Cactus League countdown: Oakland Athletics

The Oakland Athletics took baseball by storm last season, scratching and clawing their way to an AL West crown no one expected them to win. Now, the pressure’s on.

The A’s come to spring training no longer an underdog but a defending division champ out to prove they were not a fluke.

Like most teams, the A’s have questions to be answered this spring. Many of those decisions will lie in the steady hands of Bob Melvin, the reigning AL Manager of the Year. Melvin has demonstrated a knack for pushing the right buttons and using what he has in the most effective way, which is essentially what took an Oakland team that many expected to lose 100 games so far in 2012.

The challenge is making that work in back-to-back years, but the A’s appear to have a solid start on the process.

Shortstop Stephen Drew, designated hitter Jonny Gomes and Brandon McCarthy were the primary offseason departures, so many of the central figures will be the same. But the A’s will look different up the middle.

John Jaso takes over duties behind the plate after an offseason that saw him traded twice, first from the Mariners to the Nationals. Jaso is a solid run producer who can get on base, so he should fit nicely at near the top of the batting order.

The middle of the infield will look different as well. Second base will be up for grabs among Scott Sizemore, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL; Jemile Weeks, who slumped and was demoted to the minors; and Jed Lowrie, who can play all over the diamond and came over in a deal with Houston just before the start of camp.

Japanese import Hiroyuki Nakajima takes over at shortstop. Nakajima, 30, was an eight-time all-star in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League and won three Golden Glove Awards, including in the past two seasons. If he can adapt quickly to the heightened competition, he could provide a nice mix of speed, run production and defense. If he works out anything like Cuban import Yoenis Cespedes did for the A’s last year, he’ll be a steal at two years and $6.5 million.

Lowrie, who nearly doubled his career-high with 16 home runs in 97 games last year, is a versatile insurance policy at any of the infield positions.

Melvin will also have some juggling to do in the outfield, thanks to the addition of former Diamondback Chris Young to a mix that includes three productive regulars: Cespedes, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick. Young provides a mixture of offensive power and defensive finesse far too valuable to be a fourth outfielder — but that’s where Melvin’s managerial touch comes in. All four could get at-bats at designated hitter, along with holdover Seth Smith.

Spring training will give Melvin the chance to experiment with lineup combinations and answer other questions, such as who rounds out the starting rotation. It will be much later when the answer will be know to the larger question: Can the A’s repeat in the AL West?

Considering where they stood a year ago, it’s a question they’re glad to be facing.

Who’s new: C John Jaso, trade (Nationals); IF Jed Lowrie, trade (Astros); IF Andy Parrino, trade (Padres); P Chris Resop, trade (Pirates); P Fernando Rodriguez, trade (Astros); P Andrew Werner, trade (Padres), OF Chris Young, trade (D-backs); SS Hiroyuki Nakajima, free agent (Japan).

Who’s gone:
P Jeremy Accardo (Nationals), 1B Chris Carter (Astros), OF Collin Cowgill (Mets), SS Stephen Drew (Red Sox), DH Jonny Gomes (Red Sox), SS Brandon Hicks (Mets), 1B Kila Ka’aihue (D-backs), C George Kottaras (Royals), P Brandon McCarthy (D-backs), P Brad Peacock (Astros), SS Cliff Pennington (D-backs), P Tyson Ross (Padres).
Battle grounds: Coco Crisp and Young will likely end up sharing playing time in center field, but they’ll also figure into the mix at designated hitter and the outfield corners. … Scott Sizemore returns from a knee injury and will have a chance to claim the second base job, but Jemile Weeks, who started on Opening Day last year and was later demoted to Triple-A, will attempt to win his job back. Lowrie could emerge as the starter as well, though he’s likely see time all over the infield. … There looks to be one available starting rotation job, which should come down to A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily or Andrew Werner.
Health watch: Infielder Sizemore missed the entire 2012 season after tearing his ACL last February but is reportedly healthy and ready to compete for the starting job at second base.
Sneak preview: Top prospect Michael Choice got a big league camp invitation but is ticketed for Triple-A to start the season, given the A’s abundant outfield depth. Still, he’s one to watch in camp this year. The 23-year-old hit well in Double-A last season but his season was cut short by a hand injury. He has power and a knack for getting on base. He provides the A’s a good option in case of injury.
Spring training info:
Phoenix Municipal Stadium, 5999 E. Van Buren. First workouts Feb. 12 (pitchers and catchers) and Feb. 17 (full squad). First game Feb. 25. Tickets: or (877) 493-2255.