A's signing Sheets just makes AL West even deeper

BY Ken Rosenthal • January 26, 2010

Few would consider the A's a contender just because they signed right- hander Ben Sheets to a one-year, $10 million free-agent contract. But in the AL West, perhaps the game's most well-balanced division, the A's should at least be a representative threat – to start the season, anyway.

I'd like the A's even more if they next signed free-agent outfielder Johnny Damon, a move that club officials are considering. The team was ninth in the AL in runs last season, and at this point will improve only modestly with the additions of third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and center fielder Coco Crisp. Add Damon to the middle of the order, though, and things could get interesting.

With or without Damon, the A's strength will be pitching. They had the third-lowest ERA in the American League last season, thanks mainly to their top-ranked bullpen. Now their young starters are a year more experienced, and the addition of Sheets and return of right-hander Justin Duchscherer could make their rotation even more formidable.

Sheets, obviously, is no sure thing after missing all of 2009 coming off elbow surgery and pitching in the AL for the first time.

Duchscherer also did not pitch in the majors last season while recovering from elbow surgery and dealing with depression, and has never been durable.

Yet, in the best-case scenario, the A's top four starters will be Sheets, lefty Brett Anderson, lefty Dallas Braden and Duchscherer, with righties Trevor Cahill and Vin Mazzaro and lefty Gio Gonzalez competing for the fifth spot.

That's pretty good – maybe very good.

The A's also anticipate that right-hander Joey Devine will rejoin their bullpen after undergoing Tommy John surgery last April. All of that pitching will make them a difficult opponent, at least in the first half while their roster is intact.

If the A's fall out of contention – heck, even if they do not – general manager Billy Beane might flip Sheets. The signing of Damon would give Beane an additional trade option, perhaps the best pitcher and best hitter in July. Beane never shies from signing good players at good prices, viewing them as assets, one way or another.

Hey, I'm not saying the A's are the favorites to win the AL West.

I'm just saying they should be significantly more competitive than the dregs of other divisions – the Blue Jays, the Pirates, the Royals, the Padres. Then again, the Mariners and Rangers also should improve, and the Angels, for all their upheaval, will not exactly stink.

Granted, no team in the West is as good as the Red Sox, Yankees or Phillies. But if the A's get Damon, every team in the division will be good enough to at least mount a plausible case for contention. Even now, no other division is as deep.

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