0

A five-day assessment of the A’s — don’t see many chinks in the armor

It went by way too quickly. I’ve filled in for John Hickey for five days and it’s already over. Now I head crosstown to the Giants to fill in there for five days before heading home.

Even in this short time, however, I saw enough to build a pretty strong assessment. The A’s are going to be very tough to beat again. They have the deepest rotation in the division. And they may have the ridiculous bullpen in baseball, even with Ryan Cook still working his way back from a shoulder issue and Eric O’Flaherty, recovering from Tommy John surgery, not likely to join the team until July.

I got to see all five starters throw and they all looked sharp. I’m quickly over my concerns about Scott Kazmir after watching him throw Wednesday. He throws strikes, works quickly, has a very good pitch arsenal, and beyond all that, it’s just nice to have a lefty back in the A’s rotation. He looks like the guy who pitched for Tampa Bay when he was at his best. He may not be able to match Bartolo Colon’s incredible year in 2013, but he shouldn’t have to. You can see all five of the starters winning anywhere from 12 to 15 games this year, backed by a bullpen I can’t wait to see terrorize the American League. Sonny Gray could be better than that if he shows the kind of stuff he did in the playoffs, both in terms of his stuff and his mental approach. So could Jarrod Parker, who is a breakout year waiting to happen. Even if someone falters, you’ve got Tommy Milone, who pitched four sterling shutout innings a few days ago. When Milone is your starter safety net, you are filthy deep.

I don’t see many issues with the position players, either. Josh Donaldson looks like he’s primed to back up his monster year of 2013 and become a bona fide star. I equate him a bit to Stephen Curry of the Warriors. Curry was shafted out of an All-Star spot two years ago when people didn’t recognize his total game until this year. Same thing happened to Donaldson last year, but now they know who he is. He’s not just a tremendous hitter with amazing power to all fields for a man his size, he’s a superb defensive third baseman and a good runner. Bottom line, he’s already a star. The rest of the world just doesn’t know it yet.

Jed Lowrie will be the reliable mainstay at shortstop, but don’t be surprised to be Addison Russell at some point this season. He looks every bit the future fixture at one of the toughest positions to fill. Oakland has nice platoon at second with Eric Sogard and Nick Punto, and the same at first with Brandon Moss and possibly Alberto Callaspo or Nate Freiman. Daric Barton figures in there somewhere, too, but we’re just not sure where, particularly now that he’s down with a hamstring injury. The fact is, Bob Melvin has plenty of flexibility all around the diamond if someone gets hurt or he just wants to rest somebody.

The A’s have three good catchers — Derek Norris, John Jaso and Stephen Vogt. Tough to see how they keep three, but if you only keep two, who do you cut?

Outfield may be the only area where there’s even a hint of concern. Yoenis Cespedes hasn’t gotten untracked in spring yet — either at the plate or in the field — and after last season in which he regressed a bit offensively, it’s hard to get a gauge what kind of season he’s going to deliver. If he comes up big, the A’s won’t lose this division. If he falters, the lineup could falter because he provides protection for Donaldson and Oakland can play with anybody when he’s swinging it. Josh Reddick, we know what he can do in the field. He’s the best all-around defensive right fielder in Oakland history, and now it’s a question if he can bring back the power he supplied in 2012. He needs to stay healthy. So does Coco Crisp, who looks as fabulous as ever when he’s in the lineup. Nobody’s looking for 20 home runs again, but as long as he’s getting on base and scoring runs, that won’t matter.

Craig Gentry could be a valuable fourth outfielder, but his back issues are a bit worrisome. He’s probably not going to be ready to start the season, so Sam Fuld will likely get that spot unless the A’s become so enamored with the spring Michael Taylor is having that they decide to commit to a guy who’s been in their system for awhile. Billy Burns will provide some insurance for Crisp, but will likely start the year in the minors. He could be an impact player for the A’s down the line at the top of the lineup, however. Love his small-ball game.

On top of all that, the A’s have Melvin piloting this ship in the dugout. Melvin has shown us in 2-plus seasons that he is one of the best managers in the game, if not the best, both as a strategist and a firm but fair leader of men. The players love playing for him, and there’s no reason that should change. I could see Melvin becoming a “legacy” manager for Oakland, a guy who stays here for 10 years and becomes regarded one of the Bay Area’s best ever. He’s already approaching that status — he just needs more time in.

In short, the A’s look pretty terrific. Billy Beane and Co. have built a complete, well-rounded team with depth, unlike the other potential challengers in the division with higher payrolls who have big-contract stars but some major holes and questions where they don’t have stars. I’ve already picked Oakland to win the division for the third straight year in a couple of early prediction polls. I didn’t see anything the past five days to change that opinion. In fact, I feel more confident about the A’s now that I’ve seen them up close and in action. Wouldn’t say that if I didn’t completely believe it.

Other stuff:

–Despite not having his best command, Kazmir tossed four shutout innings, allowed a hit and a walk and struck out three in the A’s 3-1 loss to Kansas City, throwing roughly 60 pitches.

Kazmir said he’s not necessarily looking for results, but was glad to get them when he wasn’t at his sharpest. It’s far cry from his approach last year at this time when he was just trying to get back to the big leagues with Cleveland.

“Every pitch I was looking for results,” he said. “It’s a different beast when you’re competing for a job. This year, I’m back in my comfort zone and I’m just able to progress more normally.”

–The Royals, who got back-to-back home runs from Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas off Sean Doolittle for all three runs, have a staff comprised largely of men who grew up in the East Bay. Manager Ned Yost is from Dublin, and he added bullpen coach Doug Henry from Hayward (Tennyson High) last season. This year, Dale Sveum (Pinole) was hired as the new third base coach and Don Wakamatsu (Hayward) as the bench coach.

All four once played on the legendary E. Bercovich travel team, and Sveum, Henry and Wakamatsu played together. Yost is about 10 years older that his three coaches, but is glad to be surrounded by familiar locals.

“It’s great, because when we go home, everybody knows how to get to Casper’s (hot dogs),” Yost joked.

–Cook will pitch another bullpen Thursday and even though the right-handed reliever has made steady progress recovering from shoulder inflammation, Melvin said the A’s won’t rush him. It’s still in doubt whether he’ll be ready to start the season with Oakland.

–Melvin said it may have almost been a blessing that Doolittle gave up two home runs in the game, because his previous outings have been very short, and he got to throw 20 pitches in his latest stint.

–Catcher Derek Norris returned to action after being out a week with back spasms. He went 1-for-2, and even stole a base.

–Finally, I bid a fond but remorseful farewell to Phoenix Municipal Stadium, which has provided so many indelible memories for me over the past 30-plus years I’ve spent time covering and columnizing on the A’s. A fine little ballpark with a true desert feel. It’s where Miguel Tejada nearly killed me with an errant throw when he was about 20. It’s where I saw so many awe-inspiring Jose Canseco/Mark McGwire batting practice shows. The A’s will find they are the poorer for it moving to the Cubs’ old facility in Mesa. Sure, it’ll be a better financial deal, but they’re surrendering all the history they’ve given this place. Goodbye, old friend.

I finished up my work here profiling Dan Otero, a story you can read here — http://bit.ly/1oNT4Q0 — or in Thursday’s paper. It’s been a pleasure pinch-hitting. See you all at O.co in a few weeks.

Carl Steward