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Down on the farm

A’s director of player personnel Billy Owens was kind enough to share his thoughts on some of the team’s top prospects recently. Owens’ duties take him to every corner of the globe looking for players for the A’s to sign. During the offseason, he spends much of his time evaluating A’s minor leaguers playing in winter league and instructional league ball. For this blog, we stuck to prospects who saw action this offseason, so no updates on blue-chippers like Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Vin Mazzaro, who took the winter off. … ESPN’s Keith Law ranks Oakland’s farm system as third-best in the majors. Baseball America’s list of the A’s top 10 prospects can be found here. If a player has an (*) by his name, it means the A’s have invited him to major league spring training, which begins two weeks from today, by the way:

*Andrew Carignan, RHP: A closer who led the Arizona Fall League with six saves, it’s conceivable Carignan, 22, reaches Oakland’s bullpen this season. He spent most of 2008 with Double-A Midland, and the A’s wanted him to use the AFL season to concentrate on throwing first-pitch strikes. His fastball reaches 96 mph and he’s added a rapidly improving curve ball. “He’s a good kid, but on the mound he has a nasty streak – in a good way,” Owens said.

*Chris Carter, 1B: You’ve probably heard about Carter’s power – he led the Single-A California League with 39 homers and 104 RBI last season. Owens describes him as a “pretty good athlete looking for a defensive home.” Carter, 22, played first base in the Hawaii Winter League, but Owens thinks he has the tools to also be a corner outfielder, an idea echoed by A’s farm director Keith Lieppman in this story from September.

Michael Inoa, RHP: The A’s handed this 17-year-old Dominican phenom a record-breaking $4.25 million signing bonus, and they’ll take their time nurturing him. Inoa spent much of the winter at the team’s academy in the Dominican Republic, attending instructional league and preparing for the cultural adjustment to the United States. Several top A’s officials traveled to the Dominican this winter to watch the 6-foot-7 Inoa. “You forget how big of a man he is until you stand next to him,” Owens said. “But he has the athleticism of someone five or six inches shorter. The ball comes out of his hand easy.” Inoa is slated to arrive in Phoenix in April to take part in extended spring training.

*Adrian Cardenas, 2B/SS: Cardenas, 21, played second base in the Phillies’ organization, but he’s played shortstop primarily for the A’s since his arrival via trade in July. He finished last season at Double-A. The A’s like his ability to hit all fields, and they think he can develop power. Second base may be his best fit, but the team likes its middle infielders to be versatile. “We’ll re-assess it going into spring training,” Owens said of Cardenas’ position.

*Josh Donaldson, C: The A’s appear to have a long-term major league starter in Kurt Suzuki, but they need to develop depth behind him. Donaldson, 23, was one of four players acquired from the Cubs in the Rich Harden/Chad Gaudin deal, and he hit .330 with nine homers and 39 RBI in 47 games with Single-A Stockton. He had four RBI in the Arizona Fall League title game and launched a mammoth homer. “If you look out your window, it still might be going,” Owens said. Donaldson didn’t start catching until his junior season at Auburn, but he’s shown a strong arm.

–*Sean Doolittle, 1B: The A’s think he has Gold Glove potential at first base. But Doolittle, 22, was needed in the outfield during the AFL season and handled it very well, Owens said. He combined for 22 homers and 91 RBI in 2008 between Single-A and Double-A. “He was known as more of a line-drive hitter in college,” Owens said. “His power has developed in the pros, but his strikeouts have increased too. Hopefully he’ll balance the two.”

–*Brett Hunter, RHP: Don’t forget about Hunter, 21, who was projected as a first-round pick last June but fell to the A’s in the seventh round because of an elbow injury last season with Pepperdine. The A’s gave him a reported $1.1 million signing bonus, the highest ever given to a seventh rounder. Owens didn’t see him in the Hawaii Winter League, but says Hunter has a fastball that reaches 96-97 and a curve ball that hitters swing through. In seven appearances in Hawaii, he rang up 18 strikeouts in just 9 2/3 innings.

