Sheets leads A's into 2010 season
For years, the story each spring for the Oakland Athletics was almost always about who had left instead of who had arrived.
The A's tried to endure as a parade of All-Stars left town when they became too expensive for the low-revenue team to keep. After weathering those losses for a few years, Oakland finally hit rock bottom last season by finishing in last place for the first time since 1998.
The story heading into this season is whether newcomers like Ben Sheets and Coco Crisp, and veterans who barely contributed last season because of injuries like Justin Duchscherer and Eric Chavez, can once again make the A's competitive in the AL West.
``You add veterans like that into your lineup, it gives you people to lean on when you face things they've faced throughout their career,'' catcher Kurt Suzuki said. ``You can watch how they handle things and it kind of takes the pressure off the younger guys.''
While those young guys showed some promise last season, they couldn't do nearly enough to keep the A's out of last place.
The A's used a rookie starting pitcher in 116 games last season, with Brett Anderson (11-11, 4.06 ERA) and Trevor Cahill (10-13, 4.63 ERA) getting most of the work. The A's are hoping the lessons they learned last year will lead to success this season.
``Having that one full year under their belt last year was huge just because they endured some success and some failures,'' Suzuki said. ``But they're so smart and they've got so much savvy that they learned from it. They didn't just put their head down and go the other way. They took the failure and turned it into something positive, and that's what you like to see.''
There will be much less pressure on those young pitchers this season if former All-Stars Sheets and Duchscherer are healthy enough to head the rotation. Neither threw a pitch in the majors last season, leaving questions about how much they can provide this year.
Duchscherer missed last season after undergoing elbow surgery and then being treated for clinical depression.
Sheets, a four-time All-Star in Milwaukee, also missed last season recovering from right elbow surgery. He signed a $10 million contract for this season with the A's - a rare case of the team outbidding the competition for a prominent free agent.
Sheets struggled mightily in spring training, allowing 10 runs without retiring a batter in one start, but his mere presence has helped the A's already.
``We definitely needed someone like that as a pitching staff,'' left-hander Dallas Braden said. ``As much as I like to joke and have fun, I still haven't done enough that lets me feel like I can be that guy for the staff. For someone to come in and ease the atmosphere, we needed that.''
There will also be some notable changes offensively, where the team once known for beer-league style sluggers who lumbered around the bases is filled with athletic players whose biggest strength is their speed.
The A's stole 133 bases last year, more than they had from 2003-05 combined, while hitting an AL-worst 135 home runs. That was more than 100 fewer homers than their 2000 AL West championship team had with players like Jason Giambi, Matt Stairs, John Jaha and Olmedo Saenz.
``If we allow ourselves to play the little man's game as far as running the bases and opening that up for us, it will make us a lot better,'' said Crisp, who signed a $5.5 million contract after missing much of last season for Kansas City with a shoulder injury.
``If we're able to free ourselves mentally and allow ourselves to play like the Angels, we have a shot of surprising not only ourselves on the basepaths but other people, start to make them fumble around a little because they're worried about whether or not we're going to be aggressive.''
While this year's edition does have a player who could have fit right in back in 2000 in designated hitter Jack Cust, the offense centers around the speed of players like Crisp and Rajai Davis.
Davis hit .305 last season and became the first Oakland player since Rickey Henderson to record 40 or more steals in a season with a career-high 41.
In a sign of his prominence on the team, he is featured in one of the team's promotional commercials, which used to center on the power hitters and pitchers. In the promotional spots, Davis does everything fast, from shaving to getting dressed, even blowing past a pair of women race-walking on a sidewalk.
If the A's are going to speed past the competition in the AL West this season, they will need a different formula than the one that generated their success 10 years ago.
``It should be pitching and defense and baserunning,'' manager Bob Geren said. ``We'll have to scratch and fight for as many runs as we can and win close games. We're probably not going to lead the league in homers. We have a lot of guys who can hit for pretty good averages and we have selective hitters, too.''