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Is the A’s/Adrian Beltre speculation really dead?

Baseball news can be slow between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, but here’s some A’s fodder for you.

Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported that the A’s sweetened their initial contract offer to free agent third baseman Adrian Beltre, but have now ended all talks with him.

We know the A’s reportedly made a five-year, $64 million offer to Beltre in November. I don’t have confirmation myself on how much they may have bumped that up, but considering Beltre has shown zero interest in signing with the A’s to this point, this latest development doesn’t surprise me. The Angels still look like front runners to get him, and the Rangers are a possibility. However, no matter how many times Beltre gives Oakland the “talk-to-the-hand” treatment, I think there’s still a chance he could wind up in green and gold. The A’s obviously are looking to upgrade at third base, and from all indications, Beltre isn’t getting the interest he and agent Scott Boras envisioned. His price tag (and the years he’s asking for) figure to drop as spring training draws closer. Signing Beltre to a five-year deal sounds risky. Three years? Looks a lot better to me …

–Rosenthal also reported the A’s are interested in free agent relievers Chad Qualls (a righty) and Hideki Okajima ( a lefty). Qualls’ agent, Alan Hendricks, confirmed to me that he’s talked with Oakland GM Billy Beane about a possible deal. Hendricks downplayed discussions, saying there’s nothing to suggest a deal is close, but he made it clear that Oakland is a potential landing spot for Qualls, 32. About six teams have legit interest, according to Hendricks. Qualls had a bad 2010 campaign, posting a 7.32 ERA and allowing 85 hits in 59 innings. But he’s a workhorse, making 70-plus appearances in five of his seven big league seasons.

Beane and assistant GM David Forst have confirmed the A’s are hunting for bullpen help, so expect an addition to the relief corps one way or another …

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Rich Harden signs with A’s; will Josh Willingham get a multi-year deal?

The A’s finalized today what we learned last week — right-hander Rich Harden is rejoining their pitching staff on a one-year, $1.5 million contract that includes incentives.

It appears the team — and Harden — are keeping an open mind as to what role he might fill. A’s assistant GM David Forst considers him a candidate for the No. 5 starter’s role as well as the bullpen. “I think that will play out in spring training,” Forst said.

We can talk all we want about what role fits Harden best, but it all boils down to whether he can stay healthy. That was his main obstacle in his first stint with Oakland, and injuries bit him again last year with Texas. A’s first-year pitching coach Ron Romanick, who has been with the organization for 12 years, worked with Harden extensively in Harden’s first go-around with the team. “I’ve known Rich since we signed him,” Romanick said. “(The key) is just getting back to basic fundamentals and try to head things off before (injuries surface).” Romanick said he thinks Harden could help the team in either a starting or relieving role. But he also described Harden’s stuff — the high fastball that hitters often swing through, the changeup that appears to drop off a table — as something that could be ideal out of the bullpen. “If you had to draw up a closer, or reliever, or late-inning guy, that’s how you’d draw him up,” Romanick said.

First things first. Let’s see Harden get through spring camp without any setbacks before we consider how he’s best utilized.

–I heard new A’s left fielder Josh Willingham chatting with Rick Tittle and John Baker today on KTRB-860. Willingham, who’s eligible for free agency following the upcoming season — said the idea of signing a multi-year deal with the A’s appeals to him. “If they’re willing to talk about something more than one year, I’m open to that,” Willingham said. He’s eligible for arbitration for the last time this winter after making $4.6 million last season. A’s GM Billy Beane said last week, upon acquiring Willingham from the Nationals, that it was too early to decide whether to sign him long-term. But Beane added that he planned to chat with Willingham’s agent, Matt Sosnick, who happens to live close to Beane. It’s something to watch for as spring training inches closer …

–”Sweet Home Alabama” is among the songs Willingham uses for his walk-up music.

I like it …

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Highlights from Beane/Willingham conference call

Here’s a few nuggets from the conference call involving new A’s outfielder Josh Willingham and A’s GM Billy Beane:

–Willingham has played a bit of right field but says he’s definitely most comfortable playing left field. Beane confirmed that Willingham is likely to play left field, with David DeJesus in right and Coco Crisp in center.

–Beane said he thinks the A’s offense is improved, with more depth and balance by adding Willingham’s right-handed bat. The team will still look for opportunities to acquire more offense, but Beane reiterated that he believes the free agent pickings are getting slim. (Something tells me that continuing to pursue Adrian Beltre isn’t in their plans).

–The bullpen is an area they will look to address. “We just gave up a reliever (Henry Rodriguez), so that’s an area we have to look at to get some depth there,” Beane said. “Until the winter is over, you’re always on the lookout.”

–Willingham on what he’ll bring to A’s offense: “I’m not a guy that’s going to hit 40 (homers) and drive in 100 every year. But I think I’m a guy that does a lot well and brings a lot to the lineup.”

