OAKLAND -- Equipped with a revamped lineup and a progressive rotation that is shaping up to be one of the Majors' best, the A's have positioned themselves for what could be their first playoff appearance since 2006.
The thought may be premature, but the necessary components are already in place following an active winter and a relatively quiet spring. Moving forward, many things have to go right for this ideal ending to unfold as planned following a 2010 season that culminated with an 81-81 record.
Health, not surprisingly, sits atop the list. The notion is a popular one in all sports, and the reasoning rather simple -- injured players don't equate to productive teams. In Oakland, however, it's even more imperative given the fact that a small budget lends the A's less room for error.
General manager Billy Beane stocked up on depth this winter, and while it's evident in the makeup of the bullpen and the large quantity of outfield help, the reality is that more than a couple of key injuries will still greatly affect this team's standing.
The offseason acquisitions of 3-4-5 hitters David DeJesus, Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui are notable, no doubt, and should stand to create a ripple that makes the other spots -- Kurt Suzuki and Kevin Kouzmanoff in the sixth and eighth holes, respectively -- much better than last year. But all three have a recent and well-documented injury history.
Perhaps even more of a risk is Coco Crisp, who last season proved to be a sparkplug from the leadoff spot -- but only for 75 games because of multiple disabled list trips. The A's center fielder, who experienced hamstring tightness during Spring Training, is a must-have for consistent wins, as his above-average speed and defense, along with his occasional power, offer the club an unmatched presence.
While an unhealthy lineup could automatically make an exceptional pitching staff irrelevant, the A's also know that the reverse scenario could prove all the more damaging to any playoff hopes, as this team is built around its youthful starting staff -- a strong facet that gives Oakland an edge over its American League West counterparts, whose offseasons weren't nearly as busy.
"We're sick of being the pushover in the division, and I think the last or three years have really gotten guys fired up," Dallas Braden said. "The front office went out and made some moves to hopefully make us better. If we can stay healthy, we should definitely be better."
Opening Night starter and 2010 All-Star Trevor Cahill, fellow baby faces Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez along with the gritty Braden will look to duplicate last year's success, which came in the form of a 3.47 ERA, the best mark by any AL staff since Boston compiled a 3.32 ERA in 1990. The A's rotation also led the league in opponents' batting average (.243) and ranked second in on-base percentage (.307).
Projected Opening Day lineup
*- Closing in place of Andrew Bailey (strained right forearm)
"I'm very happy to have the staff we have," skipper Bob Geren said. "I'm very fortunate as a manager, not just having that kind of quality but that youth."
Cahill (23), Anderson (23), Gonzalez (25) and Braden (27), all from whom the A's would gladly take 30 starts, will be joined in the rotation by fifth starter Brandon McCarthy. The 27-year-old right-hander, who beat out Tyson Ross, Josh Outman and Bobby Cramer for the spot, represents one of the team's many offseason additions.
Also among that crowd are newbies Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour, whose bullpen expertise adds to an already impressive Oakland relief corps. That group includes Craig Breslow, Michael Wuertz, Brad Ziegler and a rehabbing Andrew Bailey, whose absence at the start of the season because of a strained forearm will give Fuentes and Balfour closer work.
A very efficient defensive showing, as the A's displayed last season, goes hand in hand with the club's pitching success. While Willingham, Crisp and DeJesus all boast a proven glove, Oakland's infield -- which remained status quo from 2010 -- is just as good. First baseman Daric Barton, second baseman Mark Ellis, shortstop Cliff Pennington and third baseman Kouzmanoff all contribute to an intimidating defensive scene.
Many of the above players will be counted on to make up for a 2010 offense that ranked 11th in the AL in runs scored and produced a mere 109 home runs, third lowest in the Majors. The power guys -- Willingham, Matsui, Kouzmanoff -- need to show power, and an improved effort with runners in scoring position by all starting nine will be key.
Geren knows his club is capable of placing all of these pieces together. Now it's time to watch if it can be done.
"The players know that we've improved, how we finished, how hard we played, how hard we had to fight just to get to the .500 mark last year," he said. "With the guys that are returning, plus the additions, on paper it should make us better. It's up to them to make that come true."