The Oakland Athletics were gracious enough to hook Bleacher Report up with a press pass and a closer look at their collection of young talent.
In a stroke of surreal good fortune, I found myself on assignment and standing amidst the bright green grass of the Oakland Coliseum for a second time in my life.
Whereas before I wore my high school baseball uniform and played in what would be my last game of organized hardball (we won the North Coast Section final on that very field in 1997), this time I came armed with digital recorder and computer to document the experience.
And it was quite an experience.
As a die-hard San Francisco Giant fan, there was a time when I loathed Oakland's green and yellow crew.
Happily, the departures of Tony La Russa, Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson, and—most of all,Jose Canseco, have conspired with Billy Beane's "moneyballing" ways to turn this franchise into the club you can't help but love.
Nevertheless, I wouldn't say I had watched the team closely in 2010 until last Friday.
What I saw against the Cleveland Indians was enough to convince me that the A's are very much for real.
If a handful of key elements can remain strong and they catch a few breaks, the Athletics' early season buzz will be no mirage and could survive the summer into the fall.
If those elements falter and Lady Luck chooses another suitor?
It doesn't take a saber metric genius to identify the biggest weakness on this club.
Much like their neighbor across the Bay, Oakland's offense will be its Achilles' heel all year. More specifically, the absence of power will be a concern as long as the A's remain in contention.
Still, if the arms fire bullets like they've been doing, the youngsters with the bats won't need to produce too many runs to win. A cursory looks shows they have some pieces to like.
Rajai Davis is one of those speedsters who suffers from the fantasy baseball glare. He'll never put up flashy numbers outside of the stolen bases, but there are few men in baseball cleats who can pick 'em up and put 'em down better than Davis.
That kind of speed puts pressure on the defense, which can force errors and distract pitchers.
Daric Barton was once a highly anticipated prospect who looks to be finally making good on his hype and catcher Kurt Suzuki is one of the most underrated players in all of Major League Baseball.
Even with the benefit of a designated hitter, the A's won't score a lot of runs and will be exceedingly light on thump.
But, if they can use speed and timely contact to push a few runs across, things will stay interesting.
Prior to Brett Anderson leaving his last start with a "tweak" in his throwing elbow, fellow southpaws Dallas Braden and Gio Gonzalez were the only two on this slide.
Anderson is the youngest of the trio at 22, but his success this year is a foregone conclusion in my mind so long as he stays healthy.
The kid is a beast, pure and simple. That was a fact before he added a few miles to his fastball. I picked him as my Cy Young runner-up (of course, I have Tampa Bay Ray Matt Garza winning the hardware so take it as you will).
The health snag doesn't sound too serious, but anything awry in an elbow is reason for pause.
Braden, 26, and Gonzalez, 24, are on less secure footing, but they're no chumps.
The older of the two already has a 10-strikeout game to his credit and showed in his little spat with Alex Rodriguez that he won't be intimidated on the mound by anyone. Since trusting your stuff is a large part of successful Major League pitching, that bodes well.
As for Gonzalez, I watched him shoot a commercial before the rest of the team showed up for pre-game warm-ups.
Despite being the sole focus of attention (with more than a few giggling, attractive ladies in the audience), this dude was completely at ease. What does this have to do with retiring professional splinters?
But Gio clearly has no trouble with being the center of attention and he doesn't lack for stuff—2009 saw him whiff 109 batters in 98 2/3 innings. Both will come in handy as he tries to reach the next level of his development.
These three could give Oakland a significant advantage at the back of its rotation because they have the potential to be vastly superior to the other threes, fours, and fives in the American League West.
And they'll have to be.
I don't entirely buy this chic new general obsession with pitching and defense because I'm inherently skeptical of anything associated with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
But that's a story for another day.
Today, the story is the Athletic defense—this specific collection of leather men will, without a doubt, save enough runs to win games and have a profound impact on the 162-game slate.
In the game I attended, Oakland turned five double plays and scattered a thick layer of brilliant glove-work across all nine innings.
What's more, it came from all sides.
Gabe Gross made a nice leaping catch against the wall.
Adam Rosales and Cliff Pennington turn a slick twin killing on a rocket hit by Shin-Soo Choo.
Kevin Kouzmanoff went low to his backhand and stabbed a smoker off Matt
LaPorta's bat to start a double play.
A third scintillating, 3-6-3 double play was started by Daric Barton.
Rajai Davis sealed the festivities with another leaping catch at the wall in the ninth.
It's tough to believe every game shaking down like Friday's against Cleveland. Then again, is it ever wise to doubt so much hard evidence?
When Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer are physically right, they are amongst the best in the business.
The newly acquired right-hander has a longer track record than Duchscherer, but Justin's one season starting for Oakland was sublime.
Consequently, if these two aces can combine for 50-60 starts, they will give Bob Geren's squad a tremendous opportunity to stay abreast of the AL West race.
So far, so good.
Duke is 2-0 with a 1.82 ERA, a 1.26 WHIP, 15 K in 24 2/3 IP, and he was the hurler inducing many of those ground ball twin killings. Once he cuts down an uncharacteristically high walk rate, the numbers will look even better (although the ERA will inevitably rise).
Meanwhile, Sheets' start has been arguably more encouraging despite a less impressive statistical array. The big man is keeping runs off the board (2.74 ERA) while working himself back into playing shape.
I spent about 10 minutes talking to the four-time All Star about the New Orleans Saints, of all things. But we did touch on his pitching briefly. His fastball is, admittedly, not where it once was or where interested parties want it to be.
I got the distinct impression Mr. Sheets was feeling good and getting better based on his joviality. Let's just say he was carrying himself like a ballplayer happy to be back on the diamond and having fun doing it.
In other words, he didn't strike me as a guy worrying about his health.
As long as both he and Duchscherer can share that same clear horizon, meaningful September baseball could be on Oakland's.
The most prevailing impression left by my roughly 2.5 hours on the field, watching and listening to the Oakland Athletics go about their pre-game routines, was that I had just seen a high school team composed of physical freaks and diamond virtuosos.
I haven't been around a lot of professional teams, but I can't imagine too many exhibit the relaxed attitude that clung to those green and yellow jerseys.
You could hear laughter roaring in from the outfield while those taking batting practice gave each other a smiling hard time.
Rajai Davis was a particular target because he had a personal camera following his every move.
Gio Gonzalez and Ben Sheets took turns entertaining a whole class of tykes who were dumbstruck to find themselves in a Major League dugout. The two pitchers alternated between clowning for the kids and clowning on each other.
The vibe was much more playful than business-like, one romantics like myself will believe is rooted in a love of the game rather than a love of its modern perks.
And that's the kind of mentality that spreads like a fever, turning a paper lamb into a flesh-and-blood tiger.
Every year, some team rises up and shocks Major League Baseball.
In 2010, some pair from the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Tampa Bay Rays will take the AL East and Wild Card. The Minnesota Twins look like a safe bet in the AL Central as do the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL East and Central, respectively.
That leaves the western divisions and, outside of the San Diego Padres taking the pennant (ain't happening), nothing would be too shocking in the NL West.
That leaves the AL West and the only dark horse in the division.
So, can the Oakland Athletics shock baseball and remain a thorn in the AL West's side?
Logic says they can and process of elimination says they will.
With a little help.