Kouzmanoff eager to stake his claim for A's

Kouzmanoff eager to stake his claim for A's

Kouzmanoff eager to stake his claim for A's
OAKLAND -- In exactly six weeks, Kevin Kouzmanoff will report to the A's Spring Training facilities at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

He'll go about his normal workout routine in the ensuing days. He'll catch up with old teammates, and he'll meet new ones. At some point, he'll quietly trot out to third base, as he's done countless times throughout his big league career. He'll take his grounders. Lots of them.

It's there, on the left side of the infield, where Kouzmanoff finds much comfort and joy. That he knows.

But there's an unsettling unknown this time around, that which comes in the form of Oakland's teetering interest in having him there. After an offseason during which the club pursued not just one other third baseman but two, will Kouzmanoff's potentially awkward return bring about an elephant in the room?

If it does, Kouzmanoff will make sure the gray creature's stay is short. He's not oblivious to Oakland's winter workings and strong pursuit of Adrian Beltre, but he's also not about to waste any time letting leftovers of the ordeal interfere with his preparation for what he plans on making a successful 2011 season. That's just not the way Kouzmanoff, a professional in every sense of the word, works.

That's not to say, though, that Oakland's unwavering attempts at landing Beltre -- now with the Rangers -- by way of a reported six-year deal worth $76 million didn't faze him.

"I knew the A's had some money to spend," Kouzmanoff told MLB.com by phone from his offseason home in Denver this week. "Beltre's a good ballplayer, and he was in high demand. There I am kind of sitting off to the side thinking, 'Where do I fit? Obviously, the A's don't really like me that much at third base if they're trying to get another third baseman.' But at the same time, I'm also realizing it's just business, and if they can lock someone down for a certain number of years, an All-Star third baseman who can hit 25 to 30 home runs in the Coliseum, then I really have no say in it."

It marked the second straight year in which the A's unsuccessfully tried to lure Beltre, who opted for six years and $96 million in the Lone Star State. It also represented their second-known interest in a third baseman not named Kouzmanoff, as they employed Edwin Encarnacion for 20 days before non-tendering him in early December.

Several people saw Kouzmanoff as the likely non-tender choice over the power that came with Encarnacion, both of whom share the same agent. Kouzmanoff, himself, was among that crowd, as he admitted to viewing the possibility of being released a real one.

"I guess you can say I am a little surprised to be with the team right now because of the interest they showed in other third basemen," he said. "They got one third baseman, and then they tried to go out and get another one, so I feel like I'm kinda third in line now. But I think that I'm a good enough third baseman to where I wouldn't have a problem finding a job if someone else were to come in and play third base for the Oakland A's."

There were also the early offseason trade rumors, some linking Kouzmanoff to a hometown deal with the Rockies, others considering a reunion with Cleveland, the organization that drafted him in 2003. But Kouzmanoff's offseason agenda rarely, if at all, involves baseball gossip.

"I know that our names are going to be floating around," he said. "There are always rumors. I get filled in from other people. I don't really pay attention to that stuff, but if my name does show up in an article, my friends give me all the details vs. me jumping on my computer and looking at it."

Kouzmanoff probably wouldn't have liked what he saw, anyway. At least not following a season in which the 29-year-old put together the worst offensive performance of his career, compiling career lows in batting average (.247), on-base percentage (.283), slugging percentage (.396) and OPS (.679) while taking over the beloved Eric Chavez's territory.

But Kouzmanoff doesn't need to see those numbers, or hear fans or media repeat them, to understand that his 2010 campaign, his first full season in the American League, was something of a disappointment.

"I was unsatisfied with my season last year," he said. "It didn't help me being hurt for three weeks with my back. I felt like I was seeing the ball really well and was going good, and then I got hurt. That kinda put a stop to things.

"But I think I've established myself as a third baseman who can hit some home runs and drive in some runs. Personally, I think I can do better. I'm going to try to do better this year. I'm going to work as hard as I can to do that. I was new with the club last year, and I was maybe trying to do too much, prove to my teammates and to the fans that I belong there. I may have put a little extra pressure on myself."

Now, with Beltre and Encarnacion in the rearview mirror, does a different sense of pressure come into play, the motivating type that has Kouzmanoff wanting to prove he can do his best efforts of matching the talent of the two that got away?

"I think if they were happy with me at third base, they wouldn't consider going out and getting someone else," he said. "I knew for sure that if they were going to get Beltre that I was gone. I'm still here, though, and I want to do the best I can. I've worked hard this offseason. I'm hitting baseballs, trying to get faster, getting in good shape. I want to prove to them that I can play third base just as good as anybody else. I feel great."

Kouzmanoff believes the power is within him, that he's capable of hitting 25 home runs and driving in at least 90 runs. But he's also aware that those numbers don't come without discipline, one of the facets of his game on which he's focused this offseason. In 2010, he swung at 43.3 percent of first pitches he saw, which ranked fourth most in the AL.

"I think there are things mentally I can work on, like being more patient at the plate," he said. "It's a matter of seeing a good pitch to hit and taking advantage of it and putting the barrel on the ball. I like to swing the bat. I don't walk much. I think everyone knows that. I just need to pick out better pitches and make sure I don't miss. I'm just trying to engrain a swing that will maximize my potential of hitting the ball every time. Sometimes I move my hands too much, which causes me to be late, or I put my front foot down too late or early."

That work, Kouzmanoff hopes, will have him primed for a season that will transform Beltre into something of an apathetic memory in the Bay Area. The arbitration-eligible infielder, who made $3.1 million last year, is ready to sign a contract and continue moving toward an Opening Day in Oakland, where he's slated to be announced as the team's everyday third baseman.

"I talked to my agent a few days ago, and he said everything is a go," Kouzmanoff said. "Billy Beane said things will be fine and we'll go through the arbitration process. We're going to be friendly about it and get on with the season."

Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, and follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.