A's enter Hot Stove season with caution

No offense, but adding a bat not a certainty

OAKLAND -- The A's haven't been known as an offensive juggernaut since 2001, when Johnny Damon was setting the table for sluggers Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Jermaine Dye and Eric Chavez.

Even then, in fact, the club was better known for its terrific trio of young starting pitchers -- Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito.

Damon, Giambi, Tejada and Dye are long gone, of course, and the Big Three was disbanded last year, when A's general manager Billy Beane shipped Hudson to Atlanta and Mulder to St. Louis, leaving Chavez and Zito as the only high-profile holdovers from the teams that went to the playoffs four years in a row (2000-2003).

Yet the departures of Hudson and Mulder weren't quite the death blow many around baseball expected for the A's. Dan Haren, acquired in the Mulder deal, and rookie Joe Blanton, a pair of promising 24-year-olds when the season started, replaced the displaced aces in the starting rotation and helped keep the club in playoff contention until the final week of the season.

Oakland didn't make the postseason for the second consecutive year, though, and while injuries to shortstop Bobby Crosby and No. 2 starter Rich Harden were significant factors in the shortcoming, there was little doubt as to what area of the team was weakest.

The offense, for the most part, didn't get the job done. Ranked near the bottom of the American League in batting, hitting with runners in scoring position and sacrifices, the A's were a largely punchless lot.

Beane, whose "season" officially begins this week with the annual GM meetings, hopes to change that over the winter, and it's no secret that Oakland would love to acquire a powerful right-handed bat to help Chavez in the middle of the lineup. Beane insists, however, that failing to land such a prize won't necessarily doom the A's to another idle October in 2006.

"The fact of the matter is that in our [low-revenue] situation, getting someone to fill every obvious need isn't easy," he said recently. "And if you look at some of the things that happened [during the season], maybe the need isn't as obvious as it might seem."

Among the most significant things that happened to the A's offense were health related. Starved for right-handed pop to begin with, they lost one such source when Crosby couldn't make it through Opening Day and spent the first two months on the disabled list with fractured ribs. His return coincided with Oakland's dramatic turnaround from 15 games under .500 in late May to first place in late summer. But when Crosby was sidelined again late in the year with a fractured ankle, the offense again faded.

The loss of Erubiel Durazo didn't help, either. The team's leading hitter and RBI man in 2004 was batting .237 with four homers and 16 RBIs when his season ended with elbow surgery in May.

Sure, Durazo is a left-handed hitter, but as manager Ken Macha noted, "A quality hitter is a quality hitter, and we lost two for significant chunks of the season."

They lost a few for smaller chunks, too. Mark Kotsay was limited by back pain at times, Scott Hatteberg had to sit out with a strained rib cage, and switch-hitters Nick Swisher and Bobby Kielty also missed games with injuries.

In short, Chavez wasn't merely unprotected at times. He was practically naked.

"Ideally, we'd have that big right-handed threat in the middle to mix things up," Macha conceded. "Crosby did a nice job in the three-hole in front of Chavvy there for a while, but that's a lot to ask of a second-year guy."

The A's, though, have never been shy about asking youngsters to carry heavy loads. Blanton, Haren and rookie closer Huston Street did it for the pitching staff in 2005, and rookies Swisher and first baseman Dan Johnson had their moments offensively.

"Every year we have to integrate some kids; that's the nature of the beast for us," Beane said. "But our kids were pretty damn good, and it's not unreasonable to expect there to be some improvement next year. So given that, and the veteran people we have coming back, I think we're looking OK."

In other words, with or without a Paul Konerko/Frank Thomas/Mike Piazza type, the 2006 A's expect to have a good shot at ending their two-year postseason drought.

"I don't want to use injuries as an excuse, but if we'd have been healthy all year, I think we're definitely a playoff team," Kotsay said. "And I think you can say the same thing about the team we have coming back."

With so much time left before Spring Training starts, it's unclear exactly who'll be back.

As the Hudson and Mulder trades so vividly illustrated, nobody in Oakland is untouchable, and there are sure to be rampant rumors about Zito being dangled in a quest for the big bat. The club declined to pick up its 2006 option on Hatteberg, but management has spoken to his agent about a possible return. Lefty reliever Ricardo Rincon is a free agent, but his return hasn't been ruled out, either.

And, as always, the organization is stocked with marketable prospects such as Daric Barton and Andre Ethier.

"We have some options as far as getting certain things done," Beane said cryptically. "What we won't do, though, is make a knee-jerk move based on what people think we need at the expense of the long-term health of the franchise."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.