As a major-league player for 16 seasons and a manager for 15 before joining the A's as a special adviser in 2011, Phil Garner has experience behind him when he says that the "general paradigm of most players in the big leagues is they would rather get a chance to play every day."
When the personnel and strategy of a team dictate otherwise, as they did in Oakland last season, it falls largely on the manager to get players to buy in.
"That has a lot to do with communication, letting guys know, and being able to be somewhat consistent," Garner said. "So even though they know they're not playing every day, if they know they're playing in these circumstances, that helps to ease the confusion. I thought Bob excelled at that."
Bob is Bob Melvin, who was selected American League Manager of the Year in 2012 for the way he juggled platoons at up to four positions on a given day down the stretch as the A's became surprise winners of the A.L. West. It was the second such honor for Melvin, who became the 14th manager to receive the award in both leagues (he also won in Arizona in 2007).
New A's outfielder Chris Young, with the Diamondbacks then, said Melvin didn't do nearly the amount of position shuffling then that he did last season.
"But it was a different team," Young said. "You let the team kind of dictate how you do things. I think he does a really good job of that."
Melvin's current gig often means he's communicating bad news to his players. He accepts that and tries to ease the uncertainty by giving players enough notice – usually the night before a game or, for a role player who doesn't start often, a few days in advance – to prepare mentally for starts and study video of the opposing pitcher.
"They might not like hearing what they're hearing at certain times," Melvin said. "But at least they know and can prepare accordingly."
Jarrod Parker began last season pitching for the Triple-A River Cats. He finished it opposing Tigers ace Justin Verlander in the fifth game of the A.L. Division Series.
On the accelerated learning curve, Parker wasn't alone, as the A's rotation included fellow rookies Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily in the second half.
"We were able to really learn a lot on the fly, and that was a big thing for us," Parker said. "We didn't have much time to sit there and be like, 'Oh, we threw great, we did great.' It was just kind of do it and move on."
Parker and Milone, who set an Oakland rookie record with 13 wins apiece last year, join Griffin and 39-year-old Bartolo Colon (after Colon serves the last five games of a 50-game PED suspension) behind Opening Day starter Brett Anderson, who has found staying healthy to be a challenge. Anderson has made more than 19 starts just once in his four big-league seasons, but went 4-2 with a 2.57 ERA at the end of last season after returning from Tommy John surgery. Colon has had a rough spring, and there are bound to be questions over whether he'll be as effective after his drug suspension as he was before (10-9, 3.43 in 2012).
As for the staff's sophomores, Parker said, "There's a lot of stuff still to learn and a lot of players to learn in this league. I think anytime you can feel fresh and feel young, it's an advantage."
In 2011, A's hitting coach Chili Davis came across Brandon Moss playing with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Moss had failed to stick with the Red Sox and Phillies in three major-league stints, but Davis, coaching for Pawtucket, "loved" Moss' swing.
"It was short. It was direct to the ball." Davis said. "And when the ball hit the bat, it jumped off the bat – I mean jumped."
When Davis joined the A's last season and saw Moss in camp as a nonroster invitee, he couldn't believe it. He also learned that Moss had been told the way he set up and hit in the minors – close to the plate, looking for a pitch he could pull and drive rather than spray to all fields – wouldn't play in the big leagues.
"I just told him, 'Hey man, you ain't got to change a thing for me,' " Davis said. "Just be who you are."
That, Moss said, was a driving factor behind his breakout 2012. Moss, 29, started the season at Triple A, where he hit 15 home runs in 51 games, and then brought the power surge to Oakland, hitting 21 homers in 84 games while platooning with right-handed Chris Carter.
With Carter gone to Houston, first base now belongs to Moss, with the question of whether the converted outfielder, who before last year had hit 15 homers in 678 big-league at-bats, can match his 2012 production over a full season.
"It was a great year," Moss said. "But I don't feel like I have to live up to anything. I go out and play and see what the numbers end up, and then judge the season as a good or bad year after."
Young was an All-Star center fielder in 2010, and in 2011 he posted the highest defensive Wins Above Replacement figure (2.6) of any player in the National League, according to baseball-reference.com.
But when the A's traded for Young last October, he joined a crowded outfield that featured Coco Crisp in center and another natural center fielder, Yoenis Cespedes, in left.
"I was informed that I might have to move around a little bit and just kind of see how everything plays out," Young said. "That's pretty much what I'm doing."
Under their strategy of lineup flexibility, the A's plan to start with Young as a kind of roving outfielder who might play all three spots and allow the A's to rest their other starters. It's a transition for Young, who said the first Cactus League start he made in left field this spring was his first time playing left – ever.
