Cranking up the What If Machine


While it was a blast seeing the A’s put 8 runs on the board in the first inning against the Angels on Sunday it’s impossible to escape the fact that they usually struggle to score that many runs in a week.

Gazing up at Texas in the AL West standings makes me think about Rangers slugger and former A’s prospect Nelson Cruz which naturally makes me think about Keith Ginter.

That’s right, Keith Freakin’ Ginter.

He’s the guy the A’s acquired when they traded Cruz to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2004. Ginter quickly disappeared from the face of the earth and Cruz has gone on to consistently display amazing feats of strength at the plate for Texas. Meanwhile, the A’s have one of the worst offenses in baseball — Little League, T-Ball, you name it and most teams are out-hitting Oakland right now.

Which makes me wonder: What if the A’s didn’t make a trade or two over the past several years? What if a few recent free agents decided that green and gold and white shoes appealed to their fashion sense? What if money was almost no object for Oakland and they could retain at least some of the players they developed and acquire the ones they wanted?

I know just as well as you do that those things will probably happen around the same time Bob Geren skillfully manages a team to a World Series title yet it won’t stop me from firing up the What If Machine and seeing the kind of lineup it cranks out.

Without further ado …

1. Rafael Furcal, SS: The A’s made a hard run at Furcal the last time he was a free agent but it seemed like he was just using Oakland as leverage to score a new deal from the Dodgers. Rafi has continued to be injury prone over the past few years and he’s having a horrible season, hitting a paltry .168/.215/.218. But he’s only 1 year removed from a .300/.366/.460 slash line and for the sake of this post I’d take him over Cliff Pennington even though I love weak at-bats and errors on routine plays as much as the next guy.

2. Carlos Gonzalez, CF: Wouldn’t it be great if the A’s had an exciting young player with speed, power and great defensive tools? Oh wait, they had that guy and they shipped him to the Rockies in the Matt Holliday trade. All they have left to show for general manager Billy Beane’s wheeling and dealing are AAA outfielders Shane Peterson and Michael Taylor and AA pitcher Ethan Hollingsworth. Taylor seems to be the only player in that group who has ever generated any significant buzz as a prospect but his .268/341/.444 line at Sacramento doesn’t exactly have me convinced that he’s going to make A’s fans forget about CarGo anytime soon.

3. Andre Ethier, RF: OK, I’ll freely admit that I used to be one of “those guys.” You know who I’m talking about. Fans who kind of shrug off the Ethier-Milton Bradley trade by hanging onto the idea that Bradley was an integral part of the 2006 A’s team that finally escaped the ALDS. But now that I look back at it, Bradley only played in 96 games that season with a .276/.370/.447 line while Ethier hit .308/.365/.477 in 126 games and he hasn’t stopped raking yet. Yeah, I think Ethier would look nice in green and gold right about now.

4. Nelson Cruz, LF: The big guy sure can crush the ball which is something you can’t say about anyone not named Josh Willingham on the current A’s roster. Cruz hit 26 homers and drove in 100 runs while advancing from high A to AAA in 2004 in the A’s organization before being traded to the Brewers for Ginter. I don’t know what’s more embarrassing, the Mets sending Cruz to the A’s for Jorge Velandia or the A’s making the deal for Ginter. The Brewers blew it with Cruz too when they packaged him with Carlos Lee in a 2006 trade with the Rangers for Francisco Cordero, Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix.

5. Adrian Beltre, 3B: Part of the I-Want-Nothing-To-Do-With-Oakland Free Agent Club along with Furcal. Beltre was an object of Beane’s affection last winter but the slugging third baseman found more money elsewhere. Unfortunately for the A’s “elsewhere” ended up being division rival Texas. Beltre’s hitting homers, playing solid defense and the Rangers are cruising along in first place. In Oakland, the A’s have burned through Kevin Kouzmanoff, Andy LaRoche, Conor Jackson, Adam Rosales and Scott Sizemore at the hot corner during their steady descent into last place.

