A’s fine-tune roster in bid for third straight AL West title 

click to enlarge Jim Johnson
  • Pat Sullivan/2013 AP file photo
  • Jim Johnson, who had 101 saves over the past two seasons with the Orioles, replaces Grant Balfour in the A’s bullpen.

For the last two years, no team -- unsurprising perhaps to only those enamored with the Green and Gold brand of Billy Beane baseball -- has proved better in the American League West than the one that calls Oakland home.

On Friday, A's pitchers and catchers report to spring training and the team will have a slightly different roster than the one that laid claim to back-to-back AL West titles.

Gone is crazed closer Grant Balfour and gone is their most successful starter in Bartolo Colon. But known for maximizing every morsel of roster talent, the A's return a power-laden lineup that ranked fourth in the majors in homers last year.

"I've had some success in the past hitting home runs," said leadoff man Coco Crisp, who agreed to a two-year extension Friday, coming off a season in which he launched 22 home runs and stole 21 bases. "If it happens, it happens. Obviously, my main focus is to get on base and to try move onto the next base and get in scoring position."

"I think Coco is the key on this team," said Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes, who hit 26 homers while driving in 80 runs last year. "He's the one who inspires the players on this team."

But if Oakland looks to make a push for a third consecutive West title -- a division that has seemingly improved -- it will likely have to rely on pitching. And the A's boast a good bullpen again, adding Luke Gregorson.

"It's nice to have that security," starting pitcher Sonny Gray said. "I'm sure that more than once they're gonna get me out of a bases-loaded, sixth-inning jam. That's what good bullpens do."

Oakland lost Balfour via free agency, but bolstered that roster spot by trading for All-Star Jim Johnson.

"I'm not really concerned about who I'm replacing. ... I have my own expectations," Johnson said. "The only expectation we have is to try and win a World Series. You look at the team, you look at what they've done, anything less is a loss. Anything else is not a success."

Over the last two seasons -- while pitching in the offensive-minded AL East -- Johnson has done his job. The former Baltimore Orioles closer, though blowing nine saves last year, has 101 saves over the last two seasons, leading the AL each year.

While losing 18-game winner Colon to the New York Mets and trading Brett Anderson to Colorado, the A's return a group of young arms primed for the starting rotation that includes Gray, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone. But with the additions of Drew Pomeranz and Scott Kazmir, Oakland hopes to settle a five-man starting rotation by spring training's end.

"It's really a competition among ourselves," Gray said. "Any quality staff from top to bottom is going to have competition, and we definitely have it."

While the unexpected runs to the division titles

The two straight division titles the A's have won have offered both congratulations and condolences -- the former for unexpectedly crashing the postseason in 2012, and the latter for twice being ousted in the divisional round by the same team, in the same frustrating fashion.

"I feel like we're gonna be able to use these experiences that we had in the division series the last couple of years to help us get over that hump," reliever Sean Doolittle said.

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