As The Curtain Rises: What To Worry About, And What Not To Worry About

Spring training results are difficult to decipher, as they should be largely ignored -- and this is a good thing if your team enters the season with high hopes and a six-game losing streak. However, it's unlikely that the A's will allow games to be lost, in the late innings, by Travis Banwart and Bobby Cramer, so my advice is not to focus too much on the "club record 21 losses" as they occurred largely when players were on the field who will not be on the field, in those situations, starting tomorrow. Here's my take on where fans should actually be concerned, and where they shouldn't.

The Good

The bullpen will be fine. The A's have set up an ideal situation where they have as many worthy reinforcements as they have question marks. Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes will make perfectly adequate stand-ins for Andrew Bailey, given the relatively short period of time Bailey figures to be out.

As the inevitable injuries and setbacks hit the bullpen, Joey Devine, Rich Harden, and if necessary Josh Outman and Tyson Ross, will be emerging. It would take an awful lot of adversity for the A's to lose relievers faster than they can replace them with very good options.

Really the worst will be the first week, as Craig Breslow and Michael Wuertz are still catching up and might be pushed into higher leverage situations than would be ideal, but that's a very short term issue.

The rotation is as good as advertised. Sure it helps to pitch in a pitcher's park with an excellent defense behind you, but make no mistake about it: Opposing teams are joining writers across the country in tipping their hat to the quartet of Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, and Dallas Braden -- and the reinvented Brandon McCarthy has opened some eyes as well.

Cahill is cool as a cucumber as he induced routine ground ball after routine ground ball, Anderson is poised, efficient, and nasty when his backfoot slider is disappearing, Gonzalez has come out looking like an ace both in stuff and confidence, and Braden is a tutorial on how far fastball command and a plus changeup can get you. There is quality, and there is depth, and I believe that if healthy this rotation will keep the A's in the hunt all year.

Barton looks like an All-Star. He won't be, because there are too many 1Bmen with better "names" and better "1Bman stats," but Barton is emerging to become a legitimate ".400 OBP, gold glove defense, plenty of doubles and a few more HRs" candidate.

The Bad

Matsui's bat does has looked a bit slow. He's known as a slow starter, and every year he puts up, like clockwork, a .350 OBP with some power, and solid RBI production, but if there's one "eyeball report" that caught my eye in a worrisome way it's that Matsui's bat has looked slow to me the few times I have a chance to see him swing.

That may not mean anything, but given his age (36) and what we have seen with Jason Giambi and others, the decline can come fast and the A's have, historically, missed by a year of grabbing a veteran's last good season. I just hope Matsui doesn't become a hitter who has to start his swing early as it will produce un-Matsui-like results such as chasing bad breaking balls and walking less.

Willingham is a great "start slow" candidate. Whether it's a change to a new league -- something I tend to think is a bit overrated in general, but I think can impact a hitter for the first 6 weeks at least -- or the natural pressure of trying to impress a new team, Willingham has looked like a great candidate to start slow.

The problem here could be that if Matsui starts slow -- either because he tends to even in a good year, or because his bat speed is down a tick -- and Willingham starts slow -- either due to adjusting to the AL or "just 'cuz" -- the A's offense could suddenly start to look like...well, what we've seen the past week, which is a lot like what we've seen for the past 4 years.

It would be huge if either Matsui or Willingham got out of the gate strong, but unfortunately if I had to pick two hitters likely to stall early it would be the A's two "middle of the order" guys.

Brett Anderson's elbow: Ticking time bomb. By all accounts, Anderson is healthy, period. However, you'd be unwise to take the "over" on 25-30 starts for a guy who has never completed a full season, and whose owies have come from ligament strains in the elbow he uses to snap off his most important pitch.

Maybe increased use of his changeup, and as a result fewer sliders, will help, maybe the A's new training philosophies and techniques will help. But while there is nothing, currently, to indicate Anderson is anything but 100% fine, Oakland's chances to challenge for the AL West hinge heavily on the health of the 4 top starting pitchers and when it comes to Anderson, I just don't like the odds. Tyson Ross could be a big factor in the AL West race by the time all is said and done.

That's my two cents, for which you undoubtedly overpaid. Your thoughts?

{Note, updating an earlier conversation: The Xfinity ad you see below this post ended up running twice, which means $100.00 will be donated to the Japan relief efforts.}

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