Oakland has several position battles brewing in camp, making Friday's Cactus League opener against the visiting Mariners at Phoenix Municipal Stadium all the more significant. The A's, perhaps more so than any other team, will be evaluating their players extra closely this year -- while trying to put together an Opening Day lineup that, at this point, features many unknowns.
Some (think players like Jemile Weeks, Kurt Suzuki and Brandon McCarthy) won't warrant the attention. But plenty of others -- particularly those battling for spots at first base, third base, designated hitter and the outfield -- are expected to use these games as a tryout. Ditto for the rotation and bullpen candidates.
The club's time in the desert has been condensed from the usual four weeks to three, as the A's and Mariners are slated to travel overseas on March 22 for a week-long stay in Japan, where they will open the season on March 28-29. It marks the second time in five years Oakland has made the trip.
There's very much a sense of urgency, then, in the way manager Bob Melvin and his staff go about creating a roster. The club had the option of starting camp early, as the Mariners did, but chose to begin on a normal schedule -- mostly not to rush its pitching staff.
"We talked to the organization about what they did in the past, and we were comfortable doing this," Melvin said. "I can't tell you what their variables were, whether they had more guys in camp or needed to do some things, but I can speak for us in saying we're comfortable at the pace we're on."
For Melvin, Friday's contest will represent his first Cactus League game as A's manager, and he's planning to run out a handful of regulars. Weeks will lead things off, with shortstop Cliff Pennington following in front of center fielder Coco Crisp. Manny Ramirez gets his first start at DH in the cleanup spot, while left fielder Seth Smith and right fielder Josh Reddick follow afterward. Suzuki will bat seventh, and first baseman Brandon Allen and third baseman Josh Donaldson will round out the lineup, with right-handed starter Graham Godfrey on the mound.
Familiar faces surely abound, but Melvin advised reporters on Thursday not to read too much into his first lineup.
"I would say, 'Don't look too much into tomorrow's lineup,'" Melvin said. "Certainly, if you're forecasting guys that are regulars at this point, you'll see quite a few of those. Yet, the lineup and the order of it, don't think too much into it. You'll see a lot of different lineups."
Ramirez, for instance, will certainly not be getting all of the at-bats at DH, especially considering he won't be allowed to play in Oakland's first 50 regular-season games. Allen, Smith, Daric Barton, Kila Ka'aihue and Jonny Gomes will also see time there.
At first base, Melvin plans to shuffle Allen, Ka'aihue and Chris Carter, while Barton is expected to join the mix sometime in mid-March once his surgically-repaired right shoulder is cleared to throw. The A's skipper also has decisions to make in the outfield, where an already large number of players is expected to grow by one, when Yoenis Cespedes makes his anticipated weekend arrival.
Cespedes' presence could immediately shake up the look of the outfield, as Crisp could then be forced to move to left, while Reddick continues seeing the most time in right. Melvin also has to work in Gomes, Collin Cowgill, Jermaine Mitchell and Michael Taylor.
Back in the infield at third base, Donaldson will get an extended look, while utility players Adam Rosales, Eric Sogard and non-roster invitee Wes Timmons mainly see work at shortstop and second base, due to the team's lack of infield depth. With incumbent third baseman Scott Sizemore out of the mix with a torn left ACL, the A's are hoping Donaldson quickly grabs hold of the job.
The A's youngster, who initially entered camp as a candidate for the backup catcher spot, plans to take advantage of his opportunity.
"I'm excited," Donaldson said. "I can't say I'm not a little nervous, because I am -- just being over there, and this is the Major League team and getting the opportunity. If I wasn't nervous a little bit, I don't think I'd be human. It's going to be fun. It's going to be a learning experience, playing over there every day again."
Donaldson and the A's play host to 10 Cactus League contests, while they're slated to take part in 11 on the road. Of those 21 games, four are of the split-squad variety. The A's play the Mariners three times before facing them in Japan -- and then again in Oakland to restart the regular season -- with Seattle making another visit to Phoenix on March 16 for the only A's night game of the spring.
By that time, perhaps Melvin will have a better idea of how his pitching staff will look. Outside of McCarthy and No. 2 starter Bartolo Colon, the rotation has plenty of spots to fill. Lefty Dallas Braden, working his way back from shoulder surgery, should slot in there by the beginning of May, while Godfrey, Tyson Ross, Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker and Brad Peacock duke it out for the other spots.
In the bullpen, Brian Fuentes, Grant Balfour, Joey Devine and Fautino De Los Santos are expected to compete for the closer's job. Meanwhile, Jerry Blevins, Andrew Carignan, Ryan Cook, Pedro Figueroa, Jordan Norberto and Neil Wagner will simply be competing for any relief role with the big league club.
Four of the A's contests will be featured on MLB.TV: March 6 vs. Milwaukee at 12:05 p.m. PT; March 8 vs. Los Angeles Dodgers at 12:05 p.m. PT; March 10 vs. Cincinnati at 12:05 p.m. PT; and March 17 vs. San Francisco at 1:05 p.m. PT.