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Spring postcard: A's ready to contend with Rangers in AL West

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Three observations after spending time here in camp with the Oakland A's:

It's actually even better than that. In the words of a competing executive, Oakland's relievers are "F----' ridiculous."

Ridiculous in a good way, and it will continue to be so even if it has to move forward without former AL Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey, who has 51 saves in 58 opportunities over his first two seasons. Bailey has a history of trouble with his (right) pitching elbow, and grabbed it after throwing a pitch last Monday. The next day he traveled to Dr. James Andrews's office in Birmingham, Alabama -- a place where pitchers' seasons are often pronounced dead -- but the news wasn't all bad. Just a forearm strain, though he'll likely miss Opening Day.

Still, Oakland's offseason maneuverings mean that Bailey's backup is now Brian Fuentes, who has more than three times as many career saves as he does. One morning in mid-January, Fuentes's agent called the A's and said that his client would like to meet with them for lunch. So GM Billy Beane, assistant GM David Forst and manager Bob Geren jumped in a car -- "Bob, he always drives. He's a fast driver," says Beane -- and two hours later, at 11:30 a.m., the three were seated with Fuentes at a Mexican restaurant called Trevino's, in the lefty's hometown of Merced, Calif. Early for Mexican food, perhaps, but not too early to woo a proven reliever. Fuentes signed the next day, for two years and $10.5 million.

"I had opportunities to close in other organizations that I felt weren't going to be competitive," explains Fuentes, 35, now with his fifth big league club. "For others, location was an issue." Fuentes will likely have more opportunities to close with the A's than he expected, but Geren has still more quality options to fill the middle and late innings, including free agent signee Grant Balfour (Beane gave the former Ray two years and $8.1 million), workhorse Craig Breslow (who has over the past two seasons posted a 3.18 ERA while making more appearances than all but five other relievers) and veteran Michael Wuertz. This was by design. "We've made a habit of putting guys on the D.L. the last couple of years," says Beane. "We've had to rely on too few guys, even though the bullpen was good. Now, with the additions, we can sustain a loss or two."

Oakland's deep, veteran bullpen will be particularly important in support of a rotation that led the majors in ERA leader last season with a 3.47 mark that was the best in the American League in two decades. However, that staff is also exceedingly young. "If we're solid in those late innings, maybe these young starters can go an inning less," says Geren.

The A's might well start the season with four starters age 25 or younger, assuming that 23-year-old Tyson Ross, who opened spring with 9 2/3 shutout innings, beats out veterans Bobby Cramer, Brandon McCarthy, Rich Harden and Josh Outman for the fifth spot. The arrangement -- veteran relievers, neophyte starters -- is, says Geren, "probably better than the other way around, know what I mean? Veteran guys, with young guys trying to close it out for them, they probably wouldn't be happy giving the ball up to some kid."

The kids, though, are more than all right -- particularly 23-year-old Trevor Cahill, who received a few Cy Young votes last year after going 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA, and his friend Brett Anderson. A variety of injuries limited Anderson to 112 1/3 innings last year (in which he performed well -- 7-6 with a 2.80 ERA), and the A's are encouraging him to throw more changeups this season for two reasons. One: "A lefty that throws 92 to 95 with a good changeup is always a good pitcher," says Geren. Two: they believe that replacing some sliders (a pitch he threw 37.5 percent of the time last season, the fourth-highest rate in the AL) with the less-taxing changeups will keep him healthy.

That the A's rotation is so young -- the other two starters, Dallas Braden and Gio Gonzalez, are 27 and 25 -- means that it is also comparatively cheap (probable total 2011 salary: around $5.6 million). That allowed Beane, who continues to oversee what should rank as a bottom-three payroll, to pour money into his bullpen, but also into something else.

The A's finished .500 last season, for the first time since 2006, due to their stellar pitching and defense, and in spite of an offense that generated a combined OPS of .702 (10th in the AL), and ranked 11th in the league in runs (4.1 per game). Beane's attempt to boost his lineup consists of three additions, each of whom would have last year ranked in Oakland's top four in OPS: David DeJesus, Hideki Matsui and Josh Willingham.

