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A's in position to contend again in potent AL West

A's in position to contend again in potent AL West

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A's in position to contend again in potent AL West
OAKLAND -- The A's enjoyed plenty of good times in a wildly successful 2012, which brought about renewed optimism in a fan base that had waited six years for playoff baseball to return to Oakland.

With a group of rookies and castoffs that combined for 94 wins in the league's toughest division despite sporting the lowest payroll, the young A's proved to be one of the best stories in baseball.

Now we await the sequel. So what better time than now, while flipping the calendar, to address questions that could affect the club's chances of providing an entertaining encore.

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1. What have the A's accomplished this offseason, and what remains on their to-do list?

It didn't take long for the A's to realize that their Game 5 loss to the Tigers in the American League Division Series left them wanting more -- nine days after, to be exact -- when they bolstered an already deep outfield crew with the acquisition of Chris Young from the D-backs. They addressed a gaping hole at shortstop by signing Japanese infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima. Depth was also added to the rotation by way of the re-signing of Bartolo Colon, who provides experience and leadership to an otherwise youthful staff.

The A's have forced little roster movement elsewhere, feeling fortunate that most of the group that led them to the playoffs is returning.

2. Are they set up to defend their title as AL West champions?

It may seem that way, given the little turnover seen this winter. But it won't be easy, not with the powerhouse Rangers and stacked Angels -- employers of Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and Mike Trout -- expected to enter the 2013 season bigger and better. It also remains to be seen whether Oakland is primed for repeat performances after breakout years from the likes of Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick, or whether they were simply the type witnessed only once in magical seasons such as the one that unfolded in the Bay. Still, the A's enter with the division's best pitching staff, and it's those arms that should keep them in contention again.

3. Who rounds out the rotation?

We know that Brett Anderson, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and Colon already have secured spots in the rotation. So who comes out of camp as the fifth starter? A.J. Griffin should like his chances and is seemingly the leading candidate, but a strong spring showing by his good friend and fellow righty, Dan Straily, could make for some competition. And in the unfavorable event that more than one of the aforementioned starters endures an injury, keep an eye on Brad Peacock and Sonny Gray, both of whom figure to see big league action at some point this year, no matter the level at which they start the season.

4. What will the infield look like?

Though the current roster makeup should be able to provide an answer to this question, it still leaves a hint of doubt as to who really takes the field come Opening Day. Nakajima at shortstop aside, it seems no other infielder has a position he can call his own at this point. Josh Donaldson is viewed as the everyday third baseman, but an unproductive spring could change this thinking. Scott Sizemore figures to assume duties at second base, but Jemile Weeks is expected to show up with plenty of motivation to alter those plans, and Sizemore remains an option for third base, in the event Donaldson proves unfit. Over at first base, the A's like what they have in the platoon of Moss and Chris Carter, but Daric Barton also looms behind them, hoping to make a comeback.

5. Just what exactly is Weeks' role?

It will be Weeks who decides this. It was just last winter he was viewed as the lone untouchable player on a roster that received quite the makeover, and in just a year's time he's fallen out of favor with the organization, following a sophomore slump. Weeks appeared to regress offensively -- he hit too many balls in the air -- and defensively, and he was ultimately demoted to Triple-A in August. He will have to prove in a short time this spring that his productive rookie campaign was no fluke, or else he will wind back up in Sacramento. It's likely he only makes the club as an everyday second baseman, rather than in a utility role he wouldn't serve as well as the more versatile Adam Rosales or Eric Sogard.

6. Who gets playing time in the outfield?

Everyone. Really. Expect to see a steady rotation of Young, Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes, Reddick and Seth Smith manning the outfield. Reddick figures to get the majority of playing time in the outfield among this group in right field, with Crisp and Young likely sharing time in center and Cespedes and Smith doing the same in left, with the daily odd men out alternately slotting into the designated-hitter spot. An abundance of depth here bodes well for keeping each of them healthy.

7. Encore power surge for Reddick?

This is a fun question to ponder, and even if Reddick doesn't tally 32 homers again, he still figures to come close, while also providing his club with a steady lineup presence and impressive defense. Reddick is a special talent, and his powered bat is what truly got the A's faithful believing in general manager Billy Beane's vision for the club, following the unpopular trades of three All-Star pitchers that netted players like him.

8. Can Cespedes stay healthy, and what is he capable of doing if so?

The wear and tear felt by Cespedes last year was essentially to be expected, considering the Cuban defector had never played more than 90 games in a season before coming to the United States. But now that his body has experienced the grind that is a 162-game season, albeit with a handful of injuries here and there, Cespedes figures to be less prone to such maladies. Should this thought hold true, he only figures to get better in all aspects of the game, and a 30- or 35-home run season with an average hanging around .300 isn't out of the question.

9. What can Colon do with his second chance with the A's?

The A's like to think he can do exactly what he did with his first chance, minus the suspension. Colon was a valuable asset to their rotation last year when on the field, demonstrating to his young teammates the advantages of simply throwing strikes. However, it remains to be seen how much of the success Colon enjoyed last year was attributable to performance-enhancing drugs. A's employees who have seen him pitch in winter ball say the talent is still there, and if that's the case, Colon can give Oakland 10-plus wins at a low cost.

10. Who comes out of the farm system?

The A's would do well, it seems, by finally giving the versatile Grant Green the chance to showcase the talent that made him a first-round Draft pick in 2009 at the big league level, where they could assess his offensive ability against Major League pitching while employing him in a utility role of sorts. Gray, another first-round pick by the A's, is likely to get his opportunity, too.

Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, and follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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