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Melvin sees this A’s bullpen as his best yet

Bob Melvin ended the 2013 season with a bullpen he believed was the best he’d ever had at his disposal.

The relievers A’s manager Melvin called on last season went 24-18 with a 3.22 earned run average. The bullpen was the backbone of a second consecutive American League West title. The relievers won or saved 70 of the A’s 96 wins.

Now with spring training’s start drawing close, the manager says the Oakland bullpen for 2014 could be his best ever.

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A’s Jaso has put concussion issues behind him; Melvin will give him another shot behind the plate

You may have read that John Jaso will head into spring training as the leading contender for the A’s designated hitter chores this year.

Jaso has read it, over and over again. Such is the power of the internet.

But the veteran catcher, whose contract with Oakland for the 2014 season was just finalized, doesn’t take all that talk all that seriously.

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There could yet be room for Tanaka in Oakland

If there is one team in the Major Leagues that doesn’t need Masahiro Tanaka, it’s the Oakland A’s.

That apparently doesn’t mean that the bidding for right-handed free agent starting pitcher from Japan will go on without the A’s having input.

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Tanaka has potential to alter look of AL West

With their relative surplus of pitching and relative paucity of wealth, the A’s don’t seem inclined to be in on the bidding for Japanese starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka in the coming weeks.

That doesn’t mean Oakland won’t be closely following the ins and outs of the Tanaka talk. The 25-year-old right-hander was made available for posting Thursday, and it wouldn’t be too outlandish a proposition to see him coming to rest with one of the A’s American League West competitors.

Tanaka, who was a simply unbelievable 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last year with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, stands to be the player with the most potential impact still on the open market this winter. The Yankees (yawn) are almost always the first club mentioned as coveting Tanaka, thanks to their big pockets and fragile starting rotation.

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A’s should come out ahead in `swap’ of closers

In the current baseball market place, it seems as if the Orioles got a relative bargain today when they locked in Grant Balfour, who’d been the A’s closer most of the last two seasons.

Baltimore’s opening for Balfour came after they’d traded their 50-saves closer of the last two seasons, Jim Johnson, to the A’s in the week leading up to the Winter Meetings.

So who comes out ahead here? The A’s have to pay Johnson more (he’s likely worth in the $10 million range in salary arbitration) for less – he’s a free agent after this year. The Orioles have Balfour locked in for two years for less – just $14 million.

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Longtime A’s manager La Russa makes Hall of Fame along with Braves’ Cox, Yankees’ Torre

Tony La Russa, the engineer behind the A’s rise to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s, is heading to Cooperstown.

La Russa was one of three men, all managers, elevated to Hall of Fame status Monday morning from a field of a dozen candidates from the expansion era (1973-present). La Russa was voted in unanimously, as were longtime Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, who did most of his winning while at the helm of the New York Yankees.

The last time all three were active at the same time was 2010, the year that Cox and Torre called it a career. La Russa retired after the 2011 season with 2,728 wins, third on the all-time list. Cox finished fourth with 2,504 wins and Torre fifth with 2,323.

It was the golden era of managers, and before the 2010 season, I sat with all three to talk about their careers and the careers of their peers.

In the final week of the 2009 season La Russa passed legendary Giants manager John McGraw to have managed the second-most games in history, 4,772. He will never catch the No. 1 manager in terms of both wins and games, Connie Mack, for the simple purpose that La Russa doesn’t own his team as Mack did with the A’s, a team he managed for 53 years.

What La Russa, a self-described fan of managers, does own is the perspective to talk knowledgably about the best traits of the other three.

“Bobby is very bright about baseball games and situations and is very sound in running a game and has great ideas,’’ La Russa said. “I got to see him a lot for the first time when I came over here (to St. Louis and the National League) in 1996. He’s just a classy person and very professional. He knows why he’s on the field – he’s there to win and to accomplish that with a lack of bull. He doesn’t put his team in bad situations, and he competes like a maniac.

