Despite back-to-back titles, A's embrace underdog role

Despite back-to-back titles, A's embrace underdog role
February 13, 2014, 6:15 pm
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It doesn’t bother me if someone doesn’t pick us to win the division. It didn’t last year. I think our expectations for our group are more important than what others’ are for us.
A’s manager Bob Melvin

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The A’s enter the 2014 season in the spot they most prefer, feeling more like the hunter than the hunted.

It’s remarkable they can adopt this mentality considering they’re coming off back-to-back American League West championships. But after another offseason of watching their division rivals make headline-grabbing additions, the A’s are not viewed as A.L. West favorites in the eyes of some.

That’s welcome fodder for a team that plays its best when trying to prove naysayers wrong.

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“I think we use it to our advantage,” general manager Billy Beane said during the team’s FanFest. “We kind of like that role.”

The Texas Rangers, division runners-up the past two years, acquired five-time All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder and shelled out $130 million for free agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to energize their offense.

The Seattle Mariners signed the top free agent available, second baseman Robinson Cano, to a 10-year, $240 million contract and added free agent closer Fernando Rodney. The Los Angeles Angels improved their bullpen to complement a star-studded lineup.

The A’s, who begin spring training Friday when pitchers and catchers report, were very active themselves this winter. They added free agent Scott Kazmir to the rotation, re-stocked an already impressive bullpen and strengthened their bench.

Yet according to some national projections, the Rangers are poised to regain A.L. West supremacy. Yahoo Sports’ Tim Brown rated Oakland the fifth-best team in the entire majors in his preseason power poll, but he slotted Texas even higher at No. 3. ESPN’s David Schoenfield ranked the A’s 10th out of the 30 teams, three spots lower than the Rangers at No. 7.

“It doesn’t bother me if someone doesn’t pick us to win the division. It didn’t last year,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “I think our expectations for our group are more important than what others’ are for us.”

Truth is, even if there’s some skepticism on a national level, there’s an expectation among the local fan base for the A’s to advance farther than the past two seasons, when they lost to Detroit in the A.L. Division Series.

There are reasons for optimism.

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The A’s look to have the best overall pitching staff in the division -- rotation and bullpen -- and that alone could make them favorites for a third consecutive division crown.

They lost closer Grant Balfour to free agency, but they acquired a top-shelf replacement from Baltimore in Jim Johnson and added stellar setup men in Luke Gregerson and lefty Eric O’Flaherty (who will miss the early part of the season after elbow surgery) to complement holdovers Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and Dan Otero.

If the A’s take a lead into the seventh inning, they have to like their chances of nailing down a victory.

But it’s up to the starters to transfer those leads to the bullpen. Oakland finished second in the league to Detroit in starters’ ERA last season (3.72) but is replacing a key piece of the puzzle in Bartolo Colon, who signed with the New York Mets.

Kazmir, inked to a two-year $22 million contract, will be counted on to help fill that void, but right-hander Jarrod Parker said it shouldn’t be one pitcher expected to make up for Colon’s absence.

“If we have four or five aces, that would be great,” said Parker, a candidate to start Opening Night. “For one guy to just step up and say, ‘I’m the ace,’ it’s not gonna happen. If we can come together as a group and be able to help each other out, that’s what’s important.”

Beane chose not to pursue a free agent hitter such as outfielder/DH Nelson Cruz this winter, pointing to the fact that Oakland finished fourth in the majors in runs last season. The A’s need to get similar production as in 2013 from leadoff man Coco Crisp (22 homers, 93 runs), third baseman Josh Donaldson (.301, 24 HR, 93 RBI) and shortstop Jed Lowrie (.290, 75 RBI, 45 doubles).

If Yoenis Cespedes (.240, 26 HR, 80 RBI) can be more consistent in the middle of the lineup and Josh Reddick (.226, 12, 56) can add some thump toward the bottom, the A’s will be in good shape offensively.

In the end, of course, it’s a matter of outplaying the rest of the A.L. West and reserving another spot in the postseason. The division appears stronger as a whole on paper, but the A’s have finished on top the past two seasons despite notable upgrades from other teams.

“I think this division, as much as any in the league, has improved itself,” Beane said. “We’ve been able to replace some of our guys we lost from a good team and maybe added a little more in addition.”