue playing out in center for two more seasons). The next year, it was a non-slide of a back-up DH who was only on first base because his manager forgot he had a speedy Eric Byrnes available to pinch-run.

The year after, it was Billy Koch, who so thoroughly imploded in the ninth inning of Game 5 that a three-run homer in the bottom half of the inning still wasn't enough to tie the game. The year after, it was a remarkable inability to touch home-plate by not one, but two players in the same inning (!), making one wonder if it would have even mattered if Art Howe had pinch-run Byrnes back in 2001 since he probably would have missed home plate anyway (although he probably would have shoved Derek Jeter, which may have made the whole thing worth it).

The script changed slightly in 2004 and 2005, as the team managed to save its fans the scarring image of another playoff loss by melting down in the final weeks of the regular season rather than in the playoffs. And then, in 2006, the team thought it would be fun to win a playoff series and really get its fanbase excited before folding the tent and going home (the Magglio Ordonez walk-off was an especially nice, Kirk Gibson-esque touch).

And so we come to 2007. Once again, the scribes are busy writing those familiar articles. "How will the A's survive the loss of Barry Zito and Frank Thomas?" "How will the team compete with the lowest payroll in the division?" and "What the heck is VORP, anyway, and how does it compete with the Rally Monkey?"

It doesn't take Allison DuBois to see how this will all play out. The team will stink at the start of the season, and by mid-May, everyone (including myself, probably, as I never learn) will declare the team dead. Then the A's will rattle off 30 wins in a 40-game period and suddenly by the All-Star Break, they will have the division lead in their sights. After the break, the A's will either make a trade no one was expecting or they will welcome back one of their injured players. Said roster change will be the catalyst for a torrid August, during which time, they will take control of the division.

Come September, they will have either built up enough of a lead to hold off the Angels/Mariners/Rangers for first place, or they will crumble in the final week and lose the division, probably by allowing Jose Molina or Willie Bloomquist to hit a walk-off home run in the decisive game. If they survive September, the A's will then embark on another playoff adventure, which will end in some gruesome fashion, probably involving Nick Swisher running the bases the wrong way after a game-winning homer, which will disallow the runs or something like that.

Or this will be the year that the wheels really do fall off, and Joe Morgan will smugly blame it all on Billy Beane taking too much time to write Moneyball?

Here are a five keys to the 2007 season:

1) Rich Harden and Dan Haren must stay healthy. Barry Zito was easily the third most talented pitcher on the A's staff last season, and while neither Harden nor Haren have sung (badly) with John Mayer or have dated Alyssa Milano, both should be far more successful than Zito was last season if they don't get hurt. If either goes down for an extended period of time, the A's pitching staff will be decidedly mediocre.

2) Milton Bradley must rake and stay healthy. Bradley is the most talented member of the A's roster and could easily be an All-Star this season. He could just as easily blow out a hamstring during the season's second week and miss most of the season. The A's need him in the lineup and producing to avoid being the worst offensive team in the league.

3) Huston Street needs his mojo back. Street blew 11 saves last season, and his ERA went up more than a run from his rookie season. Yet his peripheral stats would suggest that he actually was just as good last season as he was in 2005. Last year, he joined an illustrious list of A's closers who have allowed dramatic homeruns in the playoffs. Will he recover like Dennis Eckersley or end up heckling the Blue Jays from the bleachers like Billy Koch? I'm guessing the former, but we'll have to wait and see. Fantasy sleeper: If Street struggles early in the season, look for Justin Duchscherer to gobble up some saves. He may be the best reliever in the league that very few people have heard of.

4) Marco Scutaro needs to stop poking pins in the Bobby Crosby voodoo doll. Since being named the A's starting shortstop in 2004, Crosby has managed to crash violently into two players (injuring himself and his teammates in the process), break his ribs and his back by swinging too hard, get badly spiked at second taking a throw during a 15-2 Opening Day blowout and break his ankle slamming into the leg of the brick wall that is Sal Fasano. It seems hard to believe that one man could incur so much bad luck, until you consider who has benefited the most from Crosby's absence: Marco Scutaro. Scutaro made the team in 2004 when Crosby took-out Mark Ellis in a spring training collision. Scutaro was then saved from the final team cuts in 2005 when Crosby broke his ribs. And last season, Scutaro was only given the opportunity to single-handedly bring down the Minnesota Twins and Steve Lyons in the playoffs because Crosby was hurt. I'm just saying...

5) Billy Beane needs to get trigger happy again. It has been three seasons since Billy Beane pulled off a mid-season "Fuckin-A" trade, and the natives are getting restless. From 1999-2003, Beane could always be counted on to make an "out-of-nowhere" trade that strengthened the A's midseason and made Pat Gillick and the Mariners cry. However, since that time, Beane has been eerily quiet during the season. Oh, sure, there has been the trade for the occasional spare part like Jay Payton or Joe Kennedy, but we expect more. I can only imagine that Beane has been saving up his energy these past three seasons for the biggest and baddest "Fuckin-A" deal of all-time. I'm predicting seven teams and A-Rod's involvement somewhere.