Mark Ellis has been a pleasant surprise thus far.
In 2004, the A's headed into their final two weeks of spring training with an entirely healthy starting line-up and a set 25-man roster. Then disaster struck and Mark Ellis went down with a season-ending injury. His back-up, Frank Menechino, also went on the shelf and the A's were suddenly scrambling to find a healthy second baseman.
This season the A's are one week away from an almost entirely healthy spring, but their 25-man roster is still in flux.
As the A's prepare to leave Arizona, head trainer Larry Davis might be the most well-rested person who will stand on the chalk lines on Opening Day. This is a good thing, because it meant he had a slow spring and the A's are healthy.
Few things have changed on the Oakland season outlook since spring training began in late February.
The A's learned that Mark Ellis might not be 100 percent, but he's healthy enough to play second base at an above-average level. They learned that rookie pitcher Dan Meyer, acquired in the Tim Hudson trade, probably needs more seasoning. They also learned that they would be without set-up submariner Chad Bradford for at least three months of the season, opening up a possible bullpen spot for either swingman Kirk Saarloos or relief prospect Huston Street.
Shortly before heading north, though, the final roster spot has not been settled.
Once a four-man race for two rotation spots, rookie Joe Blanton pitched his way into the No. 4 position. Then it expanded to a four-man race for the final spot, once Kirk Saarloos proved his elbow was healthy and he could compete.
It looked like a two-man race between Sarloos and Seth Etherton for the final spot, after Keiichi Yabu and Meyer struggled in Cactus League games. Yabu appeared headed for the bullpen and Meyer for AAA. Meyer will start on Tuesday, putting him off-turn for the fifth rotation spot and effectively ending his participation in the competition for the spot. Both Saarloos and Etherton are expected to pitch on Thursday, which would put both on-turn to be the fifth starter. Etherton will get the start.
The lingering question is how quickly the young pitchers -- Rich Harden, Dan Haren, Blanton, and perhaps Meyer and even the relatively inexperienced Saarloos and Etherton -- develop into major-league starters. The A's won't know this answer for at least a month or two.
But the A's strengthened the bullpen, with the acquisitions of Juan Cruz and Kiko Calero, and are leaning toward keeping seven relievers. One of those could be the rookie Street. The Texas alum was having a stellar spring until his last four outings. He has struggled in those outings, allowing runs in each appearance and two homeruns. Street may still get the nod for the roster spot, but it is also possible that the A's will give that slot to Saarloos if he loses the 5th starter battle to either Etherton or Meyer.
With the A's carrying as many as four "long" relievers (Yabu, Saarloos, Justin Duchscherer and Cruz), the starters won't be expected to go 7-8 innings. That's why the deep bullpen is there and considered the strength of the team.
The A's have started slow in April the previous six seasons. A lot of that is due to the unbalanced schedule and playing so many games parity-filled AL West. This year's schedule is much different. It starts with the bottom three teams in the AL East -- at Baltimore, at Tampa Bay and against Toronto -- before the division games begin. For such a young team, it's a chance to get off to hot start.
--LHP Barry Zito
--RHP Rich Harden
--RHP Dan Haren
--RHP Joe Blanton
--RHP Kirk Saarloos/Seth Etherton/Dan Meyer
The rotation is very young and won't likely throw a lot of innings. What's interesting this year is the number of options in case of injury or poor performance, which hasn't been the case in previous years. The competition is sure to frustrate some of the pitchers who want their chance, but will ultimately make the A's better.
--RHP Octavio Dotel
--RHP Kiko Calero
--RHP Juan Cruz
--LHP Ricardo Rincon
--RHP Huston Street/Saarloos/Tim Harikkala
--RHP Justin Duchscherer
--RHP Keiichi Yabu
The A's will likely keep seven relievers all season, unless Zito, Harden and Haren prove to be innings workhorses. Last year, the only relievers who could consistently pitch more than one inning were Chris Hammond and Justin Duchscherer. This year, everybody could do it and might have to do it. But all eyes are still on Dotel after so many blown saves last year.
1. CF Mark Kotsay
2. C Jason Kendall
3. DH Erubiel Durazo
4. 3B Eric Chavez
5. LF Eric Byrnes
6. 1B Scott Hatteberg
7. SS Bobby Crosby
8. RF Nick Swisher
9. 2B Mark Ellis
Manager Ken Macha is fond of saying that players write the lineup card and expect this season to be the same. The top of the order will be in constant flux. Chavez could hit third again. If Swisher gets on base in the majors as he did in the minors, he could hit second at times. Byrnes may also bounce around as the A's look for a consistent RBI man to protect Chavez. And while Ellis may start, Keith Ginter should see plenty of at-bats, perhaps as high as fifth in the line-up.
--C Adam Melhuse
--2B/3B Keith Ginter
--OF Charles Thomas
--OF Bobby Kielty
Bench depth isn't as crucial in the AL as the NL. But the A's are much deeper than in past years. All of of the A's bench players are capable of playing on an everyday basis, or have already done so, which will make Macha's juggling act more difficult. If egos are bruised by a lack of playing time, it could hurt morale.
ROOKIE WATCH: It would be unprecedented if the A's finished with the top three vote-getters in the Rookie of the Year balloting. But it isn't out of the question. OF Nick Swisher is considered by many to be one of the front-runners for the spot. RHP Joe Blanton went through some learning curves at Triple-A Sacramento, but solved them and looked good as a long reliever last September. RHP Huston Street could begin the season in the bullpen and is considered the closer of the future. The only question is when the future starts.
PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: 3B Eric Chavez is comfortable as the chosen one in an organization that isn't able to retain its stars. Chavez came to camp last year in great shape and was poised to have a great year. A broken hand sidelined him for six weeks, but he still hit 29 home runs and led the league with 95 walks. Chavez has smoked the ball this spring and should have more RBI opportunities with three high on-base percentage players in front of him -- Mark Kotsay, Jason Kendall and Erubiel Durazo.
ON THE DECLINE: INF Marco Scutaro hasn't done anything to warrant a trip to the minors. He was a competent starter last season, committed just three errors, and gave the A's a welcome surprise after Ellis missed the season with a torn labrum. Scutaro continues to play adequate defense and has increased his plate discipline this spring. But Ellis is now healthy, Keith Ginter was acquired in a trade for insurance and the A's are leaning toward keeping 12 pitchers. That means there isn't room for all three infielders and Scutaro is most likely to end up at Triple-A Sacramento to start the season.