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Barton may reach Oakland next year

7/10/2005 - Oakland Athletics

DETROIT -- "Traded for Mark Mulder."

It's amazing they don't print those words on the back of Daric Barton's uniform -- right there where his name is supposed to go.

"Traded for Mark Mulder."

It's not just a line out of the December transactions column, not for this guy. For Daric Barton, it's a label he'll be carrying around forever, like a second equipment bag.

He knows now -- because he'll never be allowed to forget it -- that when the A's and Cardinals started talking about Mulder last winter, one of the first things Billy Beane told Walt Jocketty was: "If we're going to make a deal, Daric Barton has to be in it."

And so, when that deal finally went down last Dec. 18, Barton was in it, all right. But he was more than just a piece in it.

At 19 years old, not much more than a year and a half after his final game in high school, Barton had, essentially, turned into the player who will define that deal.

Dan Haren has been terrific in the Oakland rotation. Kiko Calero has been a useful bullpen part. But this trade wasn't about them, not really.

If Barton turns into the on-base machine he appears to be, Billy Beane gets another check in the genius column. If not, you'll all be officially permitted to ask: What the heck were the A's thinking when they made that trade?

But when Barton showed up Sunday for the Futures Game, he didn't walk or talk like a guy whose life has been jolted off the tracks just because he found himself the centerpiece in a major baseball blockbuster.

"I don't know that it's changed my life," he said. "It was awesome, actually, just being in the same sentence with Mark Mulder. I look at it as an honor, being traded, and hearing I was the key guy in the trade. It's just amazing to think that could happen, that our ability can get us this far."

Yeah, it sure is amazing what a little ability can do for a guy. And Barton's astonishing ability, at such a young age, to work counts, drive the ball the other way and relentlessly grind his way on base has made him the talk of the minor leagues.

At 18, in his first full professional season, he was second in all of minor-league baseball last year in on-base percentage (.445). This year at Stockton, in the Class A California League, he skidded all the way down to a .438 OBP before he was bumped to Double-A -- where, naturally, he reached base in 11 of his first 18 trips to the plate.

"I let him start out slow," said his manager, Von Hayes, on Sunday. "Then, the last couple of games, I put him right into the No. 3 hole. And he's handled it great."

Hayes invokes the name Tony Gwynn when he describes Barton's pure, inside-out stroke. A's assistant GM David Forst says: "We evaluate him as one of, if not the best young hitter in the minor leagues. What he did last year in the Midwest League, at 18 years old, was as good as anyone who has played in that league since Albert Pujols."

Yeah, those names you just read were Gwynn and Pujols, all right. So if there are any more questions about how this guy became the centerpiece of the Mulder trade, we're assuming that answers those questions.

And yet, when 30 big-time hitting prospects assembled Sunday for that Futures Game, Daric Barton was one of the last guys the occupants of Section 127, just behind home plate, were focusing on.

But that's only because Section 127 was a place Sunday where you found GMs, assistant GMs, scouting directors and a whole lot of other folks who wouldn't be sticking around for the All-Star Legends and Celebrities Softball Game.

And the only reason those folks weren't bearing down on Barton was because they were looking for the next Daric Barton.

In the next few weeks, their teams will be talking about some potentially monumental deals of their own. And every year, two or three or four of the players in the Futures Game find themselves a part of those monumental deals.

"When you make a trade," said Brewers GM Doug Melvin on Sunday, "you always feel better if you can say, 'I just traded for a guy I saw in the Futures Game.' "

So Melvin was there. And Allard Baird of the Royals. And Terry Ryan of the Twins. And Dave Littlefield of the Pirates. And Dan O'Brien of the Reds. Looking for flashes of talent. Looking for prospects who can be a part of their next mega-deal.

"You always feel better about trading for a guy if you've seen him," Melvin said. "It's kind of like when I moved to Milwaukee and told my wife I was going to buy a house without her seeing it. That didn't go over very well. Well, it's the same way with players.

