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Future bright for A's, but questions await

Future bright for A's, but questions await

DETROIT -- The body, so to speak, was still very warm.

The A's had just been thoroughly worked over by a clicking-on-all-cylinders Tigers team that closed out a four-game sweep in the American League Championship Series with a walkoff homer Saturday.

They'd had less than 15 minutes to digest the emphatic end of their season, but the questions came, anyway.

Frank Thomas, will you be back?

Barry Zito, will you be back?

"I know everyone has stories to write," Zito said with a tired smile. "But it'd be nice to kind of process everything before everyone starts poking and prodding."

Nevertheless, Zito and Thomas both stood in front of their lockers for a good while after the Game 4 loss, patiently addressing their very uncertain futures.

Frank Thomas, will you be back?

"I hope so," said the mammoth designated hitter, whose one-year contract is up. "I'm open to anything. I'm definitely not done."

Barry Zito, will you be back?

"I don't know what's going to happen," said the ace lefty, whose seven-year run with the team is presumed to be over. "I feel like a freelance photographer, looking for a job."

OK, so the answers were far from definitive. That's to be expected. But the A's are a team that appears to be well-stocked for the future, and the status of Thomas and Zito will have an impact on that future one way or another.

Of the two, Thomas is far more likely to return. Though general manager Billy Beane last week declined to confirm a San Francisco Chronicle report that he'd recently offered Thomas a two-year deal worth as much as $15 million, he didn't deny it, either. And when the media gets something wrong, Beane generally pounces on it.

Thomas, whose big bat led the club to a division title and an AL Division Series sweep of Minnesota before going 0-for-13 in the ALCS, had sounded for the past month like a man ready to pounce on any reasonable deal that would keep him in Oakland.

"They gave me a chance here, and that means something," he said last week. "I love this team, this organization, and I'd love it if we could work something out."

There have been no rumored offers to Zito. Quite the opposite.

Beane frequently suggested that the A's won't be able to afford Zito, who will be among the top free-agent pitchers on the market this winter, and as the left-hander walked out of the clubhouse Saturday night, he was stopped by a high-ranking member of the baseball operations staff and told, "Thanks for seven great years."

A few minutes later, Zito laughed at the finality of the comment. A few minutes earlier, he wasn't quite ready to concede that he was done as an Athletic.

Not because he expects to be back, but because he didn't want to think about leaving just yet.

"It probably won't hit me for a while," Zito said. "Right now, I just want to look at my locker with the green and gold in it and savor it, because you don't know what's going to happen."

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Blunt-as-all-get-out third baseman Eric Chavez seemed to think he knows what's going to happen. Though Zito answered the question of whether there was a chance he'd return to Oakland by saying, "Oh yeah, definitely," Chavez had a decidedly different take.

"No," Chavez said. "I don't think there's a chance."

Of Thomas, however, Chavez was less sure. But he sure sounded like he wanted the big man back.

"I told Frank right after the game, he's the one guy we can look at and say, 'Without you, we're not standing here.'"

Assuming Thomas returns and Zito does not, the 2007 A's could look a lot like the 2006 A's. The only two other free agents are outfielder Jay Payton and lefty swingman Joe Kennedy, and Kennedy figures to get a shot at taking over the rotation spot vacated by Zito's expected departure.

Outfielders Milton Bradley and Bobby Kielty; righty relievers Kiko Calero, Kirk Saarloos and Justin Duchscherer; infielders Marco Scutaro and Antonio Perez; and catcher Adam Melhuse are eligible for arbitration.

"I'd like to see everybody back," said first baseman Nick Swisher, with whom the A's will work on a multiyear contract extension over the winter (closer Huston Street could be in line for a new deal, too). "We fell four wins short of the World Series, man, and we were banged up all year. It ain't my money, but I say let's get the boys together again and take another shot."

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

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