<
>

Value is up for outfielder

PHOENIX -- Until Eric Byrnes is told to leave the Oakland
Athletics, he'll be happy to be here.

Byrnes was enmeshed in trade rumors all winter, with
destinations from New York to San Diego mentioned for the energetic
outfielder who's never played for another organization. After
working his way from the low minors to an everyday job with the A's
over the past seven seasons, he seemed destined to follow countless
Oakland veterans out the door to bigger paychecks.

But none of the deals panned out, and Byrnes still reported to
camp last week with the A's, who expect him to build on his
breakout season.

"There's not a lot you can do about people talking," Byrnes
said. "You just keep working out in the offseason, and you keep
going what you need to do to keep your job. You can try to keep
track of that stuff, but I try not to."

Byrnes earned a $2 million contract from the A's with a standout
season in 2004, hitting .289 with career highs in nearly every
offensive category, including 20 homers and 73 RBI. With his
trademark eye black, floppy hair and nonstop hustle, he became a
fan favorite at the Coliseum.

But his stellar season also increased his trade value. Arizona
and the New York Mets tried to get him during the winter, and
Byrnes once heard he had definitely been traded to the Padres. Most
recently, Pittsburgh nearly acquired him just days before camp
opened.

Byrnes usually is among the earliest arrivals at the A's spring
training complex at Papago Park, but this year, he waited until the
last day for position players to report. He said he was working on
regaining the weight he lost while playing in the Dominican winter
league -- but he also might have been waiting to see which team
owned his rights.

"There's a little truth in everything," he told reporters last
week. "It's been going on all offseason."

No matter where he ends up, Byrnes is determined to maintain his
standards from last season, when he became a speedy contributor for
a team that eschews stolen bases.

And Byrnes might even have to fight for his job in Oakland
again. Mark Kotsay is entrenched in center field for the A's, but
Bobby Kielty, youngster Nick Swisher and newcomer Charles Thomas --
another promising prospect acquired in Tim Hudson's trade to
Atlanta -- will jockey with Byrnes for playing time.

"There's a bit of a logjam there," Oakland manager Ken Macha
said. "That's a good thing, though. I'd like everybody to go out
there and play well. When you have some depth like that, if you
handle it properly, you can have an 'A' lineup out there every day,
depending how you use the guys. It's not like you have a big
drop-off when you put in a bench player."

But even if the season turns out to be difficult, Byrnes finally
knows he's capable of playing in the majors. Just ask all the teams
trying to acquire him.

"It's a flattering thing, but it could also be a distraction if
you let it," Byrnes said. "That's not what I'm thinking about at
all out here. I'm just playing."