DeJesus, a Royal for eight seasons and therefore a member of a losing team for the past seven, was the first to come aboard. In fact, he was the first key player to change teams this offseason: He was traded on Nov. 10, nine days after the World Series ended. "I got a call from Dayton Moore," he says, referring to the Royals' GM "The last couple years, I've been changing positions, centerfield to left and left to right, so I looked at it and saw his name and was like, where can I go now? Maybe the first lefthanded catcher in the league?

"I knew a trade might be coming," DeJesus continues, "but it caught me off-guard, so early in the offseason. Seeing what they had on paper, though, the pitching staff, guys coming back, it was positive for me."

The additions of DeJesus, Matsui and Willingham -- along with the further development of Oakland's starters -- mean that the A's enter 2011 as something other than a darkhorse. "We're more of a sleeper than they are," says Angels starter Dan Haren. The A's are nothing less than co-favorites, with the defending champion Rangers, in the AL West. Sometime soon -- "probably in another year," Beane says -- their young starters will command salaries more in line with their talent, and Beane will have to take away from other parts of his team in order to pay them what they deserve. But not this year. Not yet.

Josh Willingham, OF

Beane first tried to trade for Willingham when he played for the Marlins from from 2004 to 2008, and this winter he initially thought his attempts to acquire the righty slugger from the Nationals would be similarly fruitless. "Tried to get him at the same time we got DeJesus," Beane says of his early November effort. "Thought we wouldn't get him after that."

Just over a month later, though, the Nats pulled the trigger on a deal in which Oakland parted with minor league outfielder Corey Brown and reliever Henry Rodriguez. Willingham represents the righthanded power bat the A's have long lacked -- he has averaged 20.4 homer over the past five seasons, in an average of just 127 games -- and, Beane says, he won't detract from what should be one of the league's best fielding clubs. "He's not a bad defensive player," Beane says. "There's a tendency to think he's not a good defensive player. Is he a Gold Glove? No. But he's an average defender. And his bat will be a plus for us."

Michael Choice, OF

One person who is not aware of the statistical impact that Choice -- selected 10th overall in last June's draft out of the University of Texas at Arlington -- has made in his first big league camp? The 21-year-old Choice himself. "I'm not sure, really," he said of his stats. "I haven't even looked at 'em. I feel like I've made good contact."

It will come as news to Choice, then, that through Wednesday, he had hit .350 with an .880 OPS in 20 at-bats, which is particularly impressive because entering spring he had just 130 professional at-bats to his credit, none of them above low-A. The A's have a number of highly rated position players in their system -- including outfielders Chris Carter and Michael Taylor, both of whom were somewhat disappointing last season, and 2009 first-round shortstop Grant Green -- but one AL West scout believes that Choice is the star of the group. "I like Choice's upside over all of them," the scout says. "I'd compare him to the late and great Kirby Puckett. He has a very good chance to be that kind of player."

Choice likely won't play in Oakland this season, but he should soon thereafter -- and he'd like to do so with Carter, Green and Taylor. "Yeah, eventually," he says. "That's the plan."

Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson recently banned remote control planes from his spring clubhouse at Talking Stick. Ten miles southwest, in Oakland's clubhouse, they remain an obsession. The shelf above Fuentes' locker resembles a hobby shop, and he and the rest of the bullpen (and Dallas Braden too) take control of the airspace over Phoenix Municipal Stadium most days. "These guys work very hard," says Geren. "When they have free time, I let them do what they do"... Rollie Fingers -- Oakland's greatest ever relief pitcher, of course -- visited the A's clubhouse last week, and liked what he saw out of the club's stacked, veteran bullpen. "You need those kind of guys, guys who really don't give a dang -- they're jokesters but they've got ice water in their veins," Fingers said. "I think these guys pop off a little more. If they keep doing the job and pop off, who cares.".... The experience of watching the Angels lose their cleanup hitter, Kendry Morales, to a broken leg suffered in a walkoff-grand-slam celebration continues to affect Geren, and his club. "After that, I think everybody toned things down a touch," Geren says. "Even shagging in B.P. Sometimes guys are trying to rob homers or something, and they shouldn't do it. Of course, you've probably seen that celebration a hundred times and guys didn't get hurt, so you never know."