OAKLAND -- While an abundant number of outfielders will offer some sort of distraction come Spring Training, it's safe to say all eyes will be on Eric Chavez and his surgically repaired back and shoulder when the A's report to camp. Ditto the rotation-leading duo of Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer, who are expected to throw out All-Star numbers and head a rather young staff despite not having pitched an inning last year due to their own injuries. Same can be said for reliever Joey Devine.
Thus, any optimism built up for the upcoming spring season must be tempered with the reality that the A's have a lot to overcome medically. Slightly less than a year's time has passed since Devine, the 2008 rookie relief sensation, underwent Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery -- a few days after Duchscherer's own elbow procedure. That news, combined with Chavez's decision to undergo yet another operation on his troubled back, merely represented the start of a siege of long-term injuries that saw the A's use the disabled list 17 times for a cumulative loss of 989 games by the affected players. That was on the heels of an Oakland-record 25 times in 2008, with 25 players combining to miss 877 games. So, to say that health is not one of the most -- if not the most -- pressing issue facing the club this spring would seem somewhat silly. After all, it's what has kept players like their $66 million man from truly earning their keep. Chavez, who will make a team-high $11.5 million this year, has played in only 121 games over the past three seasons. The six-time Gold Glove third baseman is looking to put his injury-prone past to rest to serve in a utility role -- whether in the outfield, infield or designated hitter spot -- during the final season of his six-year contract. Manager Bob Geren, for one, believes the team's offseason acquisition of third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff from San Diego will relieve much of the pressure faced by Chavez in recent years. "I'm always optimistic about him," the A's skipper said, "but it's how he feels. To not have to go out and play every day is going to help his chances a lot." A healthy Chavez in the lineup gives the team a boost of some much-needed power, an area in which they've been lacking for several years now. The 2009 club hit 139 home runs, which was the fewest in the American League and fourth fewest in the Majors while it also marked the first time in Oakland history the A's ranked last in the American League in that category. In seasons during which the 32-year-old Chavez has played in at least 120 games, he has averaged 28 home runs. Only Jack Cust, who will mostly provide DH duties this season, has averaged more than 25 homers during 120-plus-game seasons. And while it's unlikely Chavez will hit that 120-game mark -- even if healthy -- the power he would provide a team that collectively batted .262 last year is unquestionable. "He obviously is one of the more experienced players in the game and has power from the left side," Geren said. "He has the chance to get back the form he was in a couple years ago, and he could provide us with the versatility that would give us a lot of flexibility." Along with Chavez at the top of the list of expected key contributors stand Sheets and Duchscherer -- both proven All-Stars who are looking to put aside a blank 2009. Sheets, signed as a free agent for $10 million on Jan. 26, missed the entire 2009 season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn flexor in his right elbow. At the same time, it's hard to ignore the right-hander's resume. The four-time Milwaukee All-Star tallied double-digit wins seven times while recording an ERA under 4.00 in each of his past five seasons, and he went 13-9 with a 3.09 ERA in 31 starts for the Brewers during the 2008 season. Sheets insists he's healthy, as does general manager Billy Beane and Geren, who promptly deemed the new A's addition his Opening Day starter on the same day he was officially welcomed into the fold. Whether that health bill proves to stay clean throughout Spring Training, though, remains to be seen. "I don't think it's a secret we have guys that are projected on the roster who didn't even pitch last year," Geren said. "It's really going to be about these guys staying in form and staying healthy in order for us to win games." Winning games is something Duchscherer became very familiar with before undergoing right elbow surgery March 27 last year. The 32-year-old right-hander has a 2.82 ERA in 214 career appearances with Oakland, which is third lowest in Oakland history. But when he reports to camp on Feb. 20, he will not only have to prove he's physically ready but also mentally stable after ruling out a midseason return last season to receive treatment for clinical depression. That gives the A's two starting pitchers with question marks still surrounding their respective futures. Add in Devine, who is expected to serve a pivotal bullpen role this season, and the count is three. Don't let that shake Beane's nerves, though. "Bigger anxiety was going into last year having so little experience in our starting rotation," the A's general manager said. "Ben opted to have the surgery a year ago in an effort to make sure he was completely healthy, so I have less concern than I would had he not had the surgery. Quite frankly, we were very pleased with the physical he went through. Ben keeps himself in great shape, as does Justin, so we're anticipating them having a real good year." So are the fans, who the club believes should be watching a contender if health stays in check. The organization feels it did its part in improving 2009's team, which finished last in the AL West with a 75-87 record, by stocking up on depth and giving a little more life to the lineup by adding Kouzmanoff, Jake Fox and outfielders Coco Crisp and Gabe Gross. Thus, the roster looks complete, as does the rotation -- boasting Sheets, Duchscherer, Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden -- aside from the fifth spot. Whether the former two, along with Devine and Chavez, are able to give the A's a formidable chance to compete against their division rivals will play out soon enough. "You have to make sure they're not only healthy enough to play but also performing to the best of their capabilities," Geren said. "I don't think we have any questions facing our personnel. I think we're deeper and more talented than we've been in the last three years. At the same time, we don't want to just be healthy. We want to win."
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.