Pitching, added depth should make A’s playoff contenders 

Trying to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, the A’s have strengthened their pitching and improved their offense through free agency and trades. If that sounds familiar ...  well, it worked for the Giants, didn’t it?

To win the AL West, the A’s have to win 10 more games than the 81 they managed last year. That’s quite possible. The 2010 division-winning Texas Rangers are weaker, with the loss of pitcher Cliff Lee more than outweighing the addition of Adrian Beltre. The Los Angeles Angels have done nothing to improve.

Like the Giants, the A’s have a strong rotation, and a young one. Dallas Braden, the No. 4 starter, is the oldest at 27. Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill are just 23, while Gio Gonzalez is 25.

The fifth starter could be Rich Harden, who came up with the A’s. Though it seems that he’s been around forever, he won’t turn 30 until November.

Another possibility for the fifth starter, Brandon McCarthy, will be 28 in July.

The A’s had a strong bullpen last year, but it should be much better and deeper this year, with the acquisitions of Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes, either of whom could close or set up.

More likely, the closer will be Andrew Bailey, if he’s healthy again. Joey Devine, who was looked at as a possible closer before he had arm trouble that led to Tommy John surgery, will also be in the mix.

The A’s bullpen also has great flexibility with lefties like Jerry Blevins and Craig Breslow, submarining right-hander Brad Ziegler and Michael Wuertz, who can be a set-up man or closer. That bullpen versatility will allow manager Bob Geren to rest a reliever who has pitched frequently.

The A’s lacked power last year but, again like the Giants, they didn’t go after a 40-homer hitter like Adam Dunn, with his high price tag — and high strikeout total.

Instead, they brought in Hideki Matsui as a DH. Matsui is an upgrade over Jack Cust because he doesn’t strike out as often. Because of his strikeouts, Cust couldn’t be used in the middle of the lineup because he would have killed too many rallies. Matsui can be used there.

The A’s also traded for David DeJesus, a good hitter though not a big power guy, and a good defensive outfielder. Then, they added free agent outfielder Josh Willingham, who has the advantage of being a right-handed hitter, a relative rarity for the A’s.

The starting A’s lineup as of now would have DeJesus in left, Coco Crisp in center and Willingham in right. Crisp has battled injuries throughout his career, including last year with the A’s, but he plays outstanding defense in center and is also the key to the A’s running game.

That lineup leaves former starters Ryan Sweeney and Conor Jackson on the bench, so the A’s wouldn’t have much of a falloff if one of their starters got hurt.

It also means that top prospect Chris Carter will probably start at Sacramento, unless he has a sensational spring training.

With great pitching, solid defense and hitting and much more depth, the A’s could be the year’s surprise ... just as the Giants were last year.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

A’s at a glance

Bob Geren (fifth season)

2010: 81-81, second place

Key dates: Pitchers-catchers first workout, Wednesday; full squad first workout, Feb. 21

Training town: Phoenix

Stadium: Phoenix Municipal Stadium (capacity 7,885)

Ticket information: (877) 493-2255, (510) 568-5600 or www.oaklandathletics.com

New faces

Josh Willingham

The A’s have lacked power for years and the addition of the former Nationals outfielder should help in that department. The 31-year-old Willingham has hit more than 21 homers three times in his career. Last season, he hit .268 with 16 home runs and 56 RBIs in 114 games. With Willingham and fellow newcomers Hideki Matsui and David DeJesus in the middle of the order, the A’s offense should improve.

Brian Fuentes

The former Angels closer comes to Oakland where he will be part of a stacked bullpen. The left-handed Fuentes will provide a veteran presence for manager Bob Geren to use against opponents’ top lefty sluggers late in games. He finished last season with a 2.81 ERA in 48 appearances. Fuentes, new addition Grant Balfour, Joey Devine, Brad Ziegler and closer Andrew Bailey will provide the backbone of a solid corps of relievers.

Player to watch

Raw talent While his big league career got off to a shaky start last season, Chris Carter has all the tools to be a special player for the A’s. Carter went 0-for-33 before collecting his first hit in Oakland last year, but he did show some glimpses of the power he has displayed at the minor league level, finishing with three home runs. While the A’s outfield is crowded, Carter could be tough to leave off the Opening Day roster if he tears it up in the desert.

About The Author

Glenn Dickey

Glenn Dickey

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