"He's pretty athletic," manager Bob Melvin said earlier this spring. "It's more about actually taking your glove and going out there that I think at the beginning is the hard part. But my guess is it won't take him too long to acclimate."
Young, who had double-digit homers and stolen bases every season from 2007-11 but played just 101 games last year due to injury, said of playing the corners: "I don't know if I would ever say it feels natural. (But) I mean, I'm a professional. Whatever I'm asked to do, just be professional enough to do it and do the best you can."
THREE QUESTIONS WORTH CONSIDERING
1. CAN THEY MAINTAIN THEIR EDGE?
Maybe the most intangible yet important quality of the 2012 A's was their insistence on ending things on their terms. The A's had 14 walk-off wins – celebrating them with shaving-cream pies – and overcame a five-game deficit with only nine games to play to win the American League West on the last day of the season. It was quite a ride for a young team picked by many to finish at or near the bottom of the West – and it begs the question of whether a 2013 team with many of the same faces can harness that tenacity again. So much so, in fact, that manager Bob Melvin started impressing on his players soon after they arrived in Arizona that, "If you're maintaining, you're moving in the wrong direction." The first pie that hits a face this season should be a good barometer.
2. WHAT'S THE CEILING FOR CESPEDES?
Even with the issues Yoenis Cespedes dealt with last season – a culture change, unfamiliar pitchers, a hand injury, a move to left field and an uncertain family situation that had the Cuban defector stressed for most of the second half – he hit .292 with 23 home runs and 82 RBIs, acclimated well to a corner outfield spot and finished second in A.L. Rookie of the Year voting. Pitchers will know Cespedes better this season, but Melvin said that was already starting to happen last year, and Cespedes – with the aid of video, a tool he rarely had in Cuba – showed the ability to make his own adjustments. Mentally, he's more at ease with his family now in the United States, and the refrain in Oakland is that, for the 27-year-old, the "sky is the limit."
3. DOES THE DEPTH EXIST AGAIN?
The A's used 50 players last season, and a big reason they were able to platoon at so many positions was the readily available depth in their farm system. Josh Reddick (131) and Jemile Weeks (112) were the only two players to start at least 100 games at one position. Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, Josh Donaldson, Sean Doolittle and Jarrod Parker all spent time in the minors before becoming key players in Oakland's playoff run. No doubt the A's would rather not have to mine their organizational depth for contributions. But they haven't been shy about doing so if necessary. If they do so again this season, though, will the talent be there?
– Matt Kawahara
THE TEAM AT A GLANCE
2012: 94-68, won American League West
Manager: Bob Melvin (third season)
They're here: C John Jaso, IF Jed Lowrie, IF Hiroyuki Nakajima, RP Chris Resop, OF Chris Young
They're out of here: IF Chris Carter, IF Stephen Drew, OF Jonny Gomes, IF Brandon Inge, C George Kottaras, SP Brandon McCarthy, RP Jim Miller, IF Cliff Pennington, SP Tyson Ross
Projected lineup: CF Coco Crisp (.259, 11 home runs, 46 RBIs, 39 stolen bases), SS Hiroyuki Nakajima (.311, 13, 74 in Japan)/Jed Lowrie (.244, 16, 42 in 97 games with Houston), RF Josh Reddick (.242, 32, 85), LF Yoenis Cespedes (.292, 23, 82), 1B Brandon Moss (.291, 21, 52 in 84 games), DH Seth Smith (.240, 14, 52)/Chris Young (.231, 14, 41 in 101 games with Arizona), 3B Josh Donaldson (.241, 9, 33 in 75 games), C Derek Norris (.201, 7, 34 in 60 games)/John Jaso (.276, 10, 50 in 108 games with Seattle), 2B Scott Sizemore (injured in 2012)
Rotation: LH Brett Anderson (4-2, 2.57 ERA in six games), RH Jarrod Parker (13-8, 3.47, 140 strikeouts), LH Tommy Milone (13-10, 3.74), RH Bartolo Colon (10-9, 3.43), RH A.J. Griffin (7-1, 3.06 in 15 games)
Key relievers: RH Grant Balfour (3-2, 2.53, 24 saves in 26 opportunities), LH Sean Doolittle (2-1, 3.04), RH Ryan Cook (6-2, 2.09), LH Jerry Blevins (5-1, 2.48)
Outlook: As with their day-to-day lineups, it's hard to tell what to expect from the A's. Oakland, which was very successful using platoons last season, is again constructed to play for matchups, which means relying on the versatility and ability of players to produce even knowing they might not play every day. Anderson, if he stays healthy, leads a young staff (Colon excepted) that exceeded expectations in 2012 and will need to adjust to hitters being more familiar with them.
– Matt Kawahara