A's overcome injuries with versatility
Some of Oakland's key players trying to get healthy this spring
PHOENIX -- A common refrain heard in reference to the A's over the years has been, "If they're healthy, they'll be tough to beat."
It's been a nod both to the club's limited financial resources and to the ability of general manager Billy Beane to build a competitive team within the inherent constraints.
The refrain rings true for the 2007 A's, who, alas, are not healthy with three weeks remaining in Spring Training.
Mark Kotsay underwent back surgery Thursday, and he isn't expected back for 8-12 weeks. Fellow outfielder Bobby Kielty had knee surgery the week before, and his availability for Opening Day is in question. Top setup man Justin Duchscherer, who missed 42 games with tendinitis near his elbow last season, has missed time at camp with the same problem. Shortstop Bobby Crosby, recovering from a back injury of his own, hasn't yet played in a Cactus League game.
Even the club's prized offseason addition, designated hitter Mike Piazza, is a bit banged up, having been drilled in the elbow by a pitch in a recent game.
All of this underscores an underrated aspect of Beane's work over the past few years: an emphasis on versatility.
It helped the A's survive a tidal wave of injuries to star players last season, and the hope is that it again can stem the tide and lead to a repeat title in the American League West.
"This," manager Bob Geren recently said, "is why Billy's the best GM in the game."
Central to the A's chances of remaining a contender while they heal will be the performances of two of the team's most versatile players, Milton Bradley and Nick Swisher.
Bradley, whose first half in 2006 essentially was wiped out by two stints on the disabled list, was an absolute monster in the second half. But he was a complementary player at that point -- Frank Thomas was the unchallenged top dog -- and Bradley won't have that luxury this year.
And in addition to having the spotlight more squarely trained on him, he'll have additional defensive responsibilities. Kotsay's injury moves Bradley into center field.
"Milton's ability to play center field was always going to be a big part of the puzzle this year," Beane said. "He was going to play there quite a bit, because we knew we needed to get Mark more rest than we had in the past couple of years. [Kotsay's injury] obviously means Milton will be in center a lot more than we anticipated, but at the same time, we're completely comfortable with it. He's a center fielder, anyway."
In Swisher, the A's have a budding young slugger who, to this point, hasn't found a defensive home. Throughout the offseason, it was assumed he'd see a lot of time in left field in the wake of free agent Jay Payton's departure. The signing of outfielder Shannon Stewart -- a left fielder for much of his career -- appeared to pave the way for Swisher to spend much of his time at first base, which is where he'd prefer to play. But the injury to Kotsay means Swisher will spend a lot of time in right.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
"I'd love to be able to focus on playing one position," Swisher admitted. "But this ain't about me. It's about what's going to make us a better team, and whatever Billy and Bob decide is best for the team, that's what I'll do."
Along the same lines, versatility in the bullpen will prove valuable should Duchscherer -- or any other reliever -- need time to heal. Last year's bullpen was hit particularly hard by injuries, at one point leaving the team with five relievers who had started the year in the Minor Leagues. And beyond Duchscherer and fellow righty Kiko Calero, the A's didn't fully trust anyone with regular late-inning work.
The addition of hard-throwing lefty Alan Embree, the emergence of righty Chad Gaudin and the return to health of hard-throwing righty Jay Witasick, however, give Geren plenty of options on the bridge from the starters to closer Huston Street.
"Even when they're all healthy, they're going to share the load," Geren said. "And if one or two goes down, we're still in pretty good shape."
As for Crosby's situation, A's fans are quite aware that there's a capable fill-in. Marco Scutaro has proven to be one of the most valuable utilitymen in the game over the past three seasons, stepping in for Crosby and second baseman Mark Ellis for long stretches to provide defensive stability and surprising offensive production.
"Scoot's our ace in the hole," Crosby said. "Obviously I want to be out there, but there isn't a guy in the clubhouse who'd feel like we're missing much with Marco out there."
Even if Piazza runs into more serious health issues, there's quality waiting in the wings. Non-roster invitee Erubiel Durazo, trying to make the team as a first baseman, is available to reprise his 2002-05 role as Oakland's DH if need be.
In short, the belt is a little loose right now, but as always, Beane and the A's never seem to get caught with their pants down.
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.