“Joe had great credentials as a player. And he has a personality that was created for managing in New York. He was able to hold his own with George (Steinbrenner) and while he had a lot of good players, he was the equal of his star players, earning their trust and their respect. Those are two of the best assets a manager can have.

“Joe always has had the knack of handling wins and losses the right way. The Yankees’ best case scenario is always the World Series. When they don’t get there, it is not a good year. That’s hard to deal with, but Joe always did. The other thing about his Yankee teams is that from the outside the focus is on all the money they spent on their roster. You were not going to be happy losing to them, but they didn’t insult you. They beat you, that’s all. And his Dodger teams were the same way.’’

What was it exactly that made these three special?

“For me, it’s the passion that you need to have to keep doing the job year after year,’’ Torre said. “It’s the one thing we all have in common. You talk about walking away from it, but it’s been such an important part of all our lives.

“I remember after I’d been with New York three or four years I said I wasn’t going to be doing this past the age of 60. Well, I’m pushing 70 now, and I’m contemplating another year after this one. You never know how long the passion will last.’’

La Russa said “the basis of managing is that they are paying you to for your best judgment. Sometimes it means going by the book. A lot of the time it doesn’t.’’

Over the years, managers have found “the book,’’ whatever it is, has changed. All the newest members of the Hall of Fame say that managing at the end of their careers had quantum differences from when they started.

“Managing is different now,’’ La Russa said. “You don’t have the same control of players you used to. It’s harder to keep their attention. The players all have their other people, and those other people are telling them what they should do. And from that point, doing this is not as much fun as it used to be.

“On the other hand, I’ve been lucky. I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years now, and the number of guys I’ve had who I dislike is incredibly small. That makes this job so much easier day to day.’’

Torre has seen the change, too, but like the others doesn’t run from it.

“For me, the change is the challenge,’’ Torre said. “When I was still playing, a manager could threaten a player. You can’t do that now. There’s no more, `Do this because I told you to.’ Now you have to have a reason that you can make them understand.

“Tony’s right when he talks about having the players’ attention.  Part of what makes this job doable is the players paying attention to you. You have to be aware of having that attention and respect.

“Either way, you have to use different words to basically say the same things, because the things you believe and the way you want your team to play is not going to change that much. When it comes right down to it, success adds credibility to what you do. I know that I get a lot more attention after becoming the Yankee manager and winning than I got before.’’

Winning is something the Cooperstown Class of 2013 specialized in. And yes, they are venerated for that by other managers and by players for that trait.

“We all want to win,’’ Cox said. “We all want to be able to look back and say our teams all played to win. There are reasons our (win totals) are up there. We’ve agonized over pitching changes and lineups for a long time.

“The philosophy I’ve always had is that you don’t always have great players, but whatever happens, keep playing hard. I really believe in that, and I want my players to believe in it, too.’’

And winning has no shortage of benefits.

“One thing we have after doing this all these years is some personal immunity,’’ La Russa said. “If what you’ve deemed to be the best move doesn’t work out, where’s your regret? You made the right call. You know that. It just didn’t work.

“If a call you make doesn’t work out, you can say it was a bad idea and go on to the next situation. The only chance for success you have in this game it to do whatever you think is right.’’

Those three did, and on Monday they got their sport’s ultimate reward.

 

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There’s nothing evident about the A’s anymore

The additions of Scott Kazmir to the starting rotation and Jim Johnson to the bullpen should have the A’s in good shape heading into the winter meetings.

The A’s will go to Orlando next week, because they have to at least make an appearance, but history suggests they may not do much past taking part in the Rule 5 draft, the same process that brought them first baseman Nate Freiman last year. History may prove to be wrong about that.

Already the A’s have shown a major ability to surprise. And they’d like more, because they need more. Oakland would like to add a bat, but most of the ones they’d want they can’t afford. Many of the one they can afford, they wouldn’t want. Maybe there is one out there they’d like.

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Kazmir seems a good addition to A’s rotation

kazmir

It’s true that the A’s are taking something of a risk in signing Scott Kazmir to a two-year deal worth $22 million, but you have to like their thinking.

