Dickey: On the Cust — of letting Mike go?

Now batting for Mike Piazza: Jack Cust. That’s how it is with the A’s, who always have to be looking at the future as well as the present.

Piazza was signed to a one-year, $8.5 million contract in the offseason to be the A’s designated hitter. Fearing injury, the A’s didn’t let him catch in spring training.

Then on May 2, Piazza suffered a severe shoulder injury in a baseline collision and was put on the disabled list.

A’s general manager Billy Beane, who watches the minor leagues closely, immediately arranged a trade with the San Diego Padres, who had Cust in their minor-league system.

With the A’s, Cust hit eight home runs in his first 11 games, all of them towering drives that were reminiscent of Frank Thomas. Right after that, he went into a slump. The supposition was that the pitchers had caught up to Cust and he would soon be back in the minors. That’s what had happened to him in four previous trials with Arizona, Colorado and Baltimore (twice), when he had a total of just 144 at-bats. But the A’s do things differently.

“We’re not like clubs who might think, ‘Well, he’s a career minor-leaguer, he’s had his chance before and hasn’t made it,’” Beane said. “I told Jack to relax, we know what he can do. Even when he wasn’t getting hits, he was finding a way to get on base.”

Cust has a minor-league career on-base percentage of .429, and an OBP of .393 with the A’s, who value that statistic highly.

When Cust came out of his slump — he leads the A’s in home runs despite his late start — the A’s decided to delay Piazza’s return from the DL until his shoulder was healthy enough for him toalso catch some games.

“We were trying to find a way to get both bats into the lineup, to give our offense a jump-start,” Beane said. “We thought Mike could catch some games, DH others and Jack could play some in the outfield when he wasn’t the DH.”

But Beane also added, “It’s looking doubtful that Mike will ever be able to throw well enough to catch.”

And the A’s GM left no doubt which player will fill the DH role the rest of the season.

“We think Jack can be an important player for us for years,” he said.

The A’s formula for success has been pitching, defense and home runs, preferably with men on base. McAfee Coliseum robs hitters of at-bats because balls that would go into the stands in other parks are caught, which makes it difficult for hitters to be consistent. Hence, the A’s emphasis on walks and home runs.

Cust fits the formula. He strikes out an alarming number of times, 72 times in his first 180 at-bats with the A’s. But he also walks more frequently than Piazza and has more power; Piazza hit only one homer in 103 at-bats before his injury. Cust’s power makes him the kind of middle-of-the-lineup threat the A’s sorely need.

He also comes much cheaper than Piazza or any veteran hitter.

So, though Piazza is a future Hall of Famer, he’ll likely be traded to a contending team soon and Cust will be the A’s DH for several years.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.


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