Unlike previous years, the Oakland Athletics head into Spring Training with relatively few questions. The starting lineup is all but set, the first four in the rotation is all but certain and their potentially beastly bullpen could do little to improve.
For a full A's spring training preview check out Brandon McClintock's excellent one here.
If the roster shapes up as expected, the A's will carry 12 pitchers and 13 hitters. With four outfielders already roster locks, only the backup catcher, utility infielder and fifth outfielder are up for grabs. Six bullpen spots are taken, as are four starters spots, leaving the fifth starter and seventh relief pitcher available. There is a chance the A's would carry only eleven pitchers, but that seems less likely.
Let's have a look at just who might be filling those last five spots.
Best known for catching Dallas Braden's perfect game, incumbent Landon Powell is coming off of a horrendous offensive season. After hitting .214 in 112 at bats it might be time for the A's to look elsewhere for their second backstop.
Josh Donaldson appeared in 14 games for the A's last year gathering only five hits in 32 at bats. He didn't fair too much better at Triple A, posting only .238 average but he did hit 18 homers with 67 RBI.
The dark horse in this race would have to be Matt Stassi, a non roster invitee. This 9 year old struggled at Kane County with a .229 average but could thrust himself into the conversation with a big spring.
My gut says the A's will stick with Landon Powell given the fact the other candidates haven't really excelled at the lower levels. In addition, Donaldson and Powell are on the 40 man roster and one would need to be dropped for Stassi to take the job.
If health weren't an issue, Adam Rosales would be the backup infielder hands down, but he is questionable to be ready for opening day.
Because of that, there are a multitude of candidates ready to snatch that spot on the opening day roster. Steve Tolleson and Eric Sogard both spent a little time on the major league roster last season with limited success. Spring will be the chance for top prospects Adrian Cardenas, Jemile Weeks and Grant Green to make their first moves towards the majors. The A's also can't forget about spring training invitee Andy LaRoche who has the most big league experience.
If Rosales ends up being healthy the whole question could be moot. If not, it might be in the A's best interest to get a look at the future with Weeks or Cardenas.
Barring another step in the Billy Beane master plan, the starting outfield is set with Crisp, DeJesus, and Willingham. Ryan Sweeney will definitely be the fourth outfielder, which narrows the field to Chris Carter and Conor Jackson for the last outfield spot.
Both posted batting averages under .230 last season and while Jackson battled injuries, Carter battled an 0-33 slump to start his career. Carter appears to have a greater long term upside, but Conor Jackson is another Billy Beane favorite that could bust out if given the chance.
No matter what, neither is guaranteed play time on a regular basis given the players in front of them. That being said, it would probably be best for the A's to start Carter at Triple A so he can get more play time and prepare if the A's are hit by a rash of injuries.
Andrew Bailey is the closer. Additions Grant Balfour, and Brian Fuentes will be the primary setup men. Michael Wuertz, Craig Breslow and Brad Ziegler will round out the bullpen, less the one spot that remains available.
Joey Devine is ready to pitch after after nearly two years of rehab. Jerry Blevins struggled at times last year and frankly looks unprepared to be in a major league bullpen. Josh Outman is being stretched out after another lengthy recovery and is primarily a candidate for the bullpen to start the season. Rich Harden, Brandon McCarthy and Bobby Cramer will vie for the fifth starter spot, but the losers will also have a shot at the bullpen competition.
In a perfect world Devine would deliver his sub one ERA from 2008 and be ready for opening day. Realistically, expect Blevins to make the roster given his experience, but if he struggles the A's have plenty capable others ready to step in from Sacramento.
Easily the most important question heading into Spring Training, who will be the A's fifth starter?
On paper it's a four horse race between Rich Harden, Brandon McCarthy, Josh Outman and Bobby Cramer. Realistically its probably going to come down to Harden an McCarthy. While Cramer was a nice story last year, his age and talent are probably going to work against him. Outman has yet to pitch since 2008 and probably won't be ready for 90+ pitches per game. That leaves us with the ex-Ranger/White Sox vs. the ex-A/Ranger/Cub.
Both Harden and McCarthy have battled injuries throughout their careers. Their innate talent far outweighs their career numbers but obviously health is key. It will be difficult to judge who will come out on top without seeing Spring Training, but the inner fan is rooting for Harden simply because of his history with the franchise.
No matter what happens in Spring Training, avoiding injuries is the A's primary goal, but its nice to know that reinforcement is just down the road in Sacramento.