6. Lance Berkman, DH: Another member of the Oakland haters club. Berkman was Beane’s top choice to fill Oakland’s DH slot in the lineup last winter but the Puma signed with the Cardinals and has proceeded to hammer 25 homers for St. Louis. Consolation prize Hideki Matsui has knocked just 6 balls out of the park while hitting .212 for Oakland.

7. Nick Swisher, 1B: I guess I could pencil Brett Wallace into this spot but I miss Swish and since this is my absurd little fantasy lineup I get to play whoever I want. The only drawback to having Swisher in this lineup is it means Beane never trades him for Gio Gonzalez. Tough call and I guess I could work around that dilemma by going with Wallace here or ditching Swish, adding Holliday, shifting Berkman to first base and Cruz to DH. But Holliday was always a 1-year rental at best so I’m keeping him out of this lineup.

8. Ramon Hernandez, C: The old man can still hit. A .315/.369/.527 line for a catcher in his mid-30s is pretty impressive. I’m a big Kurt Suzuki fan but I expected him do a lot better than the .228/.291/.347 line he’s put up this season. Keeping Hernandez means Oakland never trades for Mark Kotsay and Kotsay never gets traded for Joey Devine but I think I could live with that.

9. Marco Scutaro, 2B: If you’re an A’s fan you know you miss Super Marco even though you loved seeing Graham Godfrey beat Tim Lincecum earlier this year. This is my way of bringing Marco home. It would have been nice to get him back as a free agent but I’m glad he managed to score some big money with Boston while he had a chance. That being said, I’m perfectly happy with Jemile Weeks holding down second base for Oakland in real life.

As a team the A’s have hit just .236/.303/.340 this year and the players in the Opening Night lineup came into 2011 with a combined salary of $36.49 million. My pie-in-the-sky lineup hits .265/.335/.451 and takes $64.75 million to the bank.

Considering the fact that owner Lew Wolff is only shelling out $66.5 million for this year’s club my team would also have to coach itself, do most of the pitching and all the groundskeeping at the Coliseum.

In case you’re curious, the difference between Wolff’s expenditure for the 2011 A’s and my lineup is $1.75 million which would buy you 1 year of Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey with $365,000 left over which isn’t even enough to cover the minimum salary for one more player.

While it’s thoroughly depressing to look at the potent offensive players the A’s have developed and flirted with in free agency, it’s slightly encouraging to see that if they could fill a few starting spots in the lineup with cheap, homegrown talent they could overspend in free agency for some heavy hitters to support their affordable, outstanding pitching staff.

Granted, there wouldn’t be much money left over to fill out the roster but how much playing time does a backup player really get in the American League anyway? Landon Powell only seems to get into a game about once a month and Rosales was getting so little playing time that the club finally sent him to Sacramento to get some work.

If it sounds crazy to put together a powerhouse team for one big run at a World Series title even though you can’t afford to hold onto it keep in mind that even though it’s an insane gamble it’s worked before.  Just look at the world champion 1997 Florida Marlins.  They loaded up for one monster season, won it all and then burned it to the ground when it was time to pony up and pay the bill the next season.  The Fish went from the best team in the land to a 108 game loser in the span of 1 year.

I’m not saying I want to see an A’s World Series team shredded before the champagne has dried but I’d love to see an inspired run at glory because right now it feels like Oakland’s going nowhere fast.

When I look over the lineup cranked out by the What If Machine I’d gladly pay to watch that team. I’d live with a slightly weaker pitching staff and bench if it meant the A’s could actually score more than enough runs to make a legitimate run at the playoffs because the current version of the team is — dare I say it? — kind of boring to watch on most nights.

Baseball in Oakland has become a game full of too many what ifs.  What if ownership was fully committed to winning?  What if Beane started hitting more than missing with his moves again?  What if everyone could finally stay healthy?  What if Major League Baseball finally made a call on the A’s ballpark situation?

I wish the What If Machine had some of those answers.