OAKLAND -- A deep roster and effective platoon system will again be at the core of Oakland's quest for the American League West.
The A's have finished at the top of the division in each of the past two seasons and, despite a dip in pitching depth, with frontline man Jarrod Parker out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery Monday, a third straight title remains in reach for this club.
Oakland will front a rotation led by Sonny Gray, who will be followed in order by Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone. A.J. Griffin (elbow), who compiled 200 innings last year, is expected back sometime in May.
"Obviously the loss of Parker means there's going to be big shoes to fill," said shortstop Jed Lowrie, "but I think we have the personnel to step up. This is still an exciting group, and there's no reason we can't be just as good, if not better, than we were last year."
Last year the A's ran away with the division on 96 wins, before bowing out of the playoffs after a second straight Game 5 loss to the Tigers in the AL Division Series. The early departure inspired a bevy of offseason moves, beginning with the signing of another player to add to Team Versatile: Nick Punto.
The A's got loud in December, pulling the trigger on four significant moves in a span of 40 hours, coming out of it with Kazmir, All-Star closer Jim Johnson, setup extraordinaire Luke Gregerson and perhaps the game's best part-time player in Craig Gentry on their side. A week later, they dealt for former first-round Draft pick Drew Pomeranz, a lefty swingman with plenty of upside despite a down stint in Colorado.
Along the way they lost their top outfield prospect Michael Choice and one of the top lefties, when healthy, Brett Anderson, along with DH Seth Smith. The decision to part ways with Choice, in particular, reflected their win-now approach.
Gentry, like reliever Ryan Cook, will start the season on the disabled list, after being set back in spring by a lower back strain, but both are expected back when eligible April 5. In the meantime, depth again comes to the club's rescue.
Late offseason pickup Sam Fuld, a defensive whiz, will serve as the club's fourth outfielder, and the A's don't figure to miss a beat in the later innings, either, with an abundance of arms from both the left and right side readily available to step in for Cook.
Right-handers Johnson, Gregerson, Dan Otero and Evan Scribner, and southpaws Sean Doolittle, Fernando Abad and Pomeranz are expected to begin the season in a bullpen that figures to be the club's biggest strength.
"Billy does a great job of targeting not just a couple guys, but a whole team worth of guys," said manager Bob Melvin, beginning his third full season at the helm in Oakland.
The A's reel in such players and put them in a position to succeed, thanks to prime matchup opportunities. Just ask Brandon Moss, the poster boy for this formula. The first baseman managed to hit 30 homers in a platoon last year.
Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes bring just as much power to the table, and what the A's lack in not employing a Robinson Cano or Mike Trout they make up for in fielding proficient hitters top to bottom, and against both lefties and righties.
"That's why we've had such a potent offense," said Lowrie. "I think we have a bunch of guys that know who they are, and they don't change that. They stick to the game plan, and that's what being a pro is all about. Because of that, we have a good balance. There's no easy out. Everyone is going to give you a tough at-bat, and nobody is trying to do too much. Know your game and stick to it."
"We thrive on pitching and a balanced lineup that makes other pitchers work," added Melvin. "It's definitely a philosophy of Billy's to target a whole group of guys like this, and from either side of the plate."
The pitching depth will no doubt be tested, as the rotation appears uncertain behind Gray. Kazmir, signed for two years and $22 million, is coming off his first full big league season since 2010. Chavez, who excelled in a long-relief role last year, has yet to taste Major League success as a starter. Straily and Milone, though both capable, need to prove consistent.
But in them, one of their catchers sees the makings of another solid group, even without Parker or Griffin.
"You can talk about what we've lost, and I feel for Jarrod, but I think that the guys we have coming in have things that can definitely contribute to a ballclub," said Derek Norris. "I like Chavez's repertoire, and I think Tommy has developed a nice two-seamer to complement his changeup. That's something he's been searching for a while. And then we have guys beyond that. So as easy as it would be to talk about what we've lost, we've also gained some things, too."
Pitching is what the Athletics' division counterparts have lacked in recent years, so it could again separate them from potential powerhouses Texas and Los Angeles. Seattle has also improved by way of several offensive additions, led by Cano, and the Astros won't necessarily field the same pushover team it was last year.
"I think it's probably the best division," Melvin said. "I thought it was last year, and I think it's better this year. That means business as usual for us, worry about ourselves. We know we have difficult opponents, but we always focus on what we need to do. We try to focus on what we do best and kind of leave it at that."
"I think we'll be very successful," said Norris. "We have a very talented ballclub, especially on the pitching side. I think that we're going to see a lot of very well-pitched ballgames, and we're going to come up with the clutch hits to come through and get some wins. As a whole, we're very confident going into the season. We don't feel overmatched with anyone. We can compete with any ballclub, and we feel we still have something to prove no matter what we've done."
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less