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White Sox, A's make AL power play
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
For months now Billy Beane has likened the ups and downs of his A's to a tech stock. Jerry Manuel has called his White Sox -- who have so adopted his personality -- a "work in progress." Here we are in the final days of the 2000 regular season with the White Sox in the playoffs and the A's just a shot away -- and all of a sudden there is a realization in Cleveland, Boston and Seattle that the American League balance of power is tilting.
"Rickey (Henderson) said that the A's have a lot of winning in front of them, that he's getting old and would like to enjoy one more before they get theirs," says Seattle general manager Pat Gillick. "Well, I feel the same way. Billy's young and he's going to be winning for a long time. Let me win now. I'm old," he laughed.
"Seriously," he added, "they are something." Gillick didn't have to be reminded that the team Oakland started at Safeco Thursday night averaged 25 years of age, more than seven years a man younger than the Mariners, and that drops to 23.7 if you discount designated hitter Matt Stairs. In other words, Florida may be a good young team, but Oakland is young and better.
The post-strike, three-division American League has been dominated by the Yankees and challengers that have included Baltimore, Cleveland, Seattle, Texas and Boston. Orioles ownership wrote the book on how to turn a great franchise to seed and, granted, as George Steinbrenner seeks to double his $50 million in local television rights, the Yankees are likely to remain in power until we go back to the Gold Standard. But otherwise, what we are seeing now and will see in October from the White Sox and Athletics is similar to the 1971 ALCS, when the Charles Oscar Finley A's were introduced to the nation, were swept by the Orioles and then came back the next season to begin a three-year reign as World Series champions -- a reign broken up only because Finley's of stubbornness and the Messersmith-McNally Decision that created free agency.
Will the White Sox make it to the World Series? Not likely. Will the A's hold their wild-card lead or catch the Mariners and even make it into the playoffs? Remains to be seen. But unless owners and players combine to obliterate the game with another I-me-mine shutdown in 2002, you are witnessing a preview of the October powers that will be over the next five years.
"The thing that makes the White Sox such a good offensive team is that they are the only club in either league with four legitimate No. 3 hitters, and that means four hitters that would be the best pure production hitter in any lineup," says one AL scout. "And with the exception of Frank (Thomas), they're all young."
Not that Frank is going to a rest stop in the next two years, but the other dynamic forces haven't yet approached their ceilings: Magglio Ordonez is 26, close to MVP-caliber, has superstar presence and numbers that read 31/122/.317/ heading into Saturday's game; Paul Konerko is 24, at 20 homers in less than 500 at-bats and is closing in on 100 RBI; and Carlos Lee is also 24, with 23 homers and 89 RBI.
"Every one of those players is on his way up," says another scout. "Ordonez is going be the MVP one year and Konerko and Lee are going to be .300 hitters who hit at least 35 homers." Ray Durham is only 28, with his 121 runs, and third baseman Joe Crede and catcher Josh Paul could be household names at this time next year.
Much is made of Chicago's shaky defense, but what could keep the White Sox from reaching the World Series is the inexperience of their pitching staff. If Cal Eldred and James Baldwin can't go -- and one White Sox official insists Eldred will return -- then other than the very underrated Mike Sirotka, this is a very young starting staff. Jim Parque is only 24. Mark Buerhle is 21, Jon Garland 20, Kip Wells 23, Lorenzo Barcelo 23, Matt Ginter 22 ... and we haven't even seen a lot of other talented kids, including Olympian Jon Rauch and Aaron Myette. Even the bullpen, where Keith Foulke and Bobby Howry are each 27, hasn't reached its ceiling.
All the White Sox have to do connect the dots: get the nation's third-biggest market, a town full of losing teams, behind them; they have just $21 million in payroll committed for next year; a ballpark renovation is perhaps on the way; and Jerry Reinsdorf must maintain confidence that his management team -- which he has kept together for a decade -- will make the right calls when suggesting that they invest in a free agent or three.
"The White Sox are two or three players away from being really good," says another GM. The Cubs may be cuddly and loveable, but no matter how much you frown on the South Side, if you're a sports fan, do you want to see a matinee at the Bijou or an evening production of The Lion King? Remember, Chicago has gone longer than Boston without a World Series champion, and this is a team that is as close to getting it as Comiskey is to 2120 South Michigan Avenue, which happens to be a national treasure for blues music.
