This Time Last Year

Quite a difference a year makes. Last March, A's fans were bracing themselves for a pennant race with the Rangers and Angels. We were giddy after an offseason of acquisitions that saw the A's add several established players, signaling that the front office thought it was a year in which they could steal the AL West.

This season, expectations are slightly lower. Of the A's top four starters on Opening Day 2011, two are now pitching in the National League and two are recovering from major arm injuries. Fifth starter Brandon McCarthy is now the team's ace. 38-year old Bartolo Colon will likely start Game 2. Most of the team's lineup has turned over; only Kurt Suzuki, Cliff Pennington, and Coco Crisp are sure to have the same jobs this year that they had last year (and Crisp's hold on centerfield might be tenuous). Or the 25 guys on the 2011 Opening Day roster, 12 are still with the organization, and half of those dozen are in the bullpen.

Here's a look at how each position has changed, and whether it's in better or worse shape than it was a year ago today:

Catcher: There are two changes, one more significant than the other. First, Josh Donaldson seems to be going full steam ahead at third base, implying that he's no longer considered a catcher. He likely was a backup at best, so this is relatively minor. The bigger change is the addition of Derek Norris, who could be a significant upgrade for the A's in the future. For now the A's still have mainstay Kurt Suzuki and backups Landon Powell/Anthony Recker for the coming season. Change: Upgrade.

First Base: You know the famous line in the Moneyball movie where Brad Pitt says, "There are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there's 50 feet of crap, and then there's us?" That's roughly how I feel about the A's situation at first base. There are teams with superstar first basemen, just about every team has someone decent, and the A's have 900 pounds of crap.

Coming into last season, Daric Barton was coming off an almost 5-WAR season, and there was every reason to feel confident about his future. Then he spent two months not hitting the ball out of the infield and forgetting how to play defense too. Oops. The A's added Brandon Allen and Kila Ka'aihue late in the season, and Chris Carter still has not received a chance to play everyday. I'm hopeful for Allen, but I'm not expecting much. Change: Downgrade. Also, crap.

Second Base: Again, Mark Ellis was coming off a decent season, but we all knew that time was running out. Jemile Weeks had played well in the minors, but was still kind of an unknown. When Ellis was injured in early June and the A's were struggling badly, Weeks came up, made an immediate impression, and the longest-tenured Athletic had been Wally Pipp-ed. Change: Upgrade.

Third Base: This is a tough one. I was never a Kevin Kouzmanoff fan, and I always kind of assumed it was just a matter of time before he was replaced by someone better. Unfortunately, last year the A's options were Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales. So three cheers for Kouz for being better than them!

With the mid-summer trade for Scott Sizemore, things were looking up. Of course, Sizemore's knee exploded this spring and he's done for 2012. Now we have a converted backup catcher and a bunch of utility guys battling to start at third base. If someone can find the optimism there, holler. Change: Downgrade.

Shortstop: Cliff Pennington is still the guy, but I think expectations are lower. He likely will never be an All-Star, but even at his current level, he's a more than serviceable shortstop. Change: Eh. Ever so slight downgrade (based on future expectation).

Outfield: Offseason moves were made to bring in David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, both of whom were upgrades but also temporary stopgaps. Willingham played well, DeJesus flopped, and the next wave of outfielders is...well, we're still waiting. To be honest, I'm tired of waiting for Michael Taylor. If you've been a top prospect for four years, you're 26 and still haven't hit the big leagues with any kind of muster, you're no longer a top prospect.

The A's resigned Coco Crisp, then shocked most people and signed his replacement Yoenis Cespedes. I don't want to overstate this, but the A's desperately need Cespedes to become a star. The organization has been so starved for an impact bat and has struggled so much to make any significant splash in free agency. Cespedes could help cure both those ills.

Ryan Sweeney was shipped out, and as part of the pitcher trades, the A's added Josh Reddick, Collin Cowgill, and Seth Smith. None of these guys are without warts, but all of them have a chance to be contributors. Change: Downgrade in current talent. Upgrade in potential. Please get here soon, Yoenis.

Designated Hitter: Hideki Matsui had a decent second half, including a two-week stretch in which he hit, like, .950, but he did nothing when the A's still had something on the line last year. This season, the A's have signed Manny Ramirez, who'll be eligible to play hit at the end of May, and Jonny Gomes, who I'm listing here because I fear what will happen if he sees "7" or "9" placed next to his name on the lineup card. I have literally no expectations for this position this year. I'm almost hoping it's used on a rotating basis and one of the younger guys (Allen, Carter, Ka'aihue, Taylor) uses it to establish himself. If Gomes, Smith, or Manny do anything, that's bonus. Change: Downgrade.

Starting Pitchers: Last year, the rotation was the strength of the team. Even after losing two of their top four starters for the year and having numerous other injuries, it was still the strength of the team (that's how bad some of the hitters were). Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez were shipped off for seven minor leaguers, and maybe we've seen the last of Rich Harden finally. Brandon McCarthy and Tyson Ross are back, as are Bobby Cramer and Graham Godfrey if they're needed. Bartolo Colon was added for the year at low cost

The main story for this season is the comebacks of Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden, and the development of the acquired pitchers. There's no guarantee Braden will be around much longer; he's quickly approaching free agency and hasn't showed signs of being a top-notch starter. Anderson will be here awhile and has shown the ability to be an ace pitcher. Now he needs a full season of health to do so. Time's not running out on him yet, but it's beginning to get a little short.

The other story is the development of young starters Tommy Milone, AJ Cole, Brad Peacock, and Jarrod Parker (not to mention 2011 first round pick Sonny Gray). Parker is obviously the most highly-rated, but also has a checkered past. Cole is the farthest from the majors, but maybe the most talented. Change: Downgrade in current talent. Massive upgrade in long-term potential. A massive reminder that there are no guarantees. TINSTAAPP

Bullpen: Andrew Bailey, Brad Ziegler, and Craig Breslow are out. Neil Wagner and Jordan Norberto are in. I have a hard time getting excited about bullpens because they're so fungible and difficult to predict. Change: Downgrade for this year but it probably doesn't matter.

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