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Springer deal official

The A’s finally announced 40-year-old Russ Springer will join their bullpen, agreeing to terms on a one-year deal believed to be worth at least $3 million. His addition doesn’t carry the impact of names like Matt Holliday and Jason Giambi, the team’s other significant acquisitions this offseason. But he’s expected to play a major role for their relief corps.

To make room for him on the 40-man roster, the A’s released reliever Andrew Brown, who it was revealed just a day earlier needs shoulder surgery and will be sidelined for a prolonged period.

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Bullpen update

Still no word on the Russ Springer signing, and an A’s official said no announcement was planned for today. Don’t read anything into this delay; it’s believed Springer, a right-handed reliever, merely needs to schedule and pass a physical. The announcement likely will come tomorrow, but let’s mark that in pencil rather than pen.

In other bullpen-related news, it looks like the A’s will be without righty Andrew Brown for a while. Assistant GM David Forst confirmed that Brown will undergo exploratory surgery on his injured right shoulder, which sidelined him for the final 59 games of 2008. Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle in Wednesday’s editions that a best-case scenario would probably have him back by the All-Star break. He went 1-0 with a 3.09 ERA last season and held opponents to a .187 batting average. Behind co-closers Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler, spots in the bullpen appear up for grabs heading into the spring. But with a glut of right-handers fighting for roster spots, Brown faced a challenge even if he were 100 percent. At the very least, I hope Brown is around the clubhouse this spring. He’s one of the true characters on the team. Besides, he needs to recruit a new chess partner now that Huston Street is gone.

One final tidbit: Forst also confirmed that heralded Dominican pitching prospect Michael Inoa will move to the United States and participate in extended spring training in April. You’ll remember Inoa, 17, made headlines when the A’s signed him to a $4.25 million bonus last summer, the most a major league team has given to an international amateur player not from Cuba. Inoa has spent the past couple of months at the team’s Dominican baseball academy, pitching in instructional league and taking English classes. If he does well in extended spring training, it stands to reason he’ll then pitch next summer for the A’s rookie league team based in Arizona.

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On Springer and more

The A’s apparently are closing in on a deal with free agent reliever Russ Springer. Forgive me if I don’t go overboard with anticipation.

Don’t get me wrong. Springer has had two very good years in a row. But relief pitchers are a little bit like the economy. You can use your best data to get an idea of what will happen in the coming 12 months, but in reality, it’s far too unpredictable to know for sure. So while Springer will add a nice veteran presence for a young bullpen, it’s worth noting that he hasn’t pitched in the American League — generally considered superior offensively to the National League — since he was with the then-Anaheim Angels in 1995.

That said, the A’s usually do a nice job of finding setup men. Jim Mecir, Jeff Tam, Chad Bradford, Mike Magnante, and even Ricardo Rincon (for a time) have been the right men at the right time through the years. It’ll be interesting to see if Springer can do the same.

— No brainer call by the A’s brass to re-up play-by-play man Ken Korach for another couple of seasons. I did not envy Korach when he had to step in for Lon Simmons back in 1995, but through the years, he has established himself as one of the best in the game. I’m not sure how much the kids out there still listen to games on the radio, but broadcasting that way has become a lost art. Korach maintains objectivity (a nearly extinct quality these days), regularly gives props to opponents and does a fantastic job of painting a picture. Now that the A’s are on a radio station that can be heard outside the Coliseum parking lot, do yourself a treat and tune in.

— One last note on the Jay McGwire/Mark McGwire news item last week. I asked Matt Holliday at a luncheon last Thursday whether he would care if it was revealed officially that McGwire used steroids. Holliday, who has worked on his hitting with Big Mac, predictably didn’t comment. But it seems to me that, at this point, why would we care? It would be a bit like condeming somebody for smoking in the 1950s or not wearing their seat belts in the ’70s. Mark McGwire was a product of his time and seems to have made some mistakes with his choices along the way. That would put him in company with, oh, the entire human race. But what bothers me is his lack of forthrightness. If he truly wants to help people, he needs to be honest about his experience, whatever it may have been. Living a lie, if that’s indeed what he’s doing, is an extremely dark place to be.

