Despite 2012 success, A's remain grounded

Defending AL West champions insist they're taking things game-by-game

Despite 2012 success, A's remain grounded

PHOENIX -- The task is simple, so why not keep the message simple too?

"Our expectation is to play well," manager Bob Melvin said of his A's team this week.

"We don't get too far ahead of ourselves, and we don't think too far ahead," Melvin continued, "but I've said many times that we'd like to take the success, the confidence that we had last year, and go into this season with that."

The A's, who will open the 2013 campaign against the Mariners on Monday, have retained key parts of their roster that won the American League West last year. They're done lamenting the losses of Jonny Gomes, Brandon Inge and Brandon McCarthy, instead focusing on the players inside the clubhouse who have replaced them to aid the attempt at defending the division title.

Outfielder Chris Young fell into the A's laps by way of a surprising trade early in the offseason that sent Cliff Pennington to Arizona. Late in the winter, the A's filled the void left by Pennington and Stephen Drew by bringing in Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. And just for extra measure, they added Jed Lowrie to the infield mix by swinging a deal with the Astros for Chris Carter -- a move that proved smart, as they watched Nakajima struggle this spring.

In between, Oakland reeled in catcher John Jaso. Finally, first baseman Nate Freiman joined the roster this week, giving Brandon Moss another platoon partner with Carter out of the mix.

The A's made winners out of platoons last year, and they intend to do the same this year, too. They're planning to open the season with two players sharing at least four positions: catcher, first base, second base and designated hitter.

Perhaps so many interchangeable parts make for a messy puzzle in some places. In Oakland, where the A's used 50 players last year, the pieces just might fit together perfectly again.

That concept could extend to the outfield, where the A's have five everyday players stashed. Left fielder Yoenis Cespedes, center fielder Coco Crisp and right fielder Josh Reddick will get the bulk of the playing time, while Young bounces around to each spot and Seth Smith gets his turns every so often on days when he's not DH'ing.

"Bob is going to play his matchups," Reddick said. "You might get two at-bats against a lefty, and then they bring in a hard-throwing righty and he's going to pinch-hit for you, especially if it's a big situation. We understand that, myself included. I know that if I'm struggling and a big right-hander like Chris Young has a day off and some tough lefty comes in, I have to be ready for him to pinch-hit for me. You have to understand the concept of it."

Speaking of the outfield, that's where the A's are strongest defensively. Reddick, playing his first full season as a big leaguer last year, won a Gold Glove in right field. The speedy Crisp can cover plenty of ground in center, and Cespedes, though new to the role of left fielder last year, is already turning into one of the game's best.

The jury is still out on the infield, though, simply because there are a few unknowns. Moss and third baseman Josh Donaldson are entering just their second season at their positions, and second base is expected to be shared by Scott Sizemore and Eric Sogard, whose time at the position in the big leagues represents a small sample size. Behind the plate, Jaso and Derek Norris are considered average defenders at best.

"I think we should be able to get better," said Melvin, whose club posted a .982 fielding percentage last year. "Brandon Moss has more experience at first, Donaldson has more experience at third and Lowrie is a natural at shortstop. We feel we have the chance to be a good defensive team. In the outfield, we feel like we're very good defensively. We have several guys with very good track records."

Offensively, the A's don't boast much star power outside of Cespedes, who hit .292 with 23 home runs in his rookie year, but they like the candidates they have to sandwich him in the middle of the lineup -- Moss, Reddick and Smith, who can drive the ball.

Oakland hit just .238 -- the third-lowest mark in the Majors -- en route to claiming the AL West last year, which seems befuddling, until you look at what the pitching staff did. The A's staff compiled a 3.48 ERA, including a 3.80 mark by its starters, good for third in the AL. The majority of its members are back, which is the main reason why the A's are expected to remain in contention next to the Angels and Rangers -- and potential sleeper team Seattle -- all year.

"I think everyone around here will tell you that for this team to be successful, it has to start on the mound, and it's going to end on the mound," said Jarrod Parker, who will be joined in the rotation by Brett Anderson, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and, eventually, veteran Bartolo Colon.

"If we can be consistent all year, I think something like last year isn't going to just be a fluke," Parker added. "It's not going to be a one-time thing. To have a little more experience this year is going to be a big thing, too. We'll be able to be a little more comfortable with everything and not be so consumed with outside factors you face when you're new to it all."

Said Melvin: "That's what is exciting about our young starters. We feel like they all have a chance to get better, even though they all had good years last year."

The bullpen, too, is loaded with talent. Grant Balfour returns to the closer's role, with Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle in setup roles.

So does it all add up for the A's to get back to the playoffs?

"I feel like we have the chance to be better, but you don't want to put that kind of pressure on yourselves, either," Melvin said. "We just try to put all of our efforts into a particular day and leave it all out there, and then come back the next day and do the same thing."

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.