A's plan to be leaders in arms race

Armed and dangerous, A's aim high for 2006

PHOENIX -- Oakland's pitchers and catchers checked in Saturday at Papago Park, the A's Minor League complex, settling in a day before their first official workout of the 2006 season.

The usual assortment of prospects is present, but the youngsters know their time among the big boys will be limited. The A's pitching staff is set, and roles are fairly clearly defined.

Barring injuries, Barry Zito will anchor a strong starting rotation that features Rich Harden, Esteban Loaiza, Dan Haren and Joe Blanton, and reigning American League Rookie of the Year Huston Street will close for a bullpen that includes 2006 AL All-Star Justin Duchscherer, Kiko Calero, Jay Witasick, Joe Kennedy and Kirk Saarloos.

"It's pretty cool going into camp knowing exactly what the staff is going to look like on Opening Day," Zito said. "A lot of years you've got a spot or two in the rotation open, and maybe another two or three spots in the 'pen. So there's definitely some comfort there. Everybody can just focus on what they need to do to get ready."

The responsibility of getting them ready falls to Curt Young, who enters his third spring as Oakland's pitching coach.

"The nice thing about it is that, with the exception of Esteban, everyone else was here last year," Young said. "So everyone knows the drill, what we're doing, what we're trying to do. And Esteban's a veteran, so he'll be fine."

Zito, who said he knows very little of Loaiza other than what he's seen on the field, is particularly pumped about the starting rotation's depth.

"I loved our rotation last year, but we didn't really come together until the last three or four months," he said. "Now that Haren and Blanton have that first year of starting under their belts, and with another proven guy like Loaiza, hopefully we can get it going right out of the chute.

"And what's really exciting is that if someone goes down, we've got Saarloos right there in the bullpen, ready to step in. I don't think he got enough credit for being as good as he was last year, but Kirk is a stud. He and Kennedy would be starters on about 90 percent of the other teams out there."

The A's are set at catcher, too -- Jason Kendall will start and Adam Melhuse will be the backup. Kendall, who's entering his 11th big-league season, said he's excited as he's ever been going into Spring Training, and much of the excitement stems from the makeup of the pitching staff.

Asked if he thought the A's staff compared favorably with that of the world champion White Sox, Kendall said, "I'm biased, but I don't think there's anyone better than us."

"But we have to go out and do it," he added. "The White Sox went out and did it."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.