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Springer deal all but done

The word I’m hearing is that reliever Russ Springer could be introduced as the newest Athletic as soon as tomorrow. A source who’s familiar w/the negotiations says all that’s left is for Springer to pass a physical. It’s reportedly a one-year deal in the $3 million range. Though Springer is 40, the right-hander has put together his best two seasons in the past two years with St. Louis. He should lend a solid veteran presence to a bullpen that figures to be pretty green otherwise. This will mark Springer’s eighth big league team, but he hasn’t pitched in the American League since 1995, when he was with the California Angels. That’s right — California Angels. This guy has been around a while!

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A’s, Duke agree to terms

The A’s pitching news is coming fast and furious today … The team will avoid arbitration with right-hander Justin Duchscherer, agreeing to terms on a one-year contract, assistant GM David Forst confirmed. ESPN reports the deal to be worth $3.9 million. Duchscherer was asking for $4.6 million in arbitration while the A’s were offering $3 million. Seems like a pretty fair settlement to me. And no doubt it will give Duchscherer some peace of mind. Arbitration hearings are never pretty, because a team basically has to rip its own player to defend its case for why he should be paid the lower salary. The A’s have made it a priority to settle early with players and avoid hearings.

There could be more A’s news to report soon, as foxsports.com says the A’s are close to signing right-handed reliever Russ Springer to a one-year deal in the $3 million range. Springer, 40, pitched with the St. Louis Cardinals last season.

Contrary to a recent online report, I can tell you the A’s won’t have anybody in attendance to watch free agent starting pitcher Kris Benson throw this weekend.

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Relief on the way?

Looks like the A’s might make room in their bullpen for free agent right-hander Russ Springer. Foxports.com’s Ken Rosenthal is reporting the sides are close to a one-year deal in the $3 million range. The A’s feel good about their ‘pen as it stands, but the arms are very inexperienced. Adding a veteran like Springer, 40, would not only help offset the loss of Huston Street, it would give the A’s a sage presence for the young guys to learn from, a la Alan Embree the past two seasons. Rosenthal also reports the A’s could step up negotiations for shortstop Orlando Cabrera. You figure Cabrera’s price has to be dropping by the day, and considering the A’s efforts to replace Bobby Crosby earlier this winter, it wouldn’t be surprising.

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Motivation for Bobby Crosby? Not a problem

It seems every year Bobby Crosby shows up to spring training with something to prove, whether it’s trying to boost his sagging offensive stats, or just showing he can stay healthy. Things won’t change this spring. Could there be a more motivated Athletic in 2009? After he’s watched the A’s spend the offseason looking to replace him at shortstop? If you read my post from yesterday, you saw Bob Geren’s comments about Crosby. He referred to Crosby as a “tough guy” and said he’ll get every opportunity this season. But there’s an extremely lukewarm feel to every comment made by every member of the A’s brass when it comes to Crosby, even when the words are complimentary. So it’s surprising to hear that Crosby is upbeat and enthusiastic about 2009. Part of that is the hitting work he’s been doing recently with Mark McGwire, who was introduced to Crosby through Matt Holliday.

I know a lot of you have seen enough of Crosby. But I’ll be interested to see how several things play out this season. Can these hitting tips from McGwire, which Crosby is ecstatic about, carry over into the season? Will new A’s hitting coach Jim Skaalen make any difference? How about new infield coach Mike Gallego, who also is close to McGwire? Does being in a contract year light a fire under Crosby? My guess is he doesn’t need an expired contract to get fired up. The events of this offseason have done that already …

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Skipper’s thoughts …

The A’s held their annual preseason media luncheon Thursday at the Oakland Coliseum. Not surprisingly, manager Bob Geren was hit with a wide-ranging scope of questions. Here’s a sampling of what he had to say:

– Responding to whether the A’s can win the AL West division with the team they have right now: “I think if our starting pitching threw strikes and was very aggressive — all of them met or exceeded what they did last year — and we stay healthy … we definitely could. But it’s like the last couple years, we have to stay healthy.”

