A's manage to find the winning way

A's manage to find the winning way

PHOENIX -- Every spring, you hear the same thing about the Oakland Athletics: They can't win without the players they just lost.

And then they do win, anyway.

The list of quality players the A's have lost in recent seasons alone is truly impressive. There is a chance that even cyberspace could become crowded if we were to list all these players, but as a sampler: Miguel Tejada, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Jason Isringhausen, Keith Foulke.

Then, of course, there were the Big Three, the starting pitchers at the core of the Athletics' success: Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. Zito was the last to depart, across the Bay this winter to the Giants and a record-setting contract for a pitcher.

Designated hitter Frank Thomas revived his career with a huge season for Oakland in 2006. That earned him a big contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Zito and Thomas were two more cases of players succeeding to such an extent with Oakland that the A's essentially could no longer afford their services.

And so the refrain can be heard again this spring. Oakland cannot possibly win after the loss of the ace of their rotation and their biggest power source. We would not, of course, encourage wagering on baseball in any case. But this thing again about the Athletics not being able to win? No, don't bet on it, absolutely not.

In the last seven years, the A's have won the American League West four times and reached the postseason five times. Over those seven years, they have averaged 95 victories per season. Looked at in that context, their 93-69 division-winning performance in 2006 was very good by normal standards, but just about average for the Athletics.

But it underscores the point that, while the exodus of all this talent was continuing, so was the winning. The resourcefulness of this franchise has been well established, both on the field and in prose. General manager Billy Beane and his crew get maximum value out of limited resources. This has become nothing less than a fact of baseball life.

So how would the 2007 Athletics be able to win, even with the loss of Zito and Thomas? The short answer is: They would pitch better than most people.

The AL West looks to be a reasonably balanced division, without an overwhelming favorite, but also without any noncompetitive teams.

"It's a tough division, everybody's good," new Oakland manager Bob Geren said on Tuesday. "I mean, the lineup that Seattle threw out there against us, and the one that Texas brought over here. And obviously, there's Anaheim. And we're very good, too.

"What you look at is who keeps the most guys healthy and who pitches the best, really."

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That thing about who pitches the best suits the ambitions of this club. The bullpen looks to be first-rate, anchored by the impressive talent of closer Huston Street. The rotation could be a real strength. Dan Haren, Rich Harden, Joe Blanton and Esteban Loaiza appear to be solid. The early leader for the No. 5 spot, Joe Kennedy, has scuffled this spring. Brad Halsey seems to be a viable option, but in any case, this rotation is, at worst, far above average.

Haren has drawn the Opening Day assignment, but Harden should be a key. If he is healthy, his potential appears practically limitless. Elbow and back injuries limited him to nine starts last season, but it tells you something that the Athletics won in each of those starts.

Harden, 25, pitched five innings of one-run ball against the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday. He was very good, even though he described himself as "having a few command issues."

Harden, using a fastball, slider and changeup, but not his split-fingered fastball, struck out seven. That gave him an astounding 25 strikeouts over 13 2/3 Cactus League innings. That is an obvious mark of his potential dominance, but the strikeouts have the unwanted side effect of driving up the pitch count.

"Strikeouts, they're fun sometimes, but they eat up a lot of pitches," Harden said. "Unless they're one-two-three, and those are pretty rare. You get guys that foul off pitches, foul off pitches, taking you deep into the count. If you're throwing a lot of pitches to every hitter, it's going to wear you out and get you out of the game sooner. You talk to any pitcher, and I think they'd much rather get early contact and get deeper into the game."

This is the kind of problem that a very good pitcher, a healthy Harden, might encounter -- too many strikeouts.

Harden is the Oakland pitcher most frequently mentioned as the successor to Zito as the staff ace. This is an obvious compliment to his ability, but he says that the issue is not that simple.

"That question keeps coming up," he says. "The fans, the media, everybody feels the need for one guy to step up. But that's not what it's going to be. It's always been about our entire staff. If you look at the past few years, that's what it's been. It's never been just one person, it's been everybody stepping up and picking up other guys.

"We have a lot of guys who are capable of that. We don't function just as one person. We need everybody as far as a unit, as a staff. Everybody works off each other, motivating each other."

The hope for the Athletics is that there will be more than one pitcher stepping up his performance this season. This would be the most direct path to proving once again that this organization can win without whichever Oakland players have become ex-Oakland players.

Mike Bauman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.