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A’s acquire outfielder Josh Willingham from Washington Nationals — what are the roster ramifications?

****TO UPDATE: The players going to the Washington Nationals are reliever Henry Rodriguez and outfielder Corey Brown. Rodriguez, gifted with a 100 mph fastball but erratic command, always struck me as a good trading chip. Some baseball people have thought he’s got the stuff to be a closer down the road. But he’s had trouble with walks and controlling the running game. The A’s always thought Brown, 25, had good tools — nice combo of power and base-stealing ability. But his strikeout numbers have been high in the minors, and he wasn’t exactly flying through the system. Very nice kid. I got to know him in spring training a bit … The bullpen depth takes a hit with Rodriguez gone. I could see the A’s looking for relief help in free agency, even with the impending signing of Rich Harden.

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The A’s roster continues to change by the day. A major league source confirmed for me that the A’s have acquired outfielder Josh Willingham from the Washington Nationals in exchange for two players. Those players aren’t known yet, but at least one has major league experience. It’s my understanding that neither will be a name that makes your jaw drop. Some medical details are still being exchanged between the teams, but this trade could be announced this afternoon. I was busy cranking out a news story on the trade for our Web site, which is why I’m just now getting to the blog.

Willingham turns 32 in February. He’s a seven-year major league vet with three 20-homer seasons under his belt. Last season, he hit .268 with 16 homers and 56 RBIs. Fifteen of those homers came before the All-Star break, but his season ended in August after he needed left knee surgery. Willingham played strictly left field last season, so I’m seeing an A’s starting outfield of Willingham, Coco Crisp and David DeJesus, left to right. That would push Ryan Sweeney to the bench. Sweeney is a terrific defender and one of the A’s all-around best players, but this move doesn’t surprise me based on the A’s need for power from their outfield. Let’s remember that Crisp, DeJesus, Willingham and Conor Jackson (who would presumably be the fifth outfielder) all missed significant time with injuries last season. Sweeney is likely to get playing time off the bench as the aforementioned players are going to need breaks (Sweeney, of course, has to rebound from knee surgery himself).

The A’s have been linked to Willingham going back to last season’s trade deadline. He’s not the biggest name out there (I thought Magglio Ordonez made a lot of sense as a free agent target, but he re-signed with Detroit today). Honestly, Willingham’s name didn’t thrill me when I first heard rumors that the A’s liked him. But if he produces his typical output in 2011, it will be an upgrade over the power production the A’s have gotten from their outfielders. Is Willingham better than other options they could have explored? Let’s see who the A’s gave up in this trade first.

A question to now consider: Where does this trade leave Chris Carter? On Tuesday, GM Billy Beane told us media types that he could envision Carter, the A’s top power-hitting prospect, possibly acting as the fifth outfielder/backup first baseman. But there’s no room for that as this roster is shaping up. The five outfielders look to be Willingham, Crisp, DeJesus, Sweeney and Jackson. Daric Barton is handling first base and, assuming the A’s carry 12 pitchers, the only extra infielder they’ll have is Adam Rosales. This points to Carter starting the season in Triple-A. Of course, unforeseen injuries can alter things. And if Carter rips the cover off the ball in spring training, who knows? Might he leapfrog Barton at first? Or would he bump DeJesus or Willingham from the lineup?

All things to consider … Feel free to sound off on anything I’ve rambled about …

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Can Joey Devine make his long-awaited return to A’s bullpen?

Obviously, the A’s big news today revolves around the additions of designated hitter Hideki Matsui (to be announced tomorrow) and right-hander Brandon McCarthy. In an under-the-radar transaction, the A’s also signed reliever Joey Devine to a $557,500 one-year deal, avoiding arbitration with him. I couldn’t squeeze much about Devine into the main story, but this guy is a potentially big storyline if he can stay healthy after missing the last two seasons recovering from elbow ligament replacement surgery. I talked to Devine today, and he’s feeling encouraged his right elbow will be ready for spring training. It’s guarded optimism on his part, based on the struggles he’s faced in 2009 and 2010. But he pitched in some instructional league games in October and came out of those feeling good physically. He hasn’t thrown since then — Dr. James Andrews, who performed Devine’s surgery, recommended he give his elbow some rest — but Devine expects to resume throwing again in a few days to start preparing for the season.

Anyone who’s followed this team knows not to get too excited about Devine until he’s pitching in spring training games with no setbacks. But a healthy season from him would be a huge boost for Oakland’s bullpen. We’ve seen the A’s linked to free agent relievers this winter, and they could use a little more depth in their middle relief. Devine certainly could help fill that need …

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Hideki Matsui slide show








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Hideki Matsui announcement to come Tuesday; A’s also close to signing right-hander Brandon McCarthy

Hideki Matsui is expected to be introduced as the newest Athletic on Tuesday during an afternoon press conference. It’s my understanding he won’t take his physical until Tuesday morning. That’s why the A’s are waiting to make an official announcement on Matsui, 36, who will take over as the team’s new designated hitter. No details yet on contract terms, but I expect it to be a one-year deal in the neighborhood of the $6 million he made last year with the Los Angeles Angels.

