2

Media day leftovers and other tidbits

I’m hearing a variety of fan reaction to the A’s possible trade for Chone Figgins, but the majority of people seem to be against it. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik told the Seattle Times and mlb.com that he plans to start the season with Figgins as his third baseman. I still wouldn’t close the door on a deal, but money could be a major hang-up. Would the A’s demand a boatload of cash in return to help offset Figgins’ hefty contract? And would the Mariners be willing to fork it over? Consider that Seattle is still on the hook for $6.5 million this season for former players Carlos Silva and Yunieski Betancourt, who they’ve traded away. Zduriencik may not want to blow any more on players no longer with his team.

Here’s a few other A’s tidbits, some left over from Thursday’s media day:

–The A’s outrighted infielder Steve Tolleson to Triple-A Sacramento after he cleared waivers. Retaining Tolleson is important for the team’s depth at shortstop, as Adam Rosales will miss lots of spring training recovering from foot surgery. The good news for the A’s is that starter Cliff Pennington, recovering from left shoulder surgery, told me he feels very confident he’ll be ready for Opening Day, though he’ll likely take it easy early in camp. In Rosales’ absence, the depth chart at shortstop likely reads Pennington, Tolleson and Eric Sogard, who is more of a second baseman. The fact that Tolleson didn’t get claimed on waivers could make the A’s less inclined to acquire another shortstop.

Three of the five candidates for Oakland’s fifth starter’s spot attended media day — Josh Outman, Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy (Tyson Ross and Bobby Cramer are the other two). Outman, who’s been out since June 2009 because of Tommy John elbow surgery, said he’s physically ready to compete for the No. 5 job. He gained confidence while facing hitters in the fall instructional league. Outman prefers starting but said he’d be comfortable in a relief role too. “I think I’m comfortable doing what I’ve gotta do for the team,” he said. “I just have to go in and hopefully make their decision (on choosing a fifth starter) hard.” Outman’s wife gave birth to daughter Sawyer, the couple’s first child, on Dec. 22.

Harden said he’s been spending lots of time working with pitching coach Ron Romanick on mechanics. Health is always the most important key for Harden, and he said he feels good right now. “I feel like I can go out there and make 30-plus starts.” Like Outman, he added that he could adjust to a relief role, and the A’s consider that an option.

McCarthy has been plagued by shoulder problems over his career. Last year with Texas, a stress fracture limited him to 11 appearances at Triple-A. But he caught the A’s attention with an impressive stint in the Dominican Winter League. “I came back for the last month (of 2010) and pitched well, but I didn’t feel like I was done,” he said. “Going down to the Dominican to get another five starts or so allowed me to refine things I wanted to refine.”

Prediction: The fifth spot will come down to a competition between Outman and Harden. Outman pitched well in a starting role in ’09 before getting hurt, and Harden’s experience gives him an edge over the others.

–Lefty reliever Jerry Blevins, coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip, said he’ll be full strength when pitchers and catchers report Feb. 15. The addition of Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour could squeeze Blevins out of a spot in the A’s seven-man bullpen to start the season, especially if Joey Devine is healthy. But Blevins remains optimistic. “I feel I’ve got as good a chance as anybody.”

7

Some thoughts on A’s potential trade for Chone Figgins

Here’s some follow-up on my report this morning that the A’s are interested in trading for Seattle third baseman Chone Figgins. Oakland assistant GM David Forst wouldn’t comment on any potential trade, but did offer: “We’ve got a long time until Opening Day. There’s always room for improvement. We’ve proven in the past we’re willing to do things up until spring training, and into spring training.”

I see plusses and minuses on this move from Oakland’s side, but I could see the thinking in pulling the trigger …

Figgins is considered a very good defender at third base and would fit in with the A’s emphasis on sound defense (quote from Bob Geren yesterday: “The best thing we did this winter was we didn’t sacrifice any defense to improve our offense.”) The A’s want to stay solid with the glove all around the diamond.

Figgins also could add the speed and base-stealing component that the A’s lost when they dealt Rajai Davis. Coco Crisp and Cliff Pennington help in that area as well, but Davis was the main catalyst in wreaking havoc on the bases. I would think the A’s might cut back on the base-stealing a bit with the additions of some big hitters in the middle of the lineup. But Figgins would still add a nice dynamic. He’s a good base runner in general, and the A’s emphasize aggressiveness on the bases (taking the extra base, advancing on passed balls, etc.).

