Bringing back the likes of Josh Willingham and Coco Crisp would ease some of those issues and lend a veteran presence to an otherwise youthful team. Even still, plenty of questions would surround a 2012 club that isn't expected to seriously contend.
Instead, the team will hope for health and to continually gain stability under manager Bob Melvin, who in September agreed to a three-year contract to rid himself of his interim status. Melvin will be involved in every offseason decision, general manager Billy Beane says, and is insistent on creating a winning atmosphere.
The A's skipper will utilize this winter to not only aide in the building process of next year's club -- "I don't think there are too many spots going into next spring where you can say, 'He's the guy,'" he said -- but those that come after, as he'll set out to educate himself on the entire organization.
Like the A's have done for much of the past decade, they'll rely heavily on their pitching staff, which again proved to be among the best in 2011. It's a big strength, no doubt, but the lineup's projected inefficiencies won't equate to much support, and -- as was the case in 2011 -- getting the team to click on all cylinders will be a daily challenge.
Though the A's will fight for more, simply improving upon a disappointing 2011 season would seemingly be considered a success, with any playoff hopes likely to be squandered by what are expected to remain potent Rangers and Angels clubs.
The A's, again, are seemingly set behind the plate, with Kurt Suzuki ready to undertake the third year of a four-year contract that takes him through 2013 with a club option for '14. Less known, though, is who will be his backup. Landon Powell, if included in the Super Two mix and thus arbitration-eligible, likely wouldn't be tendered a contract. In that case, Spring Training could feature a showdown between Josh Donaldson and Anthony Recker. Neither has proven much at the big league level, though the opportunity to do so hasn't necessarily been there. And top catching prospect Max Stassi, considered the lock to one day replace Suzuki, is still recovering from right shoulder surgery and hasn't played above the Class A level.
A year after finally seizing the starting role at first base, just as the A's hoped he would, Daric Barton lost it midseason following an unproductive first half, paving the way for Brandon Allen's arrival. Though it turns out Barton was playing hurt with a right shoulder that has since been surgically repaired, Allen held his own at first base upon his August promotion and displayed signs of power the A's lineup has lacked. His bat, combined with his steady defense and surprising speed, make him the frontrunner for the job heading into spring. Barton won't be able to throw a ball until January, so he'll already be faced with the task of playing catchup in camp, where he'll attempt to make a competition out of the starting role. The club maintains Chris Carter is still in this mix, too, but Carter's defense is too much of a liability for their liking.
This job may not be up for grabs for several years, barring any health setbacks to Jemile Weeks, who in convincing fashion took over the starting role in Mark Ellis' stead this season and proceeded to post numbers worthy of American League Rookie of the Year consideration. Weeks, a 2008 first-round pick, has continually improved on defense all the while grinding out good at-bats and displaying an entertainingly speedy pace around the bases. That leaves the versatile Eric Sogard, along with Minor Leaguer Adrian Cardenas, as his two primary backups. Adam Rosales, who endured a frustrating 2011 campaign following rehab from right foot surgery, is at the top of the team's list of those with potential Super Two status, making his return iffy.
Cliff Pennington exited the 2011 season as the captain of the infield, and he'll enter next year in the same role, with the A's counting on him to not only lead a pack of young defenders stationed around him but use those same skills to garner a well-rounded leadership role in the clubhouse. His defense is expected to continually progress, and he'll look to capture consistency on the offensive side, where in recent years he's endured something of a roller-coaster effect. He also provides the team a good dose of speed anywhere in the lineup, which should again nicely complement Weeks' -- and, perhaps Crisp's -- presence at the top. How he performs in each of the areas will help dictate his paycheck going forward, as he's arbitration-eligible following next season. There was thought Grant Green might be overstepping Pennington's shoes by now, but the A's 2009 first-round pick has transitioned to center field.
Though the jury is still out on Scott Sizemore, the A's seem to like his potential as an everyday third baseman, particularly if improvement with his glove continues at a rapid pace. The front-office folks have been high on him for years, and it appears top third-base prospect Stephen Parker could still be a year away from being Major League ready. Given the lack of depth here, though, this could be a definite area for upgrade this offseason.
Each of the three outfield slots are far from set, though the A's could change that quickly by reeling in free agents Josh Willingham and Crisp again. David DeJesus is also prepared to hit the open market, but Oakland isn't expected to attempt to keep him in green and gold based on his surprising flop in 2011. Ryan Sweeney is an option for right field in his stead, but the A's may again choose to use him off the bench and pencil Michael Taylor into the starting role. Jai Miller and Jermaine Mitchell are both Triple-A names to keep an eye on, as is the trade market, where Beane is likely to explore options that could bring in some power.
This remains a long-term area of concern for an A's team that again ranked near the bottom in the Majors in homers. There's a strong possibility of a Matsui return, especially with Melvin -- perhaps his biggest supporter -- in the fold. But should the Japanese veteran depart, the A's will be left with a major hole to fill. Their hope was that Carter would be ready to grab hold of the job by now, but a sluggish start to his big league career hasn't helped that cause. If the club was forced to pluck from the free-agent pool, options are expected to be limited to either the elderly or the expensive.
Trevor Cahill, under club control through 2015, and fellow youngster and 2011 All-Star Gio Gonzalez are geared to head a rotation facing a few health questions entering Spring Training -- namely Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson, who both underwent surgery this year. Braden is a possibility to be ready for Opening Day, but there are no guarantees -- including whether the A's will elect to even bring back the arbitration-eligible hurler. Anderson, meanwhile, isn't expected back until the second half, meaning the A's are likely to again rely on the likes of right-handers Guillermo Moscoso and Brandon McCarthy, who came out of the season as great surprise stories. Southpaw Josh Outman could easily pitch his way into the mix by the time camp breaks, and the A's are likely to take a long look at Graham Godfrey as well. Right-hander Rich Harden, who exited the season healthy, will be a free agent and has expressed interest in staying in Oakland, so perhaps he comes back at a discounted cost.
The back end of the A's bullpen should again be dominating, with the stalwart arm of Grant Balfour returning to set things up for closer Andrew Bailey, who is arbitration eligible. Like Balfour, lefty Brian Fuentes is under contract through 2012, with a club option for '13. Though shaky at the start of the year, Fuentes turned in a nice second half in a steadier role under Melvin. Hard-throwing right-hander Fautino De Los Santos will be a significant presence in key situations and, if the A's wind up using Bailey as trade bait, has potential to be the ninth-inning guy. Michael Wuertz has a club option for '12, but his inconsistencies make his return an unlikely happening. Instead, Trystan Magnuson and Andrew Carignan should lend the A's a unique mix of right-handed talent, and the arbitration-eligible Joey Devine could be back if Oakland takes the risk on the injury-prone righty. Southpaw Craig Breslow is also arbitration-eligible for a second year, though he could end up serving as a trade piece. Rounding out the pack are lefty Jerry Blevins and right-hander Neil Wagner, who will at least attempt to make a competition out of whatever bullpen spots remain open come the start of camp.