A's baseball preview: 3 keys to winning the AL West 

Aces return to form

After a season that was all about rookies on the starting staff, the A’s have a pair of veterans — Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer — leading the way in 2010. At their best, Sheets and Duchscherer could form one of the most potent 1-2 combinations in the American League. But after both missed all of last season with ailments, the A’s are entering the year cautiously optimistic. Sheets, the former Milwaukee Brewers ace who signed a one-year, $10 million deal in the offseason, has been hit hard in the spring, but is slated to take the hill Opening Day. If both right-handers can put together solid seasons, it will take pressure off the offense, as well as the rest of the young staff. Any thoughts of a run at the postseason will be lost if Sheets and “Duke” fail to deliver.

 

Filling the void at first

First base has been a revolving door for the A’s since Jason Giambi bolted for the New York Yankees after the 2001 season. Daric Barton has been trying to establish himself as the guy for several seasons and will get first crack at it in 2010. He has yet to adjust to major league pitching and is hitting just .249 in 212 career games. If Barton falters, a couple of intriguing names could step up. Jake Fox, who as acquired from the Chicago Cubs, hit 11 home runs in only 82 games last year and has great offensive potential, but is a poor fielder. Eric Chavez will also see time at first.

 

Table setters

Gone are the days when the A’s game plan would center on the home run. This club is built around speed and defense. Offensively, Coco Crisp and Rajai Davis will set the tone for the rest of the lineup hitting out of the No. 1 and No. 2 spots. Both are essentially leadoff men, capable of stealing more than 30 bags. Davis stole 41 last season, and Crisp swiped 28 in 2007 for the Boston Red Sox. Neither player will be confused with Babe Ruth, but both offer the rare ability to get on base and move themselves around the diamond. If Crisp and Davis can do that, the A’s could sneak up on some people. Crisp had his season cut short last year due to shoulder surgeries. The A’s need him to hit closer to his .277 career average, rather than the .228 he hit when he was healthy in ’09.

 

On the hot seat

Jack Cust, designated hitter

At this point in his career, there is no secret to what kind of player Cust is. The 31-year-old is a defensive liability, forcing him to DH more often than not. Cust is prone to striking out and doesn’t hit for average. On the flip side, he is one of the few power threats the A’s have and does find ways to get on base, boasting a .356 on-base percentage last year despite a .240 batting average. Cust was nearly gone this offseason, but the club brought him back on a one-year deal. If Cust doesn’t improve on some of his weaknesses, this will likely be his last season in Oakland as youngsters Michael Taylor and Chris Carter will be vying for at-bats very soon.

 

A’s by numbers

A’s 2009 record

75-87

A’s 2009 team batting average

.262

A’s 2009 team ERA

4.26

Pitchers who started a game for the A’s in ’09

14

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Doug Graham

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