A's Ink Free Agent Sheets; Damon Next?

The Oakland A's have come in second on a number of free agents this off-season, but they managed to out-bid some big market teams to land right-hander Ben Sheets on Tuesday. He missed all of the 2009 season with injury, but he was one of the National League's top starters in 2008. Sheets was introduced by the A's in a press conference amid rumors the team may also be courting Johnny Damon.

Despite fielding a rotation of mostly rookies for the majority of the season, the Oakland A's finished third in the American League in team ERA in 2009. The A's are looking to improve on that standing in 2010.

Armed with the same young core of pitchers that helped the team finish among the best pitching staffs in the American League last season, the A's have added two veterans to the top of their rotation in an effort to increase a team strength for 2010.

Earlier in the off-season, the A's re-signed free agent right-hander Justin Duchscherer, who was expected to leave the team via free agency at the start of the off-season. Duchscherer was a member of the A's for all of 2009, but he missed the entire season with elbow issues and a battle with depression. Duchscherer was the A's All-Star representative in 2008 and he had a 2.54 ERA in 22 starts.

Duchscherer will be joined at the top of the A's rotation by Sheets, who signed with Oakland to a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $10 million on Tuesday. Sheets, like Duchscherer, missed all of the 2009 season with injury. Also like Duchscherer, injury has been a constant struggle for Sheets throughout his career, but he has been one of the top pitchers in baseball when healthy.

Sheets, 31, last pitched in 2008, when he helped lead the Milwaukee Brewers to the playoffs by going 13-9 with a 3.09 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP in 31 starts. He has a career record of 86-83 and a career ERA of 3.72 in 221 major league starts, all for Milwaukee. The Louisiana native nearly signed a contract with the Texas Rangers last off-season, but negotiations ended when injury concerns were raised during his physical. He wound up having surgery on his elbow.

Sheets recently worked out in front of scouts of a number of major league teams, and was reportedly impressive, hitting the low-90s with his fastball and sporting a good curveball.

The A's have been hit hard by injuries over the past several seasons, and adding Sheets and Duchscherer to the top of their rotation certainly makes them vulnerable to injury once again. The team will have depth in the rotation in the event that either pitcher were to go down with injury. Oakland's rotation will sport Sheets, Duchscherer, Dallas Braden (3.89 ERA in 2009) and Brett Anderson (4.06 ERA and 150 strike-outs in 2009). The competition for the fifth and final spot in the rotation will feature a number of talented young pitchers who gained major league experience last season: Trevor Cahill (4.63 ERA in 31 big league starts), Gio Gonzalez (5.04 ERA, but 96 strike-outs in 91 big league innings in 2009), Clayton Mortensen (five big league starts in 2009) and Vince Mazzaro (91.1 innings in the big leagues in 2009). The losers of the competition this spring will likely provide depth for the A's big league rotation by pitching in the Triple-A Sacramento rotation.

Oakland's bullpen also figures to be a strength again in 2010. The unit, led by AL Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey, returns all of the key members from 2009, when A's relievers posted an ERA of 3.54, best in the American League. Oakland's bullpen will be blostered by the return of right-hander Joey Devine, who missed all of 2009 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Devine had an 0.59 ERA in 45.2 innings in 2008.

The A's have also been making moves to improve their offense, which finished ninth of 14 teams in the AL in runs scored in 2009, and their team defense. Oakland recently acquired third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff from the San Diego Padres. Kouzmanoff drove in 88 runs and hit 18 homeruns for San Diego in 2009. He also set a National League record for fielding percentage by a third baseman, committing only three errors. He will take over a position that Oakland has struggled to find production at since third baseman Eric Chavez began struggling with injuries in 2007. Chavez is expected to fill a super-utility role for Oakland in 2010, if he is healthy.

The A's also inked outfielder Coco Crisp, who had an injury-marred 2009 season but is widely considered one of the top defensive centerfielders in the game. He will also add speed to a team that began utilizing the stolen base as a weapon late in the 2009 season with some success. In addition, the A's traded for utilityman Jake Fox, who hit 11 homers for the Cubs last season and batted better than .400 in Triple-A. The team traded away starting left-fielder Scott Hairston, who was a disappointment after being acquired in July by the A's last season, and let infielder Adam Kennedy go via free agency. Kennedy hit .289 for the A's in 2009.

Oakland may be adding one more bat via free agency. Buster Olney of ESPN.com and Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated have both reported that the A's are in talks with outfielder Johnny Damon about a possible one-year reunion. Damon previously played with Oakland in 2001. He was an important part of the New York Yankees' 2009 World Championship run, batting .282 with an 854 OPS and 24 homeruns in 143 regular season games and posting a .364 average in the World Series.

Damon is considered a defensive liability in the outfield, however, and hasn't received much attention in the open market. He can play some first base, as well as left field and, of course, DH. The A's have starters at all three positions -- Daric Barton (1B), Rajai Davis (LF) and Jack Cust (DH) -- so it isn't entirely clear where the A's envision Damon playing everyday should he sign with the team. The left-handed hitting Damon could platoon with the right-handed Davis in left, but a natural platoon doesn't exist for Oakland at first and at DH, as Barton and Cust are both left-handed. Damon is 36 years old, but he hasn't played fewer than 141 games in any of his 14 full major league seasons. Damon hit only .256 with a 687 OPS in his one previous season with Oakland, which was by far his worst season as a major leaguer, save his rookie year in 1996. He is a career .288 hitter and has previously played for Kansas City, Oakland, Boston and New York.

The A's have been active on the free agent market this off-season, although they haven't always gotten their man. The team has reportedly been involved in negotiations with a number of free agents, including Marco Scutaro, Adrian Beltre, Aroldis Chapman and Jamey Carroll, who wound-up signing with other teams.

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