If history has taught us anything, it's that Billy Beane usually has a pretty good idea of what he's doing, and that you should never underestimate the A's. Of course, you wouldn't know that if you just started paying attention to baseball this year. On the heels of the Hudson/Mulder trades, many people concluded that Oakland was going into a rebuilding phase, and that they'd be a non-factor in the pennant race at least for the short-term.
The conclusion is half right - Beane's offseason has a distinct eye to the future. Yet rebuilding isn't mutually exclusive with competition. Perhaps "retooling" would be a better word.
There's an incredibly enormous article here, but I don't have the time or the inclination to get into it. As such, I'll give you the quick rundown of why I expect the A's to be better in 2005 than they were when the Big Three was intact.
Replacing Hudson & Mulder's innings will be difficult, but replacing their effectiveness won't be as tough as people think. The two combined for a 4.02 ERA in 414.1 innings last year - 16% above the league average, when you adjust for park. Mark Redman and his 4.71 ERA are also out the door. Replacing these three are Dan Haren (inconsistent in the Majors so far, but incredible K/BB in the minors), Dan Meyer (polished college grad with eye-popping peripherals through AAA), and Joe Blanton (command freak who was hurt by an inordinately high BABIP in 2004).
All three of the replacements are young and unproven, but each has an established track record of success. The task at hand is topping the 4.24 ERA that Hudson/Mulder/Redman put up a year ago; without getting into extraordinary detail, I think the newcomers have pretty good odds of doing that. Throw in presumed improvements by Zito and Harden, and I think the worst-case scenario is that the 2005 rotation performs at the same level as the 2004 version.
(Note: Yabu may get some starts at the beginning of the season, but I don't expect him to last long in the rotation. Think of him and Saarloos last year cancelling each other out.)
Gone: Mecir, Hammond, Rhodes, Lehr, 3.96 ERA.
Incoming: Cruz, Calero, 2.76 ERA
Candidates to sop up the innings from the other two are Rule 5 pickup Tyler Johnson, a southpaw with 88-90 heat and a terrific minor league strikeout rate, and Huston Street, a sandwich pick in last summer's draft who had a 1.31 ERA in college and who allowed four runs in 26 minor league innings in 2004.
The purpose is clear: jettison the chaff and bring in a bunch of young talents who can pile up the strikeouts. The bullpen as a whole could strike out a batter per inning, and with expected improvement from Dotel and a breakthrough season for Street, it should be one of the best relief corps in baseball. The improvement in the bullpen is obvious, and each pitcher will play a critical role in taking some pressure off of the young starters. Fortunately for the A's, Calero, Cruz and Dotel have no qualms with multi-inning appearances.
Gone is Damian Miller, replaced by Jason Kendall. Marco Scutaro won't be starting anymore, with the acquisition of Keith Ginter and the return of Mark Ellis. Nick Swisher and his .269/.406/.537 AAA line from a year ago look to make people forget about Jermaine Dye's .329 OBP. Bobby Kielty's woeful performance as a fourth outfielder should be bettered by newcomer Charles Thomas. And, oh yeah, Eric Chavez probably won't miss a month due to injury again.
Right now, each of the offensive changes looks like an improvement. Oakland's lineup is going to feature a bunch of OBP from top to bottom, lacking a single "easy out" (so to speak). And all this was accomplished without making the defense much worse; Ginter's a downgrade with the glove at second base, but he'll split time with Mark Ellis, and as PTP points out, it won't mean that much anyway now that Mulder and Hudson's groundballs are gone.
The long and short of it is that Billy Beane traded names for players. Nobody wants to be that guy who deals away a Tim Hudson or a Mark Mulder (or both), but Beane bit the bullet and managed to build a team that looks a few games better than the 2004 edition. Obviously this could all change if one of the young new starters flames out, but baseball is all about giving yourself the best odds, and it looks like the A's are in pretty good position to challenge for the division title once again.