A drawback to the deal: Figgins’ contract. He’s owed $26 million on a contract that runs through 2013, and he has a vesting option for $9 million in 2014 that’s guaranteed if he reaches 600 plate apperances in 2013. That’s a big financial commitment (Figgins is 33, so his age is a consideration over the length of this deal, too). And Figgins is coming off a down year in 2010 — .259, 1 HR, 35 RBIs, though he added 42 stolen bases. He played second base last season, but the Mariners have planned to move him back to third, and there’s thought that could help him rebound.

I’m hearing the A’s would send third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and perhaps a pitcher to the Mariners in a potential deal. Kouzmanoff makes sense obviously — third baseman for third baseman — and it’s no secret the A’s have explored their options at third this winter. Kouzmanoff makes $4.75 million this season, so the A’s would be unloading a bit of salary. As for the pitcher? It makes sense the A’s could deal from their loaded bullpen, but perhaps a minor league arm would suffice along with Kouzmanoff. And I have to think the A’s would demand Seattle send some cash their way to help offset Figgins’ contract.

This has been an interesting team to cover this offseason, to say the least …

Any thoughts on this potential deal?

1

A’s sign Andy LaRoche, trade Mortensen to Rockies

Joe Stiglich is off this week, so just wanted to pass along the news that the A’s have signed free-agent third baseman Andy LaRoche to a minor-league contract on Monday. Also, pitcher Clayton Mortensen was dealt to Colorado for minor league pitcher Ethan Hollingsworth.

From the A’s release:

The Oakland A’s traded right-handed pitcher Clayton Mortensen to the Colorado Rockies for minor league right-handed pitcher Ethan Hollingsworth, the club announced today. The A’s also agreed to terms with third baseman Andy LaRoche on a minor league contract and have invited him to spring training.

Mortensen was designated for assigned last Tuesday when the A’s signed right-handed pitcher Grant Balfour. He made one start with Oakland in 2010 and had a no decision while posting a 4.50 ERA. Mortensen spent the balance of the season at Triple-A Sacramento, where he was 13-6 with a 4.25 ERA in 26 starts.

Hollingsworth spent most of the season at Single-A Modesto where he was 12-8 with a 3.31 ERA in 25 games, all starts. He tied for the California League lead in wins, ranked second in ERA, third in strikeouts (153) and innings pitched (160.1) and fourth in opponents batting average (.260). The 23-year old right-hander also went 0-0 with a 9.58 ERA in two starts with Double-A Tulsa. Hollingsworth was originally selected by Colorado in the 4th round of the 2008 draft. He will report to the A’s minor league camp this spring.

La Roche batted .206 with four home runs and 16 RBI in 102 games with Pittsburgh last year. He started 52 games at third base, four at second base and two at first base. The 27-year old right-handed hitter made his Major League debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2007 and is a .224 career hitter with 22 home runs and 108 in 363 games over four seasons.

3

A’s sign Brian Fuentes to two-year, $10.5 million deal

Here’s some quick-hitters from the Brian Fuentes media teleconference that just wrapped … The lefty reliever signed a two-year, $10.5 million deal with the A’s, with a $6.5 million club option for 2013.

–Fuentes was told by the A’s front office that Andrew Bailey is the unquestioned closer (“There’s no competition in my mind,”) but he’ll be ready for the ninth inning if needed. From what I’m told, he’ll get some save opportunities if Bailey needs a rest. Fuentes added that he’s comfortable whether he’s pitching the seventh or the ninth. “I’ve mopped up, set up, and closed. My mindset is be efficient with pitches and get guys out.”

–He says the A’s remind him of the 2010 Giants a bit — good pitching, solid role players, and a team that might be under the radar to start the season. Could he envision the A’s winning the AL West? “It’s premature to say we’re going to win the West, but certainly the opportunity is there.”

–Fuentes, 35, grew up in Merced and was a huge A’s fan. He particularly liked Mike Gallego — who just so happens to be the A’s current third-base coach — and Dave Stewart (“bulldog mentality”).

–A’s GM Billy Beane, assistant GM David Forst and manager Bob Geren impressed Fuentes by driving down to Merced and having lunch with him last Friday. I guess that’s the advantage of pursuing a free agent who lives so close to the Bay Area … Fuentes hinted that he could have signed elsewhere with opportunities to close, but that the chance to win wouldn’t have been as good. “Me and my family felt Oakland was the best place for us.”

