Will the A's re-sign Grant Balfour? Or will they be looking at Ryan Cook or Sean Doolittle to close?
-- Cody K., Santa Cruz, Calif.
As difficult as it would be for the A's to let Balfour walk, it seems almost certain that will happen. This is an organization that has generally been reluctant to spend big money on relievers, who often prove to be volatile. Oakland also has never bought into the idea of employing a proven closer. Rather, the A's create their own, as they did with Balfour last year, Andrew Bailey before that and several others, including Huston Street, in previous seasons. They even did it with Cook for some time last year and know he's an option to close next season, should Balfour depart.
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It's also important to remember that it's a two-way street. No matter how much the A's want Balfour back, even if at any cost, he's going to draw plenty of attention from other clubs with bigger checkbooks. The advantage working in their favor is that Balfour will have plenty of competition on the open market, with Joe Nathan, Fernando Rodney, Joaquin Benoit and Brian Wilson all hitting free agency as well.
Balfour has said he wants to be back, but while speaking to the media on the last day of the season, he also sounded like a man on the move. No matter. He deserves the chance to test the market, and should he not return, the A's remain confident in the quality of young arms already in the bullpen.
If Balfour leaves the A's via free agency for another team and long-term contract, how about bringing back Rich Harden? I've always thought that Rich would make a great closer. One-inning stints could help his shoulder hold up better than trying to pitch 200 innings as a starter. I hear he is a free agent, so I was hoping the A's could offer him at least a Minor League contract to prove he is healthy once and for all.
-- Jason L., Walnut Creek, Calif.
Because my Inbox has received more than a few questions about Harden, I felt this was worth addressing, even though the answer should seem fairly obvious. The A's already employed Harden twice, so they have a great understanding of his health history and likely won't risk signing him again. I do believe he'll only be able to pitch in relief should he ever make it back to the big leagues, largely in part because of his past injuries, but I don't see it happening with the A's. That ship has sailed.
Any chance Billy Beane gets involved in a David Price trade? Do you have any prediction on when Addison Russell comes up to the big league club? I say August 2014.
-- Timothy W., Newark, Calif.
It goes without saying that Price will be a hot commodity. Dozens of teams will try to make something happen to get him. Even if you don't need a guy like Price, you look into him, and I can see the A's doing just that, as crazy as it might sound. But they might not go much further than that, since I envision them utilizing their resources -- money, trade bait -- for offense over pitching.
Regarding Russell, the A's top prospect, his time could come even sooner than August, obviously depending on how he fares in the early goings of the season. Oakland's personnel at season's start will also factor into the timing of his arrival. Should the A's feel the need to upgrade their middle infield this winter, be it at shortstop or second base, there won't be much urgency to promote him since Jed Lowrie can play either position.
What is your sense of the A's short- and long-term plans for Michael Choice? Do you think he could challenge Josh Reddick or Seth Smith for an outfield position next season?
-- Matt, Orange County, Calif.
A productive spring could have Choice, ranked by MLB.com as the A's No. 2 prospect, in line for a big role with the A's at season's start, though I see it being at designated hitter if that's the case. Oakland values Reddick's defense too much to bench him in favor of Choice, and there's thinking he could be a nice complement to Smith at DH.
Chip Hale is rumored to be a managerial candidate. What is the likelihood he will be back as bench coach?
-- Diane L., Oakland
It's hard to say. I do think Hale deserves to at least interview for a few of the managerial openings, particularly Seattle. He's energetic, detail-oriented, extremely knowledgeable of the game and knows how to handle the media -- which, yes, is now a factor for organizations making such hires, since managers are more visible than ever. Teams don't underestimate this, but they still also value the other obvious traits, like good communication and leadership skills.
Hale has been a trusty sidekick to manager Bob Melvin, and the A's would hate to lose him, but they also wouldn't hesitate if asked to allow him to interview for another position. Whether it's next year or later, I do believe his time will come.