Beane arrives and lands Piazza, Embree
A's get a big bat to replace Thomas plus versatile lefty reliever
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Athletics had a productive day at the Winter Meetings on Wednesday, which coincided with the arrival of general manager Billy Beane. He flew in from New York, finalized a deal with free-agent left-hander Alan Embree and moved within a passed physical of securing Mike Piazza for the 2007 season.Embree is signed, sealed and delivered to the Athletics' already-strong bullpen, and by the end of the week, the gaping designated hitter hole created by the departure of Frank Thomas should be filled by Piazza. Embree signed a two-year contract and Piazza has agreed to a one-year deal for a reported $8 million to $9 million. When he met with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Beane made sure he didn't say it was a done deal with Piazza, a future Hall of Famer. But the GM left little doubt that one of the most productive offensive catchers in Major League Baseball history would be calling Oakland home next season. "Hopefully, we can have it done by the end of the week," Beane said. "We're optimistic." The addition of Piazza to the lineup might not completely make up for the 39 home runs and 114 runs Thomas drove in last season in helping the Athletics win the American League West title and advance to the AL Championship Series. But the numbers Piazza compiled while playing catcher for the San Diego Padres last season at age 37 -- 22 home runs and 68 RBIs -- definitely caught the A's attention. "We need a right-handed bat and we need one in the middle of the order," Beane said. "A guy like Piazza fits that bill if we are able to bring it to conclusion. We are intrigued by what this guy can do if he just goes out and hits. "For a guy his age to catch as much as he did, get 400 at-bats and hit 22 home runs, is pretty productive. Assuming he signs with us and gets 150 more at-bats, that extrapolates a pretty good year." Piazza, a 12-time All-Star, has a .309 career batting average with 419 home runs -- including an all-time best 396 as a catcher -- and 1,291 RBIs. Asked why he thought Piazza decided to sign with the Athletics over other teams seeking his services -- including the division rival Texas Rangers -- Beane said it could have a lot do with franchise history and potential for continued success. "He sees that we have been a competitive club and he knows a couple of guys on the team," Beane said. "Mark Kotsay played briefly with him in Florida, for a week or something like that, and I think he sees a good match here. If we sign him, he has a good chance to win at this point of his career. "Both sides could see where it might work out."
It is believed that Piazza asked for a one-year contract, just in case he doesn't find being a full-time designated hitter to his liking."I'm sure he will pick up a glove out of habit, but our pursuit of him was based on him being the DH 99.9 percent of the time," Beane said. Barring injuries, or something else, Jason Kendall will handle most of the catching duties again in 2007 and Adam Melhuse would be the backup receiver. The signing of Embree could have an impact in the bullpen and starting rotation. "That's great news," manager Bob Geren said. "He gives us a good and experienced left-hander in the bullpen and the flexibility" to use another lefty in the rotation. If Spring Training started today, left-handers Joe Kennedy and Brad Halsey and righty Kirk Saarloos would get first crack at becoming the fifth starter behind Rich Harden, Joe Blanton, Estaban Loaiza and Dan Haren. Embree, 36, has pitched for eight organizations during his 13-year career, and this past season was one of his best. He had a 4-3 record and 3.27 ERA in 73 relief appearances for the San Diego Padres. "Being a West Coast guy, the tradition of Oakland, and the team being in [a pennant race] year in and year out regardless of their payroll made it easy for me," Embree said from his home near Portland, Ore. "A competitive team close to home made sense. It seemed like a good fit." One thing that Beane told Embree during a recent telephone conversation also factored in the decision. "He talked about an Interleague game we played against the A's and said he didn't like the way I was being used. I had pitched 2 1/3 innings. He told me that he felt there was no sense taking a guy out when he's throwing well. I liked that." The 73 appearances were a career high for Embree, who has 708 career appearances on his resume. "Those 73 games were fairly easy for me," he said. "The workload wasn't as much as you'd think. In fact, I do better when I throw in more games. It just keeps me locked in." Though he was used often, Embree logged just 52 1/3 innings for the Padres. Exactly how he'll be used by Geren and pitching coach Curt Young will be determined during Spring Training when an 11- or 12-man pitching staff is assembled. But the way Beane sees it, Embree could be used in several roles, pitching in middle relief at times, being a setup man other times and possibly even closing games when Huston Street needs a breather. Embree is more than a matchup pitcher, someone Geren would use exclusively against left-handed batters. "He has been very effective at times against right-handers," Beane said. "I think Embree can pitch anywhere. This is a guy you could see pitch in the ninth inning, the seventh inning or multiple innings. Alan had a great year last year and left-handers are hard to find. "It's hard not to take advantage of a guy who can impact the starting rotation by pushing someone else in there. We now have an option we didn't have before." Adding Embree to the pitching staff, and potentially having Piazza under contract very soon, made for a terrific Wednesday. "Assuming the Piazza deal gets done, we have accomplished a lot," Beane said. "We lost Frank and, assuming we get Piazza, have added a bat to put in the middle of the lineup. We'd still like to add an outfielder that bats right-handed, not necessarily a starter, and anticipate drafting someone tomorrow in the Rule 5 draft." The A's continue to talk to free-agent outfielder Jay Payton, who led the team in hitting last season with a .296 batting average but had a clause in his contract that prevented the Athletics from offering him salary arbitration. But with the outfield starters set with Nick Swisher in left field, Mark Kotsay in center and Milton Bradley in right, finding enough playing time to keep Payton happy and productive could be difficult.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.