What the A's don't have is the market. But scroll back through your Wall Street Journals and find the cost of living indexes for U.S. cities that ran last month. Fourth-most expensive? Boston, very close to the number three, New York -- much closer than New York was to number two, San Francisco. And way up top, the richest and most expensive city in which to live in the U.S.? San Jose. "If the A's can get around (Giants owner) Peter Magowan and get a deal with San Jose," says a baseball executive, "the A's are going to be a dominant team for the next six or seven years, maybe longer considering they and the White Sox have the best farm systems in the game."
Even if they remain stranded out among the Hegenberger warehouses, the A's are going to be the AL West power to be reckoned with for the next few years, even with the financial and organizational strengths of the other three teams in the division. If they can get Jason Giambi extended past next year, the team that has matured so quickly will be in place, as Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, Ben Grieve and Miguel Tejada are already tied up long-term.
Hudson has pitched a year and two months in the big leagues, is 29-7 and turned 25 this week. Barry Zito is 22; the league is hitting .165 off him. Mark Mulder is 23, and had very little pitching experience prior to the summer before his junior year at Michigan State. (How competitive is Mulder? He beat Bobby Orr at golf, in match play no less). That's a front three keeper for years.
Giambi is the one veteran, at 29, and he's a serious MVP candidate. "They may have one of the great left sides in modern times in another year," says a scout. Chavez is 22, and has 25 homers. Tejada just turned 24, is in the class of the AL Shortstop Trinity and is already at 28 homers and 106 RBI. Grieve is 24, and has 26 homers. Rookie center fielder Terrence Long was in the Pacific Coast League the first month, is right near 100 runs, has 17 homers and 72 RBI while hitting primarily from the leadoff spot. Catcher Ramon Hernandez is 24 and has 14 homers. Adam Piatt is 24. Project a growth chart and you can see Chavez as a .330/40-homer guy, Tejada and Grieve as 35-homer sluggers, Long hitting 30 in center, 23-year old second baseman Luis Ortiz hitting 30-35, Hernandez 20-25, Piatt 25-30 ... and that's not even getting around to their farm system.
Even if the White Sox go three and out in the Division Series and then do little more than acquire a couple veteran pitchers in the offseason, they are going to be the team to beat in the AL Central in 2001. Even if the A's cannot find a promise of a new neighborhood, they'll have to let Matt Stairs and Kevin Appier walk. And even if Beane doesn't fish another Olmedo Saenz, Gil Heredia, Stairs or Jeff Tam out of the minor-league free agent pool, they are going to keep getting better as Zito and Mulder take their places among the league's best left-handers. But if the White Sox and A's do build further this winter ...
Meanwhile, these are important days for some teams that thought that the road went on forever, and now may not:
And there are serious worries. To start with, who's going to be re-designing this team? Steve Phillips isn't signed, and other GMs have told him to wait and see if the Dodgers job opens. Bobby Valentine has been left, wondering. Mike Hampton, Rick Reed, Bobby Jones, Turk Wendell, John Franco, Mike Bordick and Derek Bell are free agents, and they have that Rey Ordonez contract with three remaining years. How healthy is Robin Ventura going to be? And, perhaps most important, what about Mike Piazza? Family friends insist they are worried about his back, and Braves coaches noted this week that he's so inflexible that all he's hitting are offspeed pitches out over the plate. "Watching him, all I could think was that he's stiff, and that's not Mike," says a scout following the Mets. "He doesn't look right." Gulp.
Is Buck Showalter the whole problem? Of course not. The problem is that Colangelo built his organization chart backwards, going from manager on up. As a result, Showalter had power over things he didn't need to be concerned with. The threads to, through and around GM Joe Garagiola haven't allowed him to do what's necessary and now they are an old team with a parched minor-league system and some serious financial problems. Colangelo has to decide whether or not to try to go another season with this team, or whether he should try to move Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez and/or some veteran pitchers to get younger and downsize the payroll.
What happened to baseball in Cleveland in the mid-'90s is a constant reminder to the White Sox, Tigers and other teams about what can happen if you do it right. But the thousand fans or so in Camden Yards Wednesday afternoon and the depression that is Philadelphia Phillies baseball are reminders of just how fast a great baseball town can turn into a burned-out storefront. And those places are another reminder as to the remarkable achievements of the Braves, with their accomplishments in a market that needs subtitles for its baseball audience.
The more expensive it gets, the deeper the drop. But while you ponder the future of teams like the Mets, Indians, D-Backs and Red Sox, go get your White Sox and A's paraphenelia, because if you think their present is bright, you're going to need eyeblack and flipdowns for their futures.
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