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A’s shift gears in search of power, more pitching

Carl Steward here at the MLB winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., subbing for Joe Stiglich …

I wish there was something more than hot talk to report on the A’s today. Obviously, they have shifted their focus after losing out on free-agent hitter Lance Berkman as well as Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma.

The focus from the hitting standpoint has shifted to another Japanese player, Hideki Matsui, who fits the bill for Oakland as a DH who could also play in the field during interleague games, as Matsui did last year for the Angels. Sources have confirmed that A’s general manager Billy Beane conversed with Matsui’s agent Arn Tellem Monday, and it’s at least rumored that Matsui may be interested in Oakland.

Matsui made $6 million with the Angels last year and even though he will turn 37 in June, that would seem a reasonable sum for the A’s to pay to land him, perhaps even a shade more. The question is whether Matsui might want a second year, or at least some sort of option, considering that there may be other teams interested in his services as well, notably the Seattle Mariners.

While there are warts on most of the remaining free-agent DH candidates, Matsui would be an upgrade over Jack Cust if for no other reason than he puts the ball in play much more often. He struck out 98 times last year in 554 plate appearances, which was actually the second-highest total in his seven ML seasons. Of course, he hit .274 with 21 homers and 84 RBIs for the Angels, solid numbers on the surface.  I talked to a writer who saw a lot of the Angels last year, however, and he said Matsui struggled early on being “the RBI guy” in the middle the LA lineup. He said Matsui picked it up later in the season, but by that time, the Angels had fallen off the pace behind Texas. To wit, he .252 in the first half, .309 in the second.

The other negative: With Matsui as their DH, the A’s might be a bit vulnerable against left-handed pitching considering that after switch-hitting leadoff man Coco Crisp, prospective 2-3-4 hitters Daric Barton, David DeJesus and Matsui would all be left-handed. Ryan Sweeney, wherever he bats, is also a lefty swinger. For Matsui’s part, he’s definitely better against right-handers. He hit just .236 against left-handed pitching last year.

At this point, though, it may not matter to the A’s. They are almost begging somebody of reasonable quality to take their money and become a middle-of-the-order threat.

Don’t know much about Matsui personally, but the same writer who characterized his season last year also attested that he is a terrific guy and would fit fine in Oakland. How much competition might Seattle be? Good question. The Mariners need hitters even more than the A’s, and might make an offer that’s tough to refuse. But a Seattle source indicated Matsui might not want to play in the shadow of Ichiro on the Mariners.

So we’ll see on Matsui. Something could break on him here, but with Beane having already returned to the Bay Area to attend to a personal concern, the logistics of concluding a deal may make it difficult, although assistant David Forst is still here and perfectly capable of conducting business with Tellem in Beane’s stead.

On another front, it appears the A’s are still pursuing starting pitchers after the Iwakuma deal fell through. ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that the team had even extended an offer to free agent right-handed pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who pitched for Texas last year and posted a 7-4 record with a 4.62 ERA in 17 starts but was non-tendered. A number of teams are reportedly interested in McCarthy. Another report indicated the A’s may actually make another go-round with Justin Duchscherer despite the severe hip issues he has incurred the past three years. Hey, if he could just stay out there somehow, it would be a good move, because Duchscherer can pitch. But the medical history makes it so dubious.

One can understand the A’s wanting to add more starting depth even though they have four solid starters and some solid candidates for the fifth. An injury to any of the Big Four — Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez or Dallas Braden – and the A’s could be in the soup. Of course, both Anderson and Braden missed extended time last year. Josh Outman may be the leading candidate for the No. 5 spot on paper, but he’s coming off Tommy John elbow surgery and may need time to work his way into the rotation. So the McCarthy rumor makes complete sense.

 At least the A’s appear to be zeroing in quickly on targets after losing out on Berkman and Iwakuma and pulling their offer for Adrian Beltre.

Now here’s a novel thought: Gary Sheffield, who did not play at all in 2010, was in the Dolphin hotel lobby Tuesday telling all who wanted to listen that he’s not ready to retire, is still working out and hitting, and is waiting for the phone to ring. If Matsui falls through, would the A’s even consider Sheffield as an option? He’s 42, but it’s nonetheless intriguing. He looked to be in terrific shape.

Bud Selig turned up in the media room to choreograph a ceremony for outgoing managers Joe Torre, Cito Gaston, Lou Piniella and Bobby Cox, but the commissioner once again stonewalled questions about when we might see the blue-ribbon panel report on the future fate of the A’s, waving off attempts with a no comment and adding that he wouldn’t be available to speak on that or any other subject. Thanks, Bud.

More later …

Carl Steward