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2/7/2013 10:00 P.M. ET

A's don't mind leaving underdog role behind

Surprise AL West champions looking to carry momentum into 2013

OAKLAND -- Hefty expectations will naturally surround the American League West defending champion Athletics this spring.

"It's better than having no expectations," A's general manager Billy Beane said recently, smiling.

Beane knows all about the latter scenario, having entered 2012 with a group that was expected to pick up 100 losses, or more. Instead, the A's racked up 96 wins and shocked all by taking home the division crown on the final day of the season.

Spring Training
Spring Training links

Now, all eyes will be on them, waiting to see if another contending season can be had against the likes of Los Angeles and Texas, along with an improved Seattle team. Joining the division this year is Houston, anticipated to finish in the cellar.

But how far will they be looking up to the A's? Oakland's players expect a good distance between the teams.

"We have a lot of core guys here from last season, the same belief system, the same will to win, and I think it's going to be a fun year again," third baseman Josh Donaldson said.

Indeed, the A's have retained much of the same roster from 2012, minus a handful of key pieces in Brandon McCarthy, Jonny Gomes and Chris Carter. But the team's additions, it seems, outweigh those losses, as proven players Chris Young and Jed Lowrie have joined the mix and only upgraded an already well-rounded lineup. So has catcher John Jaso, who will work with one of the league's best pitching staffs.

There's plenty of reasons these A's enter camp boasting a heap of optimism. That's the way their manager, Bob Melvin, likes it.

"I think we proved last year that if we do things in the right fashion, we have a chance to win," Melvin said. "We're the defending division champs, and I think if you ask other teams within our division if they're worried about us, there's probably some that will say yes based on what we did last year."

Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 11

Full squad reports

Feb. 16

First Spring Training game

at Brewers, Feb. 23 at 12:05 p.m. PT

Opening Day

vs. Mariners, April 1 at 7:05 p.m. PT

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Who will play second base?
As many as five candidates will be given looks at second base in camp, with Lowrie adding to a competition that before was headlined by Jemile Weeks and Scott Sizemore. Adam Rosales, most likely primed more for a utility role, and prospect Grant Green, still awaiting his first big league opportunity, will also receive plenty of at-bats at the position, which was Weeks' to lose at this time last year. That's exactly what happened in August, as Weeks endured a sophomore slump following his promising rookie campaign, forcing the A's to think twice about their long-term plan at second base.

Oakland's front-office faces are hopeful Weeks can regain his starting job, but they're also high on Sizemore, who will return to his natural position after spending all of 2012 on the disabled list while recovering from knee surgery. By camp's end, though, it may be Lowrie -- who owns plenty of pop for a middle infielder -- penciled in to the Opening Day lineup.

2. How will Hiroyuki Nakajima adjust to Major League Baseball?
Nakajima, signed to a two-year deal worth $6.5 million in December, is expected to hold down everyday shortstop duties for the A's, following his departure from Japan's Pacific League, in which he averaged 20.5 home runs per 162 games -- along with a .310 average and .381 on-base percentage -- since 2007. Those are impressive numbers, as are his defensive skills, but how they translate to the Majors remains to be seen. Should Nakajima not pan out as the A's hope, they now at least have Lowrie, a natural at shortstop, as a legitimate backup option.

3. Can the A's repeat their 2012 success?
They say yes, but only time will tell whether they're equipped to duplicate the remarkable season that was 2012, and the real answer won't come until long after Spring Training has concluded. Still, camp will offer the first glimpse at the AL West defending champions and how they fare against some of their division opponents, including the Angels and Rangers.

2012 record
94-68, first in AL West

Projected batting order
1. CF Coco Crisp:
  .259 BA, .325 OBP, .418 SLG, 11 HR, 46 RBIs in 2012
2. C John Jaso:
  .276 BA, .394 OBP, .456 SLG, 10 HR, 50 RBIs in 2012
3. LF Yoenis Cespedes:
  .292 BA, .356 OBP, .505 SLG, 23 HR, 82 RBIs in 2012
4. 1B Brandon Moss:
  .291 BA, .358 OBP, .596 SLG, 21 HR, 52 RBIs in 2012
5. DH Seth Smith:
  .240 BA, .333 OBP, .420 SLG, 14 HR, 52 RBIs in 2012
6. RF Josh Reddick:
  .242 BA, .305 OBP, .463 SLG, 32 HR, 85 RBIs in 2012
7. 2B Jed Lowrie:
  .244 BA, .331 OBP, .438 SLG, 16 HR, 42 RBIs in 2012
8. 3B Josh Donaldson:
  .241 BA, .289 OBP, .398 SLG, 9 HR, 33 RBIs in 2012
9. SS Hiroyuki Nakajima:
  .311 BA, .382 OBP, .451 SLG, 13 HR, 74 RBIs in 2012 for Seibu Lions (Japan Pacific League)

Projected rotation
1. LHP Brett Anderson, 4-2, 2.57 ERA in 2012
2. RHP Jarrod Parker, 13-8, 3.47 ERA in 2012
3. RHP Bartolo Colon, 10-9, 3.43 ERA in 2012
4. LHP Tommy Milone, 13-10, 3.74 ERA in 2012
5. RHP A.J. Griffin, 7-1, 3.06 ERA in 2012

Projected bullpen
Closer: Grant Balfour, 24/26 saves, 2.53 ERA in 2012
RH setup man: Ryan Cook, 2.09 ERA in 2012
LH setup man: Sean Doolittle, 3.04 ERA in 2012

The new guys

C Jaso: After eying him for years, Beane finally reeled in Jaso via a three-team trade in January, acquiring the catcher from the Mariners in a trade that resulted in prospect A.J. Cole's return to the Nationals. Jaso brings with him a productive left-handed bat and an innate ability to get on base, making him a prime candidate to hit behind leadoff spark Coco Crisp when in the lineup. He's expected to start the season in a platoon role with Derek Norris behind the plate.