"Last year, Jose Capellan (later obtained by Milwaukee in the Danny Kolb trade) threw one inning in this game. I didn't see it in person, but we had a video and I saw that. He threw a great inning, and sometimes that's all you need to convince yourself to make a deal -- one inning."

But it wasn't just Capellan who was traded last year within a few months of showing his stuff in the Futures Game.

Yankees catcher Dioner Navarro later became a big piece of the Randy Johnson and Shawn Green deals.

Marlins prospect Bill Murphy was part of both the Guillermo Mota and Steve Finley trades.

Dodgers catcher Koyie Hill was also traded for Finley.

And this July, you might be substituting names like Andy LaRoche (Dodgers third-base prospect) or Kevin Thompson (Yankees outfield prospect) or Fausto Carmona (Indians pitching prospect) for those names, in a whole new set of deals for players whose names you're much more familiar with.

In other words, players who will be this year's Mark Mulders and Daric Bartons.

But it isn't always easy to be a young guy in the middle of The Trade Everybody's Talking About. And Barton's manager knows that as well as anyone.

Von Hayes was once traded to the Phillies for five guys, including Manny Trillo and Julio Franco. And he spent the rest of his career trying to live with the spotlight that deal shoved him into. So he can relate really well to his new first baseman.

"And I don't just relate to the part about being traded," Hayes said, "but also getting off on the wrong foot with health. Daric came to big-league spring training and had a tough spring. I think his elbow (which had required offseason surgery) was still bothering him, so he had to just DH. Then later he had (appendix surgery). So he had a lot going on, with the trade and everything else. ...

"But when I got him in Double-A, I couldn't believe the difference -- in his swing, in his bat, in his attitude. Everything."

What's helped Barton adjust, however, is that there couldn't possibly have been a better fit for his natural count-grinding skills than the A's team he got traded to. Not only does this guy not feel that constant itch to hack away at every pitch, he doesn't even take any loosen-up swings between pitches.

So he's a hitter right off that Oakland A's assembly line. And he's well aware of that.

"The A's organization is big on patience," Barton said, on a day when he got just one Futures Game at-bat (and, fittingly, took the first four pitches he saw before striking out on a 2-2 pitch). "I'm a guy who gets a lot of walks, sees a lot of pitches and gets on base. And that's what this organization is about."

While other A's prospects are handed rules about taking more pitches, Barton is a guy who remembers approaching life this way for as long as he can remember holding a bat.

"I think it's just a natural ability he has," said Rockies special-assignment scout Terry Wetzel. "I don't know how he learned it. But he had it in high school, and he's carried it through professional baseball."

And now it's lugged him to a point where the A's quietly talk about getting him to the big leagues by next year. The only question is what glove he'll be wearing when he gets there.

He was mostly a third baseman in high school. He got drafted as a catcher. He's played first base this year. And his most likely destination is probably the outfield. So he could surface practically anywhere.

"Well," Barton chuckled, "I don't think you'll see me on the mound."

"Basically," Forst said, "we figure his bat is going to get him to the big leagues. And we don't want defense or position to stunt his development in any way. We still don't know what position he'll wind up at. But what we do know is that his bat is major-league quality. ... Let's just say that when his bat is ready, we'll find a spot for him."

And for the record, Barton doesn't much care where that spot is -- as long as it's in Oakland.

"Position is definitely not a big deal," he said. "I just look at it as, every day I get a little more experience. When they're ready, and they think I'M ready, great. Until then, whatever happens, happens."

Maybe, however, it's easier for him to say that than many of the guys around him in that Futures Game clubhouse -- because, unlike them, Daric Barton's big trading adventure has already happened. So he knows just where he's going, even if he'll always be shadowed by the 20-game winner he once got traded for.

"He's one guy who's not going to worry about that," said his manager. "This kid can hit. It's just a matter of staying healthy, getting his at-bats and doing as much damage as he can with that bat. And as good as he is, I can't see him not doing a whole lot of damage."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.