As the A’s get ready to officially begin the 2011 season on Sunday, a few questions still circulate around this club, but the optimism remains high. With a fresh season and healed players, the A’s are starting to take the shape of a complete ball club, but as it goes for all teams, spring training is in place for a reason.

After an offseason of smart moves, from boosting the offense to bolstering the bullpen, the bar has been set high for this 2011 A’s team, but only time will tell what’s going to happen and how they can live up to their own goals.

Here’s a few things going in A’s camp so far: 

The biggest question of this time for the A’s is clearly the battle for the fifth spot in their pitching rotation, which seemed to be regarded by a few as Rich Harden’s job to lose, but doesn’t seem the case any more.

After being shut down with stiffness in his arm last Thursday and initially expected to miss two weeks, Harden is pain-free for the most part, but there is no timeline for his return.

The A’s will almost undoubtedly not rush Harden back in, but with competition for that fifth spot, it might not be a good thing, at least for Harden. 

Tyson Ross, a former Cal and Team USA star who opened last season in the A’s bullpen, commanded the attention of anyone within earshot during his side session on Monday.

“I wasn’t even there, but I heard about it,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “He was blowing, like, 97, 98 mph.”

Many scouts warned that Ross would have future problems with his upright delivery, but with a few changes, the results have been impressive.

Another candidate, Joey Devine, who hasn’t thrown since 2008 (42 games, 0.59 ERA), threw a 30-pitch bullpen session last week, and seemed to be making substantial progress.

“You add Joey to what we already have in the bullpen, it’s like, ‘Wow,’” coach Tye Walller said. “Talk about shortening the game.”

Josh Outman, who last pitched in 2009, seemed to still have his stuff from that injury-shortened season, according to on-hand observers, who watched his bullpen session.

“I’m ready to make the call right now. As long as he is healthy, Josh Outman will win that job, keep it, and thrive in it,” Waller said.

Whatever the outcome, the A’s have a couple of solid choices to look through, and assuming Rich Harden can stay healthy through the rest of spring training, it might be his spot, due to experience. The A’s staff is still clearly high on Harden, despite his injury-prone tenure with Oakland, and if anyone can turn a pitcher around, it’s Ron Romanick.

As highly anticipated, Hideki Matsui made his appearance at A’s camp earlier this week, and before even being introduced to the team, had a commercial to film.

Following that, while being followed by dozens of Japanese media, Matsui’s first significant interaction was with Dallas Braden, the “team clown” who had a six-foot inflatable Godzilla doll dressed in a Matsui jersey placed in front of Matsui’s locker. When Matsui saw it himself, the tension disappeared.

That wasn’t Braden’s only highlight of the week, as almost everything he seemed to do this week embodied the entire character of this team, even after last season’s disappointment.

During Friday’s intrasquad game, Coco Crisp decided to get comical and mess with Braden. How?

As Crisp took into the batter’s box for his at-bat, the laughs arose, as the team realized he had taped “A-Rod” onto the back of his jersey. In a friendly response, Braden threw behind Crisp—several feet behind him.

For those who don’t remember, Braden’s first interaction wasn’t too friendly, to say the least, with A-Rod, after he “deliberately” crossed his mound last season. Braden didn’t like it. Either way, that’s the past, and the present just involves a couple of comedians, at least in their minds, lightening up the mood around camp.

Nothing will come easy for Bob Geren this season, and with Adam Rosales still ailing from foot surgery in December, Geren will have to find another option beyond Cliff Pennington as a backup SS and utility-type player.

The main candidates at this point appear to be familiar faces Eric Sogard and Steve Tolleson, along with newcomer Andy LaRoche and highly regarded Double-A prospect Josh Horton. Top prospect Grant Green is sure to demand some attention from fans for the spot as well, but the A’s would like to start him in the minors again this year so as to allow him time to continue improving defensively.

Geren mentioned Sogard, Tolleson and LaRoche will see the majority of action at shortstop this spring while Pennington, still recovering from left shoulder surgery, continues to rehab.

Geren has expressed how impressed he’s been by Josh Willingham, and what he’s shown throughout spring workouts so far.

“He has one of the better right-handed approaches I’ve ever seen,” he said. “He has that kind of style that leads to the most consistency. If you’re going to teach a right-handed style, you’d look to his to do so.”


Other News and Notes

As expected, Trevor Cahill was announced as the Opening Day starter, but the rest of the rotation has yet to be announced.

Michael Wuertz, who sat out Tuesday due to minor shoulder problems, is likely to begin throwing again Saturday or Sunday.

Ryan Sweeney won’t likely see any time in the outfield according to Geren, giving his surgically-repaired knee more time to heal.

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