The shocking decision to remove Jack Cust from their roster just emphasizes what observers had already noted: The 2010 A’s will be built around pitching and speed.
Cust was there strictly for his power hitting, but that was offset by his frequent strikeouts: 572 in 1,463 at-bats over nearly three seasons with the A’s. Because of those strikeouts, he shouldn’t be a middle-of-the-order hitter because he can short circuit too many potential rallies.
If you’re building a team around pitching, you want a strong defense. As long as Cust was around, manager Bob Geren would send him out too often to play the outfield, apparently not noticing that Cust’s defense ranged from below normal to hide-your-eyes-awful, and more often the latter.
Lacking power, the A’s went to more of a running game last season, with Rajai Davis leading the way with 41 steals. Signing free agent Coco Crisp in the offseason further signaled their emphasis on running. Crisp fractured his little finger in Saturday’s exhibition game against the Giants, but as soon as he returns, he’ll settle in behind Davis and, in effect, give the A’s two leadoff hitters.
I’m frankly skeptical of this strategy. The last really successful teams which based their success on speed were the Royals and Cardinals in the ’80s, both of whom played in parks with artificial turf at the time. The A’s do not play on artificial turf and it has been phased out in other parks, too.
Power has been the most important ingredient for winning teams since Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees and — for a number of reasons, only one of them steroids — has become even more important in the last 20 years.
The A’s history also supports the power theory. The 1988-90 A’s, who won three straight American League pennants and one World Series, were powered by Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Dave Henderson. Their last good postseason run, when they made the playoffs five times in the 2000-2006 period, was also fueled by power, most of it from Jason Giambi.
But there is an argument for a team with limited resources going against the grain to build a team. A’s owners Lew Wolff and John Fisher have chosen to keep the payroll low and make a small profit with revenue-sharing money from other teams, including the Giants, despite low attendance.
The “Moneyball” approach of A’s GM Billy Beane identifies players who are undervalued. Earlier, that was college pitchers. Now, it’s base stealers, so Beane is building a team around them. Base stealers can be effective if they have a 70 percent success rate: Davis is a tick below 78 percent for his career and Crisp is at 77.5 percent.
But the best recipe for success is speed plus power, as the last A’s champions had with Rickey Henderson along with the power hitters. The A’s will prosper when young prospects Chris Carter and Michael Taylor crack the starting lineup. Carter will probably be up by midseason; Taylor probably not until next year.
In the meantime, the running game will make the A’s much more entertaining. Just don’t expect more pennant flags to fly at the Coliseum.