Look for more in tomorrow’s Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune and San Jose Mercury News …

1

A’s sign four arbitration-eligible players; Balfour deal official

There’s lots of A’s news today, so here’s a quick round-up of what’s going down …

–The A’s announced they’ve avoided arbitration with pitcher Dallas Braden, outfielders Josh Willingham and Conor Jackson and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. All signed one-year deals, with Willingham getting $6 million, Kouzmanoff $4.75 million, Braden $3.35 million and Jackson reportedly $3.32 million. That leaves reliever Craig Breslow as the only unsigned player who’s eligible for arbitration. If Breslow doesn’t sign today, his agent will exchange salary figures with the A’s in advance of a possible arbitration hearing in February. That’s not the biggest development, as both sides can continue working to negotiate a contract somewhere in the middle ground of what each side proposed. I’d expect the A’s and Breslow to hammer out an agreement long before they get to the arbitration table.

–The team officially announced the two-year, $8.1 million contract with reliever Grant Balfour. He’ll be addressing the media in a conference call a bit later, but it appears the A’s won’t announce the signing of fellow reliever Brian Fuentes until tomorrow. It’s likely Fuentes still needs to take his physical. To make room on the 40-man roster for Balfour, right-hander Clayton Mortensen was designated for assignment. That’s not insignificant, as Mortensen has drawn a few big league starts over the past two seasons and was considered insurance as a possible fifth starter. The A’s have 10 days to either trade, release or send Mortensen to the minors, but he still must pass through waivers, where any team can claim him. Reliever Philip Humber was claimed by the White Sox earlier today, so Humber’s A’s career ended before he even put on the uniform.

–Braden, who made $420,000 last season and will get $3.35 million in 2011, got the biggest pay hike among the four Athletics to sign. The baseball world discovered Braden last season when he threw his Mother’s Day perfect game, but surely his season-long body of work was even more important when it came to salary negotiations. Braden went just 11-14 but had a solid 3.50 ERA. He also ranked fourth in the AL with five complete games and he tied for the league lead with two shutouts. “I told my grandmother, and I don’t think she’s stopped crying yet,” Braden said of his new contract. Braden told me he and A’s assistant trainer Walt Horn have come up with a stretching routine that should help ease the pain in his left foot as he pitches. Since the end of 2009, he’s been pitching with permanent nerve damage and numbness in his foot.

–Willingham, acquired in December as the A’s new left fielder, is eligible for free agency for the first time after the upcoming season. His agent, Matt Sosnick, told me Willingham is open to signing an extension with the A’s. “He’d like to stay here for a long period of time,” Sosnick said. “That’s at the A’s discretion. If they came to him with a deal that’s reasonable, he’d consider it.” But Sosnick added that if Willingham enjoys a healthy and productive season, testing the open market also is an attractive option.

That’s all for now …

5

A’s, reliever Grant Balfour are a good match

Bolstering the bullpen was a priority for the A’s, and they did just that Friday by agreeing to a two-year, $8.1 million contract with right-hander Grant Balfour. You can read details of the deal on our Web site, but here’s my take on it:

It’s an aggressive move, and one that I like for a few reasons. The A’s had the ingredients for a strong bullpen even without Balfour. But there are mild concerns with closer Andrew Bailey and lefty Jerry Blevins both coming off surgery and set-up man Michael Wuertz having been bothered by shoulder problems last year. Joey Devine could be a terrific addition if healthy but he hasn’t appeared in a game since 2008. Depth was definitely needed. Also, Balfour brings substantial postseason experience, having been to the playoffs with the Rays in 2008 and 2010, and the Twins in 2004. On paper, I’d say the A’s look like a contender for the AL West title. But it’s a roster that lacks much big-game experience, so adding a battle-tested reliever is important. And Balfour is a strikeout pitcher. As ESPN’s Jayson Stark notes, Balfour has the third-best strikeout rate (10.29 per nine innings pitched) of all AL relievers over the past three years. The ability to miss bats is important in the late innings, and the A’s have several relievers with the stuff to do it — Bailey, Balfour, Devine (if healthy), Wuertz (if he rebounds from an inconsistent 2010) and Craig Breslow, whose 71 strikeouts last season set an Oakland record for lefty relievers.

Plus, I’d expect Balfour will bring an intangible element. The Australian has the reputation for being a wild man on the mound, cussing at himself to get fired up and occasionally jawing with hitters (he exchanged words with Orlando Cabrera during the 2008 ALDS). Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon once compared Balfour’s temperament on the mound to that of Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky. Adding a little fire to the current collection of personalities in the A’s clubhouse won’t hurt.

I know blog posts have been sparse lately (I was supposed to get some vacation this week, but the A’s aren’t cooperating). With 32 days left before Oakland’s pitchers and catchers report, let’s hear some thoughts on how you think this team is coming together …