PHOENIX — Despite the departures of All-Star closer Grant Balfour and ace starter Bartolo Colon, the Oakland Athletics head into spring training believing they are a deeper, stronger team than the one whose season ended in Detroit in the playoffs last October.
Much will depend on the men replacing Balfour and Colon — new closer Jim Johnson and left-handed starter Scott Kazmir.
More than that, however, the A’s are looking at two players who didn’t have great seasons last year — left fielder Yoenis Cespedes and right fielder Josh Reddick. If they play back to their 2012 form, it may not matter what the rest of the teams in the A.L. West did to try and overtake the two-time defending champions.
All four division opponents have worked hard at closing the game between themselves and the A’s, who finished 5 1/2 games ahead of the runner-up Texas Rangers and at least 18 games in front of everyone else.
The Rangers have retooled by padding their payroll with the additions of slugger Prince Fielder and on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo.
The Los Angeles Angels decided that subtlety was the way to go after the off-season signings of high-profile stars Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton the previous two years.
The Seattle Mariners brought in Robinson Cano with the biggest contract in franchise history and have added closer Fernando Rodney.
Even the Houston Astros should be improved with the additions on center fielder Dexter Fowler and starting pitcher Scott Feldman.
The A’s do have questions heading into spring training. Here are five of the most pressing:
1. Are the A’s ready to be frontrunners?
Though the A’s have won the past two A.L. West titles, they’ve basically been second-half teams, particularly on offense. In 2012 they averaged 3.71 runs per game before the All-Star break and 5.18 after. The difference wasn’t quite as pronounced last season, but the A’s still went from 4.52 runs per game in the first half to 5.04 afterward. This would be easier to explain if the A’s played their home games in a warm-weather city, where the second-half heat could help the hitters, but that’s not the case. Manager Bob Melvin and general manager Billy Beane will be looking for increased production from the hitters early in the season.
2. How successful can a team built around its bullpen be?
As much as any one facet of the game, the ’pen has been the backbone of the club the past two years. That’s been good enough to get the A’s to the playoffs, but not out of the first round. The starters, the defense and the hitters will need to rise to the challenge for Oakland to get deeper into the postseason. As for the bullpen itself, it’s been reworked with the additions of Johnson and quality setup men in Luke Gregerson and Eric O’Flaherty. With holdovers Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and Dan Otero, the A’s go into the 2014 season with perhaps the deepest bullpen in the big leagues even after the departures of Balfour and Jerry Blevins.
3. How will the infield come together?
Josh Donaldson will be at third base and Jed Lowrie is the shortstop. Beyond that, the A’s will wait for spring training to play itself out. Eric Sogard was the primary second baseman last year, playing in 113 games (98 starts) at the position. But the addition of Alberto Callaspo at midseason means there will be competition at second, especially since Callaspo had a big winter playing second in Venezuela. The A’s say Callaspo could get some time at first base, but that position is packed. Brandon Moss, who hit 30 homers, is back, and defensive specialist and on-base machine Daric Barton is pressing to start there. Both hit left-handed, which means there should be room for Nate Freiman, the first baseman from the right side.
4. Can the A’s get by without a proven No. 1 starter?
No starting pitcher on the A’s roster has ever won more than 14 games in a season. Four have won 13 at least once, and five of the six top contenders have won 10 games at least once. A.J. Griffin (14), Jarrod Parker (12), Tommy Milone (12), Kazmir (10) and Dan Straily (10) all reached double figures last year. Sonny Gray won five but had another 10 wins in the minors. Even with Colon’s 18 wins and 2.65 ERA gone to the New York Mets, the returning A’s starters went 63-47 last year. The key will be what infusion Kazmir can inject. A one-time rising star, he’d fallen off the radar until rediscovering his mid-90s fastball in the second half of last season with Cleveland. In his past 18 starts, he went 7-5 with a 3.06 ERA and struck out 107 in 103 innings.
5. What to do with the designated hitter?
Seth Smith, who was traded to San Diego for Gregerson, was the D.H. in 46 games last season — more than any other A’s player — but 70 percent of the D.H. at-bats still went elsewhere. Spring training in large part will be about settling on a D.H. platoon. Oakland management could choose Moss to D.H., leaving the glove and on-base abilities of Barton to play first base in a platoon with Freiman. At the same time, there are four catchers in camp, and one way to make the most of them would be to have on-base specialist John Jaso D.H., leaving Stephen Vogt and Derek Norris to catch. The latter would probably be the best way to go, but heading into camp, Oakland seems to be leaning toward Moss as the D.H.