"I think we definitely have a bunch of talented players on the roster right now," A's director of player personnel Billy Owens said. "I guarantee you there's going to be a surprise or two. Somebody will step up. We're hoping we're going to be injury-free, but you never know what can come up. The great thing about the roster is that Billy Beane, along with David Forst, has given us so much flexibility. We have a strong roster top to bottom, and that includes these non-roster guys."
Said group is headlined by Oakland's 2010 first-round Draft pick Michael Choice, who posted a .964 OPS with seven home runs and 26 RBIs last year in his first 30 professional games, 27 of which came at short-season Class A Vancouver after just three contests in the Arizona Rookie League. The 21-year-old Choice, whom Owens believes boasts power reminiscent of Greg Vaughn, is entering his first big league camp carrying the maturity level of a player who's gone through the motions more than once.
"The intensity of how he cares about the game is incredible," Owens said. "His preparation is highly regarded, and he's a good teammate. Everyone raves about Michael Choice's character, how this kid appears like he was drafted in the 40th round. He's just thirsty for knowledge every day and hungry. That's a good reflection, when your peers in the Minor Leagues feel you're both strong in character and talent."
Those very attributes give Owens and Co. reason to think Choice will greet pressure with open arms. It's a weight all too familiar for top prospects Chris Carter and Michael Taylor, who walked into camp last year with quite the hefty dose of expectations attached to their names. That comes with the territory of being so valued, Owens said, and ultimately aides players when transitioning to the Major League level.
"If you're a high Draft pick or a well-regarded prospect, there's going to be a certain expectation of how you handle that," he said. "It's good people will be watching Michael Choice like that. They'll definitely be impressed, maybe more so by his energy and his intent and how driven he is. It'll be a good experience for him to rub elbows with Coco Crisp and Ryan Sweeney and Josh Willingham and the other outfielders. When he's ready, I know he'll be acclimated because of these experiences."
Owens, who is embarking on his 13th season with the A's, thinks the same of catching prospect Max Stassi, who wowed everyone surrounding him last spring with a sharp presence rarely found in the likes of an 18-year-old. Now 19, Stassi will again represent the youngest kid in camp after a 2010 season at low Class A Kane County that saw him struggle a bit offensively but greatly improve defensively.
"Max, I look at a kid who is mature beyond his years," Owens said. "He went to a difficult place to hit in the Midwest League, and he hit for power. He's comfortable pretty much in any environment, and I think we'll see that progression continue and watch how advanced he is. And as a kid who is only 19 or 20 years old, you'll also see a progression where he's improving on his offensive numbers.
"I like his overall ability, his persona, his confidence, his ability to handle a pitching staff, his leadership, his preparation. If anything, I think he can be a younger version of our own Kurt Suzuki in that regard, of someone who cares so much about their pitching staff but are also going to be very competitive on the offensive side of the ball."
Stassi's grooming process will likely continue for several more years, and that's just fine by the A's. In an ideal world, he'll be geared for a big league career behind the plate sometime in 2013, when Suzuki's contract -- which has an option for 2014 -- is set to expire.
By that time, Stassi could be looking out at an infield led by Grant Green and Jemile Weeks, who are also among this year's Spring Training non-roster invitees. Green, a 2009 first-round pick, is very much ahead of his game offensively. The 23-year-old also made great strides defensively while with Class A Stockton last year, a facet of his game Owens only sees improving.
"Major League Spring Training will be a great environment where he can work on repetition and just being around the big league guys, giving him the chance to soak everything in," he said. "We want him to get to that comfort level. I don't care who you are or where you are in the game, but your first taste of the big leagues is excitement but also something new. It's something you dreamed about as a kid, and you're right there on the cusp. It's awesome to actually shake hands and rub elbows with guys you watched on TV four or five years ago."
Weeks, meanwhile, will not so much be looking to improve parts of his game as much as his health, which has derailed his progress in becoming the heir apparent to second baseman Mark Ellis. Currently healthy, Weeks will look to push aside those oft-injured days and focus on staying the course again.
"His defensive game improved tremendously last year," Owens said. "His backhand was better, the way he turned a play improved. And he's a catalyst offensively. We definitely feel he's improved on the skill level, and now it's a matter of him staying healthy and playing the bulk of the games in order to climb the ladder. When we drafted him, we considered him to be a Ray Durham type player. We still see that."
Not to be overlooked in the infield, though, is recently signed Andy LaRoche, the 27-year-old brother of Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche. He received an invitation to Spring Training and immediately represents an extra infield option for the A's, who are not guaranteed a healthy Adam Rosales (right foot) by season's start.
"He's always had great walk-to-strikeout numbers," Owens said. "He's still young, he's still talented, he's got a great throwing arm. He has power potential. Who knows where he begins the season, but in a different environment, change of scenery, maybe we catch lightning in a bottle."
LaRoche hit .206 with four home runs and 16 RBIs in 102 games with Pittsburgh last year. Fifty-two of his 58 starts were at third base, and he also made appearances at second base and first base, making him a viable option along with Steve Tolleson and Eric Sogard as a potential roster addition come April if Rosales is not ready.
Not too far behind that group stands Josh Horton, a 2007 second-round Draft pick who has been an integral part of several of the organization's championship clubs in the past few years. He was the starting shortstop for both the Stockton Ports and Double-A Midland Rockhounds' championship clubs, as well as for the 2010 Midland team that lost in the final game of the championship.
"He offers a sound glove, and he actually improved on his range, his quickness, and his versatility last year," Owens said. "He keeps on getting stronger. He'll never be a high slugging percentage guy, so to say, but he can definitely defend himself with the bat and keeps on getting better. He'll be a big surprise in this year's camp and beyond, I think."
Rounding out Oakland's non-roster invitee list, which can still expand, are infielder Wes Timmons, outfielders Matt Carson and Jai Miller, catcher Anthony Recker and pitchers Joe Bateman, Fernando Cabrera, Vinnie Chulk, Gabe DeHoyos, Willie Eyre, Danny Farquhar and Yadel Marti.
"Each name, there's something to look for," Owens said. "It's an exciting time to think about all of the possibilities of what's going to happen here in 2011."