– His impression of the Los Angeles Angels: “They’ve got one of the best pitching staffs in the game, and they’re still the team to beat in our division, that’s for sure.”
Asked about the Angels losing one of the game’s best closers in Francisco Rodriguez, Geren brought up a good point. Their new closer, Brian Fuentes, is a left-hander, which won’t be a picnic for an A’s batting order that’s often lefty-dominated.

– Geren said the A’s likely will carry seven relievers as they have in the recent past. We know Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler will probably share closing duties to begin the season. Figure Jerry Blevins and Santiago Casilla have strong chances to land spots. Geren also indicated that Gio Gonzalez and Josh Outman were good bets to land in the bullpen if they’re not in the rotation. That would still leave one spot open, and of course there’s always the chance the A’s would want Gonzalez or Outman to start in their Triple-A rotation in case one of them was needed in a pinch. Long story short: The ‘pen is far from settled.

– Does Geren anticipate the A’s adding more players before spring training?: “There’s a lot of (free agents) out there. If something else happens, we will look at that later. But right now we’ll go with what we have and I feel pretty good about it.”

– Geren was asked if he could imagine what this offseason has been like for shortstop Bobby Crosby, considering the A’s pursued free agent Rafael Furcal and reportedly sent Crosby through waivers, where he went unclaimed: “I think major league baseball is a tough business, it really is, and that everybody gets their opportunities to see what they can do. He’s going to get that opportunity. But when you see your name out there (in trade rumors) or (that the team) is possibly bringing in other people, that’s a tough part of the game. He’s a tough guy.”

– Geren often has defended Jack Cust’s outfield work, and did so again Thursday. The A’s plans call for Cust to see substantial time in right field: “Jack’s a lot better outfielder than people think. He had a couple miscues (last season) where he dropped a couple balls. He actually changed equipment, he got a different glove, and didn’t drop another ball again. I think people think a couple of his miscues (are a reflection) of what type of fielder he is. He’s a lot better fielder than people think.”

– Toward the end of the session, assistant GM David Forst fielded a question about whether we can expect Matt Holliday — a free agent at season’s end — to be with the A’s for the entire 2009 campaign: “We’ll see how the season plays out. We made the trade for Matt regardless of how long he’s here. He’s going to help us on Opening Day. Whether he’s here until July, or the end of the year, or years beyond that, it was the right thing to do for the organization.”

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McGwire ‘outed’?

Wow, back in the blogosphere again. The job description for me has changed in the past couple of months — won’t bore you with the details — so the posting in this space has belonged primarily to Joe Stiglich, our fine A’s beat writer. But I’ve recently been given clearance to launch again, and Joe and I will be sharing the space as we get closer to spring training.

Anyway, wanted something interesting to mark my return and darned if Dead Spin hasn’t provided it. It’s tough to tell sometimes what’s for real and what’s tongue in cheek on that site, but it appears that Jay McGwire is about to out his older brother. You know, the guy who bombed 345 homers over his final seven seasons.

Of course, to say this reveals any great insight would be akin to saying that George Michael’s misadventures at Beverly Hills park a decade ago revaled something we didn’t really know already about his sexuality.

Still, Jay McGwire’s story, if an when it’s published, removes yet another layer of doubt surrounding his big brother. I can tell you that when Mark McGwire appeared on Capitol Hill four years ago, I got an e-mail out of the blue from a guy who told me he knew Jay McGwire from a local gym and that it was an open secret the guy was dealing in steroids. The gentleman wouldn’t go on the record, wouldn’t lead me to anyone else, and the story never went anywhere. But it’s interesting.

And speaking of McGwire, the kid who does batting-stance impersonations did a fantastic one of No. 25. But the best was Dwayne Murphy with the hat pulled down over his head and swinging so hard he fell down.