Can New-Look A's Contend?

Oakland's offense is greatly improved from last year, when the A's had the worst batting average in the league. But will the pitching hold up?

Adding Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera and, off the bench, Nomar Garciaparra should beef up the lineup considerably, making the Oakland A's respectable when it comes to run production.

Last year, that might have ensured a contending team because Oakland's pitching was pretty good, especially in the first half. Now, however, most of the team's question marks are on the mound.

The rotation could be in flux much of the year, and a bullpen that was expected to be one of the better ones in the division isn't entirely settled, either.

The reason for the pitching mysteries: youth and inexperience, along with injuries to two major components.

Justin Duchscherer, an All-Star in his first season as a starter last year, continues to have issues with staying healthy. He missed the second half of last year because of hip trouble and has been out this spring because of a sore elbow.

Duchscherer will start the season on the disabled list following elbow surgery. Joey Devine, one of Oakland's two potential closers, also will open the year on the DL due to an elbow problem.

Oakland's terrific trio of young starters are likely to all get a chance at the big-league level this season, and left-hander Brett Anderson and right-hander Trevor Cahill will open the season in the rotation. Right-hander Vince Mazzaro also will be an option at some point.

Mazzaro is 22, Anderson and Cahill are 21. None of the team's projected starters, apart from Duchscherer, is older than 25.

And Dana Eveland, whose struggles this spring threatened his rotation spot at least briefly, has the most big-league experience in the rotation, including Duchscherer, with 35 starts.

The A's talked to several left-handed free agents about bullpen jobs but, going into the season, Jerry Blevins, who had a poor spring, remains the team's most experienced lefty reliever. He has pitched better as the spring has wound down.

Projected starters Sean Gallagher and Gio Gonzalez also could wind up in relief.

As usual, Oakland goes into the regular season holding its breath about some key infielders. Eric Chavez, who had shoulder surgery last August, did not play third in a Cactus League game until March 27, and Mark Ellis, who had shoulder surgery in September, didn't play second until March 25.

Ellis appears to be completely recovered, but Chavez had a slight setback two weeks into the spring, so there remains some concern about his availability for Opening Night. He homered against Tim Lincecum on Thursday night in San Francisco, however, so he might be rounding into form at just the right time.

If Chavez can go, Daric Barton is likely to start the season at Triple-A Sacramento after handling first base for Oakland for much of last season.

Barton still is highly regarded by the A's front office, but with Giambi and Garciaparra, Oakland has the luxury of letting Barton get his swing back on track in the minors, in the hope he'll be more ready this time if and when the A's have a need in their lineup. He missed time this spring with leg injuries, which didn't help his push for a roster spot, either.

THE A'S WILL CONTEND IF ...: The team's many young pitchers, including hotshot left-hander Brett Anderson and, right behind him, right-handers Trevor Cahill and Vince Mazzaro, step up and contribute on a regular basis. With a far more powerful offense, Oakland's hopes ride on an inexperienced rotation that will not include, at least initially, injury-prone right-hander Justin Duchscherer. If the pitching doesn't come together, the team is expected to trade All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday by the deadline.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: Ryan Sweeney led the A's in hitting in his first full season in the majors, and now he'll have much bigger threats behind him in the order, with Matt Holliday and Jason Giambi in the middle of the order to drive in runs.

News and Notes

--LHP Gio Gonzalez, who is competing with RHP Sean Gallagher for the final bullpen slot, returned to action April 2. He had been sidelined for two weeks due to arm soreness. Gonzalez pitched one inning at San Francisco and allowed three runs.

--LHP Dallas Braden will be the A's Opening Day starter, taking the spot that would have gone to RHP Justin Duchscherer had he been healthy. Braden will be followed in the rotation by RHP Trevor Cahill and LHPs Dana Eveland, Brett Anderson and Josh Outman. RHP Sean Gallagher, who had been considered a top rotation candidate, instead will battle for a bullpen job, manager Bob Geren said.

Anderson, 21, has been the most consistent of the young prospects contending for a rotation spot, and even before Duchscherer had a recurrence of his elbow soreness, Anderson was considered a strong bet to make the team.

--RHP Joey Devine, one of Oakland's two potential closers, will begin the season on the disabled list due to an ongoing elbow problem. He is scheduled to be examined by orthopedist James Andrews during the season's first week. Devine missed a portion of spring training due to the elbow, and he wound up pitching just 3.1 innings this spring (8.10 ERA).

--RHP Justin Duchscherer's elbow surgery went well on March 31, manager Bob Geren said. The team doesn't have an exact timetable for his return, but he is expected to miss a minimum of six weeks.

--RHP Edgar Gonzalez was eliminated from the race to make Oakland's rotation when he was reassigned to the team's minor league camp on March 29. He endured a miserable spring, allowing 17 runs in 14 innings.

--2B Mark Ellis began playing in the field on March 25, right on schedule as he returned from September shoulder surgery. He should be in the Opening Night lineup, but it is likely the team will get him regular rest for at least the first several weeks of the season.

BY THE NUMBERS: 87 -- The run total allowed by Oakland's young pitching staff during a 2-8 skid in mid-March, for an ERA of 9.00.

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