I don’t know if you noticed two things, but the Oakland A’s with their ragtag, no-name pitching staff and always-youthful roster somehow stumbled their way to an 81-81 (.500) record last season in the suddenly wide-open American League West.

Keep in mind it’s probably only going to take 85 wins to take this division anyway and the A’s are the most improved. Also, keep in mind that every year there is a small market club that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Last year the Reds, my pre-season Wild Card pick, exceeded even my expectations by winning the NL Central. Consider the A’s this year’s Reds.


Series of small, under-the-radar calculated moves

While I can’t name five members of their 2010 roster, 2011 is shaping up very nicely with a series of under-the-radar, well calculated moves. First, the team stole David DeJesus from the perpetually inept Kansas City Royals in a move that got zero publicity. This despite the fact that before his injury, DeJesus was not just a hot trading-deadline name that ultimately didn’t get moved, but one with a solid on base percentage, adequate defense and a .309 batting average.

If you’re thinking its simply a “meh” move, one where the small-market A’s always hope to be finding treasure in someone else’s trash, this move allowed them to swing speedster Rajai Davis to the Toronto Blue Jays so early in the off season (about three days after the World Series it seemed). I wonder how many of you caught that?

While that is a tremendous move, adding much needed speed to the power-hitting Jays lineup, this article is about the A’s and the smart moves they are making, so we’ll stick to that.

Next, they extended starting pitcher Trevor Cahill and cherry-picked Hideki Matsui from the division rival (and fading) Los Angeles Angels in a shrewd move that directly makes them weaker and gives Matsui a 1 year, $4.25M deal.

The move reminded me of the Florida Marlins’ “special money.” They seem to come up with that one big player every few offseasons, one big score they think will make all the difference. In the past, it’s been Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Delgado, and this year, Javier Vazquez, using money saved from the Dan Uggla trade.

Not only is Matsui still productive (21 HRS, 84 RBI last year), but he fits perfectly in a lineup that’s lost only Jack Cust to the irrelevant Seattle Mariners and to which Matsui is an obvious upgrade.

The move was also reminiscent of a typical Tampa Bay Rays “budget” move, like when they brought in Jose Canseco for that one stellar year or Pat Burrell, who blew up in their faces. These were veterans looking for maybe one more paycheck, only I think Matsui will be around for a couple more years, albeit on one-year deals, hopefully with Oakland.

In similar action that would make the witness-protection program envious, the team quietly rolled the dice on struggling starter Rich Harden, reuniting the once promising player with his original organization, where he made his name and had success. While it’s eerily similar to the 2009 Ben Sheets signing fiasco, it’s got to cost less than the $10M bust Sheets turned out to be.

Then the A’s filled another hole with a recognizable name, obtaining the highly coveted and versatile Josh Willingham from the Nationals in a curious move, considering Washington’s insistence to move a solid player.

2011 moves in sum, to date

In sum, the thrifty and calculating A’s have added the following in patch-work (budget) fashion:

One starting pitcher (Harden) that one might say replaces the Sheets experiment

One DH to Matsui to replace Cust (net gain)

Two outfielders in DeJesus and Willingham to replace one in Davis (thereby adding depth)

All that’s missing, one might suggest, is bullpen arms, but they seemed to do fine (ERA) last year

Here is their starting lineup (I had to look up their 1B, SS, and CF, which demonstrates how anonymous they were last year)

1B Daric Barton

2B Mark Ellis

SS Cliff Pennington

3B Kevin Kouzmanoff

DH Matsui

LF Josh Willingham

RF David DeJesus

CF Coco Crisp

Their rotation is: (didn’t know starters 2-4) 

SP Trevor Cahill (ace 18-8 last year)

SP Gio Gonzalez (15-9 last year)

SP Dallas Braden (11-14)

SP Brett Anderson (7-6 last year)

SP Harden

Divisional rivals Angels, Rangers fading, leaving it open for A’s to take

While the Red Sox and the Phillies have stolen all the headlines for their flashy moves, others like the Yankee$ and Angels have for their lack of moves.

Keep in mind, this division includes the Mariners, whom everyone is going to beat up on to the tune of 90+ losses for them again. Then there’s the fading Angels, who lost Matsui and for whom free agents apparently no longer want to sign with, leaving them a team of Kendry Morales and Torii Hunter and a bunch of nobodies. Lastly, there’s the Texas Rangers, who not only lost Cliff Lee, but even if they were to replace him with Carl Pavano, it’s a net loss overall, leaving the division wide-open for the A’s to take because they earned it with these good moves.

The Angels lost out on Carl Crawford, the #1 player they coveted. With the weather Southern California provides, the solid management of Mike Scoscia, deep-pocketed ownership of well-respected Arte Moreno and the friendship of Torii Hunter, the Angels likely would have had enough to land him in seasons past.

Not this time.

Not in a crazy offseason where we see the Nationals, Orioles, and Brewers actively pursuing big name free agents or players via trade, adding payroll to the point where they are doing more than the Yankee$, Angel$, Cardinals, Mets, or Cubs to date.

This has a hint of the 1980’s all over again, when the Brewers, A’s, and Orioles were good and the Yankees? Not so much.


Just sayin’…..

One final thought: if the Yankees somehow manage to steal the Wild card after praying that Andy Pettite comes back so they can have 3/5 of a dependable rotation (CC, Hughes, and him) minus the enigma Burnett, we are going to need the tiny A’s to have a solid season and represent the underdog small markets in the playoffs. That is, if the Chicago White Sox actually win the Central, which I have doubts about.

Information from ESPN and ESPN.com directly contributed to the content of this article.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com