Inside Pitch: Oakland A's Spring Training Preview

After an offseason with massive changes to the roster, the A's will enter spring training with competition for three position jobs and two spots in the starting rotation.<br><br> The biggest competition is at second base. Mark Ellis was the starter in 2002 and 2003 but missed all of 2004 with a torn labrum. Still to be determined is whether his separated shoulder has recovered fully. Ellis will compete against Keith Ginter, acquired in a trade with Milwaukee.

The two outfield corner spots are also up for grabs. Eric Byrnes, if he's not traded, has the inside track on the left-field job as the incumbent. Nick Swisher, a Rookie of the Year candidate, will be given every opportunity to win the right-field job.

But also lurking is Charles Thomas, one of three players acquired in the Tim Hudson trade, to challenge for either corner job. Thomas should get plenty of playing time since Swisher is being groomed as the backup first baseman when a lefty starts, giving veteran Scott Hatteberg more time off.

Switch-hitting Bobby Kielty will also be in the mix for playing time in left. Kielty was the starter heading into Opening Day 2004, but he struggled last season and will have to post a strong spring to get himself back in the mix for regular playing time. Centerfielder Mark Kotsay is a lock for that spot in the outfield, although both Thomas and Byrnes have experience in center, giving the team a lot of depth in that area.

"Some guys are carrying more weight because they've done it here before," manager Ken Macha said. "If Byrnes is around, he'll get a chance (to start)."

The A's have seven starters for five spots: Barry Zito and Rich Harden are locks; Dan Haren is a near lock; Joe Blanton and Dan Meyer will need to earn a spot; Keiichi Yabu can relieve or start if one of the younger starters isn't ready; and Seth Etherton will likely have to overwhelm to earn a spot.

Ideally, the A's would like to see Blanton and Meyer at the back end of the rotation. By the end of the season, they figure they will both be there. Blanton is a first-round pick from the 2002 "Moneyball" draft. Meyer was the key to the Hudson deal.

Juan Cruz, an effective starter in winter ball, will remain in a bullpen for now. But his presence shows the depth the A's will have.

Justin Duchscherer was an effective starter in the minors and could return to the rotation if needed. Also, Jimmy Serrano, a minor league free agent signing from Kansas City, could open some eyes having pitched well for the Royals in a starting role last season.

The A's don't have the marquee names in the rotation the way they have recently. But as the team is quick to reassure its fans and remind a doubting media, the 2000 division-winning team was supposed to be too young to compete, as well. That team had Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder all in their first full seasons.

In addition, Oakland will have a deeper bullpen and more options in AAA to fill in if one of the starters goes down with an injury, making their roster far more flexible then it was last season.

WHERE, WHEN: Phoenix, Arizona. First exhibition game is March 3 against the Chicago Cubs.

WHO'S IN CHARGE: Manager Ken Macha (3rd season as manager, 7th on the coaching staff), pitching coach Curt Young, hitting coach Dave Hudgens, bench coach Rene Lachemann, third-base coach Ron Washington, first-base coach Brad Fischer, bullpen coach Bob Geren.

TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: OF Charles Thomas was the least discussed of the three players the A's obtained from the Atlanta Braves for ace Tim Hudson. Most of the talk was pitching prospect Dan Meyer and talented reliever Juan Cruz. Thomas has some Bay Area roots and could find himself with a starting job if Eric Byrnes is traded. If not, expect Thomas to push for playing time at both corner outfield positions. Thomas is strong defensively and has plus speed, making him a great asset off the bench late in games.

TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: 2B Mark Ellis needs to prove first that he's healthy or else the second base competition will easily go to Keith Ginter. An eager Ellis insists he won't be held back physically. If Ellis' shoulder is not ready for the demands of making relay throws or off-balance throws, you can be sure Ellis will be disappointed with the decision made on his shoulder last year. The team elected to have Ellis rehab the injury, instead of having surgery, and Ellis admitted that doctors needed to reassure him of the doubts he was feeling.


--RF/1B Nick Swisher drew more than 100 walks last year at Triple-A Sacramento and he's a switch hitter, so he could find himself hitting second in the batting order at times this year.

--LF Eric Byrnes could fill the right-handed power gap void left behind by Jermaine Dye. But the initial thinking of manager Ken Macha is to hit Byrnes high in the order against lefties and low against righties.

--3B Eric Chavez, a staple in the third hole last year, could hit cleanup this year in some of the lineups being considered by manager Ken Macha.


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