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Barton becoming key part of big trade

Barton becoming key part of big trade

PHOENIX -- When A's general manager Billy Beane stunned baseball by trading Mark Mulder to the Cardinals in December 2004, just days after dealing Tim Hudson to the Braves, Oakland fans were understandably bummed.

Like Hudson, Mulder was a fan favorite, two-thirds of the vaunted Big Three (along with Barry Zito) that anchored a renaissance of sorts for the A's, who rode the trio's arms into the postseason every year from 2000 to 2003.

The Mulder trade has since been viewed as a masterstroke by Beane, however, because while Mulder has been mostly injured and/or ineffective for St. Louis, two of the three players the Cardinals surrendered to get him -- right-handed starter Dan Haren and righty reliever Kiko Calero -- helped the A's get back into postseason in 2006 and get deeper into it than any of the Hudson-Mulder-Zito teams ever did.

But it's the third player the A's got in the Mulder deal who might end up turning the deal into a flat-out fleecing. Daric Barton, who was all of 19 years old in December 2004, is that good.

"I told people the day that trade went down, 'This Barton kid is the best player in the whole deal,'" says a veteran National League scout. "And he's better now -- a lot better. The kid's got superstar potential."

Barton, now 21, long has been viewed by insiders as one of the best pure hitters in the Minor Leagues. He batted .313 with a .445 on-base percentage at Class A Peoria as an 18-year-old, earning 2004 Midwest League Postseason All-Star honors as a catcher. And in his first year in the A's organization -- after moving from behind the plate to first base -- he batted a combined .317 with 13 homers, 89 RBIs and a .426 on-base percentage at Class A Stockton and Double-A Midland.

His 2006 season at Triple-A Sacramento was cut short by a freak collision at first base that fractured his left elbow (Barton throws right-handed and bats left-handed), but upon being declared healthy, he went to the Dominican Winter League and batted .324 with 10 RBIs in 21 games for Azucareros.

That performance, combined with what Barton has shown in Spring Training thus far, has made it clear that Barton's big-league debut will come sooner rather than later.

"He's been very consistent with the quality of his at-bats," gushed Keith Lieppman, Oakland's director of player personnel, after Barton went 2-for-6 with two RBIs in his first three Cactus League games. "I think people are realizing how good he really is, and he's understanding what kind of player he can be, too."

How good can Barton be? Lieppman, who typically tempers his enthusiasm for even the best young talent in the organization, recently dropped comparisons to Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn.

"Daric just has that knack for getting hits," Lieppman told the San Francisco Chronicle. "He has that feel."

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Added Beane: "Daric will walk a little more than Tony, but Boggs is a good call. Daric might have a little more power. ... I don't want to say they're similar hitters, but what Daric does at such a young age is so unique."

Pretty heady stuff, but Barton doesn't flinch when asked if such comparisons crank up the heat.

"All I can do is swing the bat," he said.

According to Lieppman, he can do more than that. His stint in the Dominican Republic revealed leadership potential that hadn't previously registered.

"It wasn't a very good team, but Daric kind of rose to the occasion and really became a leader down there; he became a catalyst and really turned that team around," Lieppman said. "A lot of players go down there, and come Christmastime, they go home and get ready for Spring Training. Daric did that, but they called him and asked him to come back for the playoffs, and they usually only do that with their guys who have been in the big leagues.

"I think that says a lot about a 21-year-old kid."

Added the NL scout: "When it's all said and done, if this guy stays healthy, it won't be, 'He's one of the guys they got in the Mulder deal.' It'll be 'Mulder's the guy St. Louis got in the Barton deal.'"

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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