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A's: Change in leadership

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It didn’t seem too long ago that we were reading about how the A’s great farm system was going to hold the future of the organization.

Now that the future is here, those same players have not only made a big splash at the major-league level, they’re the ones who will be looked upon to carry this team into the 2007 season.

The A’s are still built around Eric Chavez, who is the last key player from the teams that reached the postseason in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003. But Oakland has taken a liking to Nick Swisher, a key component to general manager Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” philosophy of valuing on-base percentage.

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Swisher had a breakthrough 2006 season with 35 home runs and 95 RBIs. It was just his second full season in the big leagues and he showed he could play multiple positions. When Dan Johnson struggled and was sent to the minors, Swisher (a regular left fielder) switched gloves and played 90 games at first base. He played 79 games in left field and also played the other two outfield spots.

Swisher was in the top five in almost every offensive category for the A’s, including runs scored (first with 106), hits (third, 141), doubles (tied for fourth, 24) and walks (first, 97). But he was also very sporadic. He struck out 152 times, 52 times more than the second player on the team (Chavez) and hit just .252. He got off to a hot start in April and May (hitting, .313 and .299, respectively) and cooled off nearly the entire summer. He hit .204 in June, .188 in July and .237 in August. Finally realizing he needed to finish strong if he wanted the A’s to make the playoffs, he hit .294 in September.

The A’shave been able to survive whenever Chavez struggled. But the team is slowly revolving around Swisher’s newfound leadership and could fall a lot harder if he struggles early on.

Joe Blanton is another one of the “Moneyball” players who could emerge as a leader. The right-hander tied for the A’s lead in wins last season with 16. But he was so inconsistent that he didn’t even get to pitch during the postseason. He finished 2006 with a 4.82 ERA and his WHIP rose dramatically from 1.22 in 2005 to 1.54 last season. Though he was third in innings pitched (194¹/³), he led the team in runs allowed (111) and was second in walks (58). Opposing hitters were able to get to Blanton early and often, hitting .309 against him, the highest mark in A’s history by a pitcher with a winning record. Once considered a potential No. 2 or No. 3 starter, Blanton now finds himself in the lower tier and was involved in trade talk during the winter. Of course, not all of this was Blanton’s fault. He didn’t receive much run support whenever he started and was among the worst when it came to run support for a starting pitcher.

Blanton’s third full season with the A’s could be a critical one. And since all the talk about the A’s staff revolves around how well Rich Harden can hold up, how much better Dan Haren could be and how low the expectations are for Esteban Loaiza, Blanton could very well fall off the radar. Although more run support will help (the A’s scored one run or less in eight of his starts, all losses), Blanton must concentrate on just getting outs and keeping his team from having to come from behind early.


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