INF Lowrie: Brought over in a five-player deal from the Astros that sent Carter to Houston, Lowrie solidifies Oakland's otherwise relatively inexperienced infield. He can play four infield positions and is expected to see time at each of them this season, while also providing Melvin's lineup with an added dose of pop.

OF Young: Months before Lowrie was brought aboard, the A's engaged in yet another three-team trade with the D-backs and Marlins that netted Young, a speedy outfielder who gives the club protection in all three outfield spots, along with the designated hitter slot. The plan is for Young, who has averaged 25 home runs per 162 games in his career, to garner starts in each of the four positions on a regular basis.

Prospects to watch

RHP Sonny Gray: Gray, who spent much of 2012 at Double-A Midland before earning a well-deserved promotion to Triple-A Sacramento just before season's end, is thought to be near Major League ready, and this 2011 first-round Draft pick will be given a long look in camp to determine just how close he is to a callup. Gray is likely to start the year at Sacramento, but an injury or two at the big league level could have him in Oakland by the All-Star break.

SS Addison Russell: The A's are so enamored by Russell, their 2012 first-round Draft pick, that they invited him to big league camp, even though the offer was not included in his contract. The 19-year-old shortstop, the only member of the A's organization represented in this year's MLB.com Top 100 Prospects list, was promoted twice in just a few months after being drafted last year and appears to be on the fast track, with many in the league expecting his Major League arrival as soon as 2015.

OF Michael Choice: Oakland's outfield is far too crowded for the addition of Choice at the moment, but his bat -- his ticket to the big leagues -- is still worth keeping an eye on during camp. Choice will start the season at Triple-A, and a productive and healthy season with the River Cats could have the A's including this outfielder in plans for 2014.

INF Green: Drafted by the A's in the first round of the 2009 Draft, Green will enter his fourth Spring Training with the big league club, and this stands to be his most important, as a good showing could finally lead to a promotion at the start of the season or soon after. Green, though, is part of a crowded crop of infielders, so he has his work cut out for him.

On the rebound

1B Daric Barton: Following a handful of inconsistent and unproductive seasons, Barton has quickly fallen out of favor with the A's, who seem to have moved on with Brandon Moss. The first baseman was tendered a $1.1 million contract this winter, but it's not guaranteed, meaning Barton could be let go in camp should he not wow the front office and gain another opportunity at the big league level.

RHP Bartolo Colon: While enjoying a resurgent season with the A's, Colon tested positive for testosterone last August and was suspended for 50 games. Still, his leadership presence on the mound and in the clubhouse was so missed by the team that Beane opted to bring back Colon, who is expected to slot into the middle of the A's rotation after serving the final five games of his suspension.

INF Sizemore: After missing all of 2012 after sustaining a season-ending knee injury on the first day of spring workouts last year, Sizemore is healthy and ready to make an impact in the infield, whether at second base -- where he'll enter battle with Weeks and Lowrie, among others -- or third base, his primary spot in 2011 before Donaldson overtook those duties upon Sizemore's injury.

2B Weeks: The 26-year-old has much to prove if he wants his everyday job at second base back, after hitting just .220 over 113 games before being demoted to Triple-A last year. It won't be easy, though, as Weeks is no longer viewed as the club's lone option at the position, as Sizemore, Lowrie, Rosales and Green will also be considered.

Classic departures

LHP Pedro Figueroa: The southpaw will represent the Dominican Republic alongside a star-studded cast of peers that includes Adrian Beltre, Robinson Cano and Jose Reyes, among others, in the World Baseball Classic. The reliever made 19 appearances for the A's in 2012, compiling a 3.32 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings as a rookie.

The Dominican Republic is in the Puerto Rico bracket with Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Spain, and it opens against Venezuela at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan on March 7.

Long gone

RHP McCarthy: The A's Opening Day starter last year, McCarthy left Oakland as a free agent for an opportunity with the D-backs, who awarded the right-hander with a two-year contract totaling $15.5 million.

OF/DH Gomes: Oakland's clubhouse ringleader in 2012 will take his leadership skills to the Red Sox, who took the boisterous outfielder/designated hitter off the free-agent market in December by way of a two-year, $10 million deal.

SSs Stephen Drew/Cliff Pennington: The A's used five shortstops in 2012, but it was Drew and Pennington who spent the most time at the position, and both have since departed. Drew received plenty of interest as a free agent, and although the A's attempted to re-sign the shortstop, he opted to join Gomes in Boston, where he will make $9.5 million as part of a one-year contract. Pennington, meanwhile, was dealt early in the winter to Arizona -- alongside Collin Cowgill -- in the trade that sent Young to Oakland.

1B/DH Carter: His big bat made the move from Oakland to Houston this week, as the A's were forced to give up the power-hitting first baseman/DH in order to acquire Lowrie's services from the Astros.

Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, and follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.