A's moving in the direction of possibly contending

December, 4, 2008
Robothal on what might be a fascinating turn of events in Oakland:

    The A's remain the front-runner to sign free-agent shortstop Rafael Furcal, but that might not be their last major off-season move.

    Picture Randy Johnson in the green and gold, winning his 300th game in an Oakland uniform.

    The idea is not as bizarre as it might sound.

    The A's are targeting Johnson to be their fifth starter, major-league sources say, figuring he would give their rotation a veteran presence while commanding only a one-year deal.

    At the moment, the A's top four starters are Justin Duchscherer, Dana Eveland, Gio Gonzalez and Sean Gallagher. None of them threw as many innings last season as Johnson did for the Diamondbacks -- 184.

    Johnson, who is only five victories short of 300, could boost attendance as he approached that milestone. With Johnson, Furcal and left fielder Matt Holliday, the A's would gain not only star power, but also the chance to contend.

    Don't look for free-agent designated hitter Jason Giambi to join that group. Rather than bring him back, the A's might prefer to take a chance on a trade for Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson, who missed most of last season with a right-wrist injury.

Here's what I want to write about this:

    If the A's sign Rafael Furcal and Randy Johnson and Jason Giambi (oft-injured Johnson is the last thing the oft-injured Athletics need), they'll be my front-runners in the American League West. Particularly if the Angels don't sign CC Sabathia or bring back Mark Teixeira. Furcal, if he's healthy, would represent a huge upgrade over Bobby Crosby. Johnson and Giambi's underlying performances in 2008 both suggest they'll be relative bargains in 2009.

I've written about Johnson before, but just to review a few key points:

• He started 30 games this year, and in fact has started at least 30 games in four of the last five seasons

• His underlying stats were even better than his 3.91 ERA

• Relatedly, his strikeout rate this year was the sixth best in the National League.

I don't know that I've written about Giambi, so I'll note here that Giambi hit 32 homers and drew 76 walks in 2008. As a hitter, his only weakness was that he batted only .247. … But according to this important study (about which more later), Giambi was terribly unlucky in 2008 and was fundamentally a .280 hitter rather a .250 hitter.

Johnson's 45 and Giambi's almost 38. But the best predictor of future performance is not age, but past performance. And each player's past performance suggests he'll perform effectively in the majors in 2009.

So why can't I write what I want to write? Because while I'd be more than comfortable with Randy Johnson as my No. 5 starter, I'm worried that he might wind up as the A's No. 1 starter. Duchscherer was hurt last year, and the combination of Eveland, Gallagher and Gonzalez have combined for the thrilling total of 15 wins as major league starters: nine for Eveland, five for Gallagher and one for Gonzalez.

I don't care who the A's sign this winter. Considering their projected rotation, I think it's impossible to rate them as anything but possible contenders before next June or July.



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