Athletics quick hits

Athletics quick hits

PHOENIX -- Much has changed for the A's since they were swept out of the 2006 playoffs by the red-hot Tigers in the American League Championship Series, but this hasn't: There's little margin for error or injury.

Oakland managed to survive a rash of injuries that cost several key players big chunks of time last season, thanks to an emphasis on depth in the previous offseason, but that already has taken big hits this spring with injuries to outfielders Mark Kotsay (back surgery) and Bobby Kielty (knee surgery).

The A's still have the talent to repeat as AL West champs, but they'll need an awful lot of their "ifs" to break their way to hold off the rival Angels and improved Rangers.

Team strength: The bullpen is deep and versatile, with several late-inning options. Righties Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero, both finesse pitchers, have been the main setup men for closer Huston Street over the past two years, but lefty Alan Embree and righties Chad Gaudin and Jay Witasick, all of whom throw in the low- to mid-90s, will allow manager Bob Geren to share the work and keep everyone fresh.

Achilles heel: The rotation is solid but extremely thin, and the lack of big-league-ready prospects at Triple-A means even one injury could spell a lot of trouble. Lefty Joe Kennedy is expected to win the No. 5 spot behind righties Rich Harden, Dan Haren, Esteban Loaiza and Joe Blanton, and the next-best option is lefty Brad Halsey, who doesn't have much of a track record. The top Triple-A starters are righties Jason Windsor and Shane Komine, both of whom were raked in big-league spot starts last season.

Top newcomer: Mike Piazza will be a full-time designated hitter during the first AL season of his Hall of Fame career, but his well-honed swing and even-keel temperament should serve him well and make the adjustment easier than it might be for less accomplished players. He's not expected to catch at all, and the reduced wear and tear on his body and mind figures to keep him healthy and make him a passable replacement for departed cleanup hitter Frank Thomas.

Ready to make the leap: While nobody disputes Harden's talent, more than a few scouts are predicting that Haren will emerge as the staff ace. Committed to making his cut fastball a bigger part of his repertoire, Haren has the look of a 20-game winner -- and, unlike Harden, a clean health history.

On the hot seat: First baseman Dan Johnson is in the big leagues for one reason -- he can hit. But he didn't hit much last season, and if he doesn't hit early this year, he's a strong candidate to be shipped out to make room for Erubiel Durazo or hot prospect Daric Barton.

spring training 2007
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You can bank on: Defense isn't always sexy, but the glove work of third baseman Eric Chavez and second baseman Mark Ellis give the A's the two best defensive players in the league at their position. Ellis doesn't have a Gold Glove, but last year he had the best single-season fielding percentage for a second baseman in the history of the game. Chavez is working on a streak of six Gold Gloves.

Litmus test: Milton Bradley moves from right field to center in the wake of Kotsay's injury, and Nick Swisher takes over in right. Two of the team's most dynamic offensive players, Bradley and Swisher need to balance their new defensive responsibilities with having to carry an offense that could be awful without them at their best.

Games you don't want to miss:
Yankees, April 13-15: The first homestand of the season features the Bronx Bombers in their only trip of the year to Oakland.

Giants, May 18-20: The A's likely will get their first look at former fan favorite Barry Zito in black cleats during the first go-round of Interleague Play.

Cardinals, June 15-17: Also in Interleague Play, former A's manager Tony La Russa brings his reigning world champs back to the East Bay.

Tigers, Aug. 31-Sept. 2: It won't mean as much as it did last October, but you can bet the A's will be fired up to end their nasty losing streak to the defending AL champs.

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