Rebuilt A’s gear up to contend for AL West |

Rebuilt A’s gear up to contend for AL West

Janie McCauley, The Associated Press

OAKLAND – Outfielder Josh Willingham has no trouble saying it in January: The Oakland Athletics should contend for the AL West this season.

Manager Bob Geren expects it, too. That’s how most teams feel heading into spring training and a new year, with fresh faces and optimism. Yet the A’s have had such a busy, productive winter of upgrades and acquisitions that it seems – on paper, anyway – they could greatly improve their 81-81 record.

“This team is definitely capable of doing something special with the talent we have,” said pitcher Rich Harden, back for a second stint with the club.

Oakland, with a talented pitching staff and quiet offense, finished second to AL champion Texas last year despite another injury-filled season. The A’s led the AL in ERA (3.56) and shutouts (17) while holding opponents to a .245 batting average.

Playing well into October would be a big step forward for this blue-collar franchise that hasn’t reached the playoffs since being swept by Detroit in the 2006 AL championship series.

Willingham has never been to the postseason, period.

“I know from my perspective, playing five years in Florida and two years in Washington, there wasn’t a whole lot of talk about contending for a division title,” Willingham said Thursday at an A’s meet-and-greet session. “The opportunity is there for this team. Obviously it’s all on paper at this point. Nothing’s been proven. Any time you have expectations coming into a season it’s exciting, especially when you’ve been on teams that have not had expectations.”

Oakland brought in Willingham, slugger Hideki Matsui and David DeJesus to boost a lineup that hit just 109 homers and scored 663 runs last season, the team’s second fewest in the last 28 non-strike seasons.

While Geren won’t provide a batting order at this early stage – “I haven’t even wasted my time with that yet,” he quipped – he is giving it plenty of thought. Willingham, who joined the A’s in a trade from the Nationals last month, will bat somewhere third-fourth-fifth to break up the lefty hitters.

“Yo don’t have a (Albert) Pujols in there, a flat-out superstar, but if you look at this lineup you have balance,” Willingham said.

He batted .268 with 16 home runs and 56 RBIs last season. Willingham finished last season on the 60-day disabled list as he recovered from surgery on his left knee. He was sidelined after Aug. 15 and played 114 games, 108 of those in left field.

In fact, Oakland’s other outfielders also missed time because of injury last season – Coco Crisp, Conor Jackson, Ryan Sweeney and DeJesus the final two months with Kansas City following right thumb surgery.

The A’s used the disabled list 23 times in 2010, two shy of the franchise record set in 2008.

That’s why Geren is thrilled to have options almost everywhere. Oakland last week added Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes to an already deep bullpen, to back an experienced rotation.

“The last few years going into spring training we had a good team,” Geren said. “You know the story of the injury train that got out of control there for a while and we could never recover. The difference between this offseason going into spring training and last is we have a lot more depth in just about every single department.

“We’re doing everything we can to get guys healthy and strong to withstand the long 162-game schedule but we also have a real advantage this year where if a couple guys do get dinged up we have a lot deeper bullpen, outfield. So we’re pretty excited about what we have. Our talent level has gone up and our depth has gone up,” he said.

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