The A’s may have more news tomorrow, as a source confirmed for me that the team is close to a deal with former Texas Rangers right-hander Brandon McCarthy. McCarthy, 27, has struggled with right shoulder problems in recent years. He suffered a stress fracture in the shoulder last season and made just 11 appearances (nine starts) at Triple-A. The last thing the A’s need is another pitcher with an extensive injury history, right? But I like the move to bring in somebody to compete for that fifth starter’s spot. The A’s are high on Josh Outman if he can rebound fully from elbow ligament replacement surgery. I’d say if he has a healthy spring and pitches well, Outman is the front runner for the job. But there’s no guarantee Outman will be healthy, or that Tyson Ross or Bobby Cramer are ready to be a full-time big league starter. Word is that McCarthy pitched well this winter in the Dominican Republic, so perhaps he’s worth the gamble …

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Winter meetings: That’s a wrap

Just a quick final note from Lake Buena Vista, Fla., to say the A’s are out of here. Shortly, I will be, too.

 They will go home now and continue to pursue their DH candidates. That could take awhile, as I wrote for tomorrow’s editions. Hideki Matsui is clearly their top target, but as I wrote, there are 10 DH vacancies around the American League and Matsui could have some attractive options — New York, Los Angeles Angels, Chicago, Texas, as well as Oakland.

If Matsui falls through, there’s still a long list of available, albeit not quite as desirable. Vladimir Guerrero has been bounced around in other media reports, but I would surmise that’s quite a longshot. I talked to both Rangers GM Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington in the past two days and they both said they want Vlad back and he wants to come back. And even if Texas can’t get him under contract, like I said, it’s a wide-open marketplace. Jack Cust was the only DH type that signed here.

Personally, and this is just my own opinion, Derrek Lee is the guy the A’s should go after. He’s a terrific clubhouse presence, he’s semi-local (a Sacramento native) and he can play first base if Daric Barton is injured or needs a day off. He’s lost a bit of bat speed but as a RH bat hitting behind Coco Crisp, David DeJesus and Barton, he could be quite productive. Another guy I’m surprised doesn’t get any run is Troy Glaus, who admitted has had a checkered injury past, but hit 16 home runs with 71 RBIs for the Braves last year playing in just 128 games. He can also play multiple positions. He’s never really been a full-time DH, but one wonders if he might thrive in such a role, and he’d come cheap.

Obviously, the A’s don’t appear to have a place for power prospect Chris Carter right now, and don’t count on it being DH. The A’s don’t want to cast him in such a role at such a young age, and that’s smart. If he shows he’s ready to play at the major-league level this spring and they can’t hold him back, they’ll make a spot for him and move somebody else in the field, whether it be Barton or one of the corner outfielders. But there wasn’t enough sample size on Carter late in the season to make an accurate judgment, and it doesn’t help that Carter hasn’t played in the Venezuela Winter League as planned.

I tend to think — nah, I’m pretty certain — agent Scott Boras’ claim that his client Adrian Beltre is still interested in Oakland is nothing more than rhetorical leveraging. And now that the Angels have lost out in the Carl Crawford derby, expect them to go full bore to sign Beltre because they need his offense.

In the Internet age, you get websites trying to establish credibility for themselves by throwing things against the wall to see if they might stick. We had one this week when a site called Ballpark Digest, which I must confess I don’t patronize, put out a report hinting that the MLB panel that will recommend the A’s future home might be prepared to anoint Oakland soon as the preferable choice over San Jose.

 My dilemma: Do I even report such hazy conjecture?  Having followed this story pretty closely and understanding how commissioner Bud Selig operates, there are not likely any leaks of what this panel might recommend — at least to this kind of outfit. Ultimately, I chose not to report it at all because, quite frankly, I didn’t want to even legitimize Ballpark Digest’s “scoop” by publishing info from their non-bylined story. A passage in the story was also a tipoff:

“If Oakland has a site, the money and the will to put together a ballpark package, we’re guessing MLB will take the safe route and recommend the team stay there, as opposed to creating a messy territorial battle by allowing a move to San Jose. ”

See the keywords there? “we’re guessing.” We who? Who are you? And what are your qualifications to offer such a guess? I found a contributing writer list buried on the website … never heard of any of  ‘em. But “we’re guessing” was all I needed to read.

Sadly, MLB and the A’s were put in a position to have to respond to this nonsense. The A’s passed along this statement from MLB Thursday night: “Despite reports or speculation to the contrary, Major League Baseball
has not completed its study of the Oakland A’s stadium matter nor has
the Commissioner’s Special Committee recommended any sites or
territories for the development of a new ballpark for the A’s.  No date
has been determined for the committee to issue its findings.”

Digest that.