First off, this post shall not contain ranting about how Rajai Davis should be the 5th OFer and not Conor Jackson, because while everyone within the sound of my keyboard knows I thought Davis made more sense in that role, what's done is done and today I look strictly at the presumed Opening Day roster and how the A's can get the most out of it.
The roster, of course, will be fluid throughout the season as every team goes well beyond the original 25, and I don't have to remind you that the A's have been no exception. I'm just hoping Coco Crisp doesn't break a pinky in the Bay Bridge series and we can at least start with roughly the 25 guys we pencil in.
#1: For the love of God, Kurt Suzuki needs a day of rest no less often than every 7 calendar days, whether or not the schedule provides one. Speaking of God, even HE understood that on the 7th day you rest, so this is not some recent discovery.
I don't know how the A's can be so dumb about this, historically, allowing their catchers to be worn into the ground, when it seems so self-evident that if you allow your backup catcher to play once/week you will get more out of your starting catcher because he won't be utterly exhausted and you will get more out of your backup catcher because he won't be rusty.
So I start with the obvious: Kurt Suzuki should never play on 7 consecutive days, and this practice of giving him regularly scheduled "occasional breathers" should start in April. Note that this rule would only guarantee the A's backup catcher (presumably Landon Powell) all of two starts in April, as the schedule comes with plenty of off-days in it.
#2: Not all the time, but against some LHPs I would like to see Conor Jackson start in LF, with Josh Willingham moving to DH. Jackson is a legitimately good hitter against LHPs (his career slash line is .294/.395/.462) and his value on the roster, as a 5th OFer, is maximized by getting him some at bats against LHPing.
Meanwhile, DHing occasionally will allow Willingham to rest his knees from the wear and tear of playing the OF, making it more likely he holds up over the course of the season. The same is true of giving Hideki Matsui some days off.
I say "not all the time" because if the A's play a 4-game series in which three of the starters are left-handed, Matsui doesn't need to sit three times. But working Willingham into the DH spot a bit, and Jackson into the lineup against LHPs a bit, and resting Matsui a bit are complementary moves of creating a solid lineup while taking care of health over a long season.
Note that Ryan Sweeney fits in much the same way as an occasional breather for Coco Crisp (with David DeJesus sliding to CF), as Crisp does not hit as well against RHP and will undoubtedly benefit from occasional rest. So just as with catcher, I'd like to see the OF and DH spots also used in that "several days on, a day off" rotation, only this time done strategically to create platoon advantages along the way.
#3: Lineup order may not matter a ton, but it's good to get it right and it's a whole lot fun to overanalyze. My thought about lineup order includes a bit of a surprise...
Against RHP, I probably like this order best of all the configurations:
Crisp - CF
Barton - 1B
Matsui - DH
Willingham - LF
DeJesus - RF
Suzuki - C
Kouzmanoff - 3B
Ellis - 2B
Pennington - SS
Against LHP, if these nine start? I say keep the order the same. Why? Because the two guys who hit a lot better against LHPs, Kouzmanoff and Ellis, are bad enough against RHPs that I really don't want them up in the #5 spot, late in the game, against the right-handed bullpen. That's when you're likely to care most about batting order: When your best hitters have just batted, you have two on, maybe one or two out, in the 7th or 8th inning of a close game.
Meanwhile, DeJesus maintains a perfectly good OBP against LHPs (.340 career) and just loses a lot of slugging -- but is definitely the guy you would want up against the righty reliever. So because DeJesus hits LHPs decently, while Kouzmanoff and Ellis really plunge against RHPs -- and aren't even that great against LHPs -- in this particular case I'd be inclined to look ahead to the likelihood of seeing right-handed pitching later in the game anyway, keep Kouz and Ellis down in the order, and opt for more consistency in guys' spots from day to day.
#4: As for the bullpen, so much of who is used will rely on who is available, and that can't be planned ahead much. Suffice it to say, though, there is no excuse for using Michael Wuertz three days in a row, or asking Craig Breslow to throw four days out of five. There are too many "comparable fill-ins" -- Wuertz and Balfour, Breslow and Fuentes, that one can be slotted in to give the other a day off pretty interchangeably.
I will throw this in to the bullpen discussion: I like the four-out save. That one extra out doesn't require too high a pitch load -- a good closer can expect to face about 5-6 hitters, and throw about 20-24 pitches, in a typical four-out save -- and it doesn't get much more "high leverage" than when there is a real threat in the 8th with runners on, two out, and the possibility that if you don't get the next out, that save might not even be there in the 9th.
When I see two on, two out, 8th inning, and my team up a run, I want my best pitcher in there, now. And once he quells that threat, the 9th is a relative piece of cake as it starts with the bases empty. Don't get greedy: If you start stretching that to five-out saves and two-inning saves, you start to play with the health of your most important reliever. The magic number, as I see it, is four. Get the last out of what you hope will be the last crisis, and finish it from there.
With their bullpen, if used properly, the A's are going to shorten a lot of games this year. Provided they don't trip over the rotting corpses of their catcher and their outfielders.