Yes, this deal, which won’t be official until Kazmir passes his physical exam, means that Bartolo Colon won’t be back after winning 18 games as an All-Star in 2013. Colon is 40, however, meaning he’s not in the long-term plans no matter what team he’s with.

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9×9: Non-tender deadline could reshape A’s

The A’s have some serious decisions to make before the evening is over.

The club has nine men on the roster who are arbitration eligible and by 9 p.m. this evening Oakland must decide which of the nine will be tendered contracts.

The group includes pitchers Jerry Blevins, Jesse Chavez and Fernando Rodriguez, catcher John Jaso, first basemen Daric Barton and Brandon Moss, shortstop Jed Lowrie and outfielders Josh Reddick and Seth Smith.

Those players who are tendered contracts are those the club is willing to go to salary arbitration with, although typically the A’s like to avoid arbitration whenever possible. Non-tendered players become free agents.

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Head’s up – Mr. Head-first joins the A’s

The A’s may be the early favorites to win the head-first-slide title in the American League in 2014.

That’s because they signed Nick Punto Wednesday. He’s 36-year-old utility infielder who is revered around baseball for his willingness to go head-first into any base – including first base – in an effort to help his team.

“Yeah – the head-first slide,’’ A’s assistant general manager David Forst said laughingly Wednesday. “We’ll probably lead the league in head-firsts at first base. Actually I’d like him to do it a little bit less.’’

When he heard that, Punto chuckled.

“Diving into first base, that’s definitely not something I think about when I hit a ball,’’ Punto said from his Southern California home Wednesday. “But it’s part of the way I play.’’

Punto is one of those hard-charging players who tends to maximize his talents playing the game. He’s 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds and he doesn’t have a lot of power – just two homers last year – and it took him until the fifth of his 13 big league seasons to get more than a quick look.

He’s a career .248 hitter who averaged .255 last year with Los Angeles and who begins more games on the bench than he does in the starting lineup. But between his ability to give his team above-average defense at three positions – second, third and short – and his ability to switch-hit, he has managed to play in two-thirds of his team’s games the last decade.

“But the fact that Nick can play shortstop, third and second is a real plus. As far as where he fits in, there is a long time to get that figured out.’’

There seems to be a reasonable chance that Punto will free the A’s up to trade Alberto Callaspo, who is another switch-hitting infielder, but one whose defense isn’t as good and who doesn’t play shortstop. The A’s picked up Callaspo from the Angels at the trade deadline, and he turned out to be a valuable part of the lineup, although his defense at both second base and third wasn’t the best.

More than anything, however, the A’s picked up Punto because he is one of those players who has a tendency to make a good team better. He did it with the Dodgers last year, he did it for years with the Twins, and he won a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 2011.

And for Punto, he sees some of that ring potential in the A’s.

“This is a team that fits the way I play,’’ Punto said. “I won a World Series with the Cardinals, and now I’m trying to find a way to win another one. You watch this team from the other side and they play hard, they play right, and they have good young pitching and a terrific manager.

“Bob Melvin being a great manager was a huge influence in my wanting to come here. His teams always play so hard; you have to love watching them play. Watching on TV and again in the playoffs this year, I saw those young pitchers. They have young, talented arms. I’m hoping to add what I have to that clubhouse.’’

Part of what he adds is in the clubhouse as a player others rally around. He’s called “Shredder’’ for his habit of celebrating ninth-inning and extra-inning wins by tearing the jersey off that day’s hero, shredding it.

Will that be brought to Oakland? Well, maybe. With a contract that brings him $2.75 million for this coming year, plus a $250,000 buyout if his option for 2015 isn’t picked up, the man who calls himself “@ShredderPunto’’ on Twitter just might be able to keep on doing it.

“The shredding, that’s never a planned thing,’’ Punto said. “And every time I do it, it can cost me a little. Those shredded jerseys are $150 a pop.’’