No longer underdogs, A's ready for next step
PHOENIX -- There is an excellent chance that the Oakland Athletics, Major League Baseball's most pleasant surprise in 2012, will not be able to sneak up on anybody in 2013.
This is the bad news for this club. And it really doesn't add up to all that much trouble.
If the A's display the same attributes as last year's club, they can create a suitable encore. They are in an exceptionally tough division, but they were in the same AL West last season and they staged a stirring late-season run to win. When they lost starting pitchers, they persistently found young and talented pitchers who performed with efficiency and maturity, displaying command of off-speed pitches and generally conducting themselves like accomplished veterans.
Bob Melvin earned American League Manager of the Year honors for his work with this group, With the 2012 team, he had to perform something like a transformation. This time he has to make certain that the A's don't let their scrappy, tenacious approach slip to a lesser level.
"What I would like to see from our guys, is to go out there and prepare in the same fashion that we did every day last year," Melvin said Thursday at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. "We didn't get caught up in distractions. This year will be different in the fact that we did have success last year. Teams will look at us differently this year, but we can't look at ourselves any differently.
"Once you start to pat yourself on the back, that's a distraction that we don't need. We need to go out there and each and every guy gets better.
"We're not there yet. We're just trying to ride the momentum that we had last year and the confidence that we had last year, and hopefully get better."
Starting pitcher Tommy Milone, for one, requires no further instruction on this issue. Milone was the winning pitcher Thursday, working three shutout innings in a 7-3 victory over a Seattle Mariners split squad.
In 2012, his first full season in the Majors, this left-hander established himself nicely as a strike-thrower, commanding his pitches and his craft. But Milone doesn't see his position in any sort of comfortable terms.
"Whether I think like I have a [rotation] spot or not, I still feel like I'm going out there and competing for a spot," Milone said. "I just have to keep that mindset, keep going out there and putting up zeroes and giving them a reason to put you in the rotation.
"I think it's a mentality thing. Whether I have two years or 10 years I'm going to go out there and compete like I'm going after a spot. I feel like it gives you that drive and that fire and you compete harder. Obviously, you want to win. I feel like that drive and that adrenaline brings that out."
That is a winning mentality, the kind of approach that can keep the Oakland club headed in a highly successful direction. There are concerns, there are areas where improvement needs to be made. Oakland hitters led the league in strikeouts last season. They were 13th in team batting average. The A's had the third highest error total in the AL in 2012.
"We can get better defensively and I think we have the guys here who can get better defensively," Melvin said. "The strikeouts were a little bit of a concern, we have to try to put the ball in play a little bit more. We were aware of the numbers, but it didn't seem to inhibit us as far as the wins and losses [in 2012]. I think we have guys who have the ability to cut down on those numbers. We have to try to get better as far as [team batting] average goes."
But if your club is going to have a fundamental strength in contemporary baseball, please, let it be pitching. The A's had this category covered last year, ranking second in the league in team earned run average. And there isn't any reason to expect slippage now.
"We have young pitchers across the board, especially in the rotation, who we feel have a chance to get better, too," Melvin said. "And then maybe our toughest decisions may come in the bullpen. We have tough decisions to make there, especially on the lefty side.
"But I do like our team. We have a lot of versatility and we have a lot of talent."
The A's, in fact, have a surplus of completely suitable outfielders, featuring the imposing talent of Yoenis Cespedes. Beyond a quartet of proven outfielders, young outfielders Michael Choice and Shane Peterson have been making extremely positive impressions this spring, providing even more potential depth. "It's a good problem to have," Melvin said of finding enough playing time for outfielders who deserve playing time.
Many clubs come to Spring Training searching desperately for additional pitching. The A's, meanwhile, want to make sure they don't become complacent.
"If I knew exactly how to do that, I would do it," Melvin said. "It's been addressed. But at some point in time -- and for me, it was day one of Spring Training -- last year goes away and it's all about preparing for this year. Again, if you're patting yourself on the back for too long, you can get humbled very quickly."
Like not sneaking up on any opponents, this should not be anything like an insurmountable obstacle for the 2013 Athletics. They won't surprise anyone by being very good again.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.