The Athletics will have replacements for their former Opening Day starter, most productive hitter of 2006, and their manager when they begin the season Monday afternoon against the Mariners at Safeco Field.
Oakland won 93 games last year to capture the division title, going 17-2 against last-place Seattle in the process. It then swept Minnesota to win its first postseason series in 16 years.
However, Oakland was then swept by Detroit in the AL Championship Series. The news got worse when manager Ken Macha was fired by general manager Billy Beane, Zito left as a free agent across the bay to San Francisco and Thomas opted to join Toronto.
The Athletics also lost steady left fielder Jay Payton to Baltimore.
“Sure we lost Zito, sure we lost Thomas, sure we lost Payton,” closer Huston Street said. “You can’t replace those guys. With a healthy (Mark) Ellis, a healthy (Bobby) Crosby and (Rich) Harden, and you look at our pitching staff, it’s about as good as there is, as long as we keep everybody healthy.”
Beane hired Bob Geren to manage the club, which will count on players like Crosby and Harden to remain healthy enough for the A’s to contend.
Crosby - the 2004 AL rookie of the year - has been limited to a total of 180 games over the last two seasons due to injuries. The 25-year-old Harden spent two stints on the disabled list last season and won’t start the opener, pitching Wednesday’s finale of this three-game set so he can start Oakland’s home opener on April 9.
Oakland replaced Thomas at designated hitter with veteran Mike Piazza, who will begin his first season in the American League. The 38-year-old former All-Star catcher batted .283 with 22 homers and 68 RBIs in part-time duty with San Diego last year.
Geren will send Dan Haren to the mound Monday. Haren pitched a team-high 223 innings last season and issued just 45 walks, finishing among the league leaders in walks per nine innings at 1.82. The right-hander also went 1-0 with a 4.09 ERA in his two playoff starts.
Haren, who is 5-0 with a 2.95 ERA in his last six starts against Seattle, is looking for more consistency this season.
“I just want to be able to give the team a chance to win every time out,” he said. “That’s hard to do, especially in a division where I might face Texas and the Angels three or four times a year. I came to camp to ready to work on things I did during the offseason.”
For the Mariners, a major reason they finished in last for the third straight season was their poor play against the A’s. Seattle - 78-84 in 2006 - would have finished with a winning record if had it won even six of the rivals’ 19 matchups.
Seattle, which had a 4.88 starting pitchers’ ERA in 2006, has added three new starters to the rotation in Jeff Weaver, Miguel Batista and Horacio Ramirez. The ace of the staff is Felix Hernandez, who will become the youngest Opening Day starter in club history when he throws Monday’s first pitch.
Hernandez, who will turned 21 on April 8, has lost about 20 pounds from last year, when the Mariners kept him under 200 innings in order to preserve his arm.
“I don’t like to have a bad year,” said Hernandez, who finished 12-14 with a 4.52 ERA. “I don’t like to lose. It’s motivation for me.”
The right-hander failed to last past the fifth inning in either of his starts against Oakland last season, going 0-2 with a 6.00 ERA.
The Mariners lineup will once again start with Ichiro Suzuki, who led the majors in hits for the third time in his career with 224 in 2006. Suzuki batted .322 after he “slumped” to a career-low .303 the year before.
“We think, on paper, our club, when you look in our division, is probably the most improved,” general manager Bill Bavasi said.