By John Donovan, SI.com
Player I Saw Whom I Really Liked
I know this might be a little obvious, but on the day I spent at Phoenix Municipal Stadium to see the A's, lefty Barry Zito was all but unhittable. When he gets that big bender going -- and, boy, did he have it going last Sunday -- even the best hitter's knees get to buckling. Zito will need that curve and more this season as he becomes the unquestioned ace on Oakland's staff. With the departure of Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, it's going to be up to the 26-year-old Zito to lead a young, but possibly very good, starting staff against some nasty lineups in the American League West. Against the sans-Barry Bonds Giants on this day, Zito gave up a bouncer over the mound, a single off a 1-2 curveball and a broken bat single, all of them harmless. His only mistake came when he left a fastball over the plate that Deivi Cruz hit for a homer with two outs in the sixth. It was one impressive afternoon for Zito, who acknowledged after the game that he has some learning to do. "I think I have to get used to facing their No. 1 guy," he said. "It doesn't happen too often [with different rotations], but it's definitely something I have to get used to." Zito didn't fare nearly as well Friday, when he gave up five hits, five walks, hit a batter and coughed up five runs in four innings against the Padres. That was too reminiscent of 2004, when a streaky Zito went 11-11 with a 4.48 ERA and looked nothing like the guy who won the Cy Young in '02 (23-5, 2.75 ERA). I'm betting Zito will be a lot closer to '02 than '04 this season. He's the man now, the elder statesman on the team, and he's clearly relishing the opportunity.
Team's biggest strengths
For years, the starting pitching was this team's strength. But now it's the bullpen, even after a season in which it blew an AL-worst 28 saves. Octavio Dotel, despite showing a lack of pop on his fastball this spring, still has a lot of action on his pitches and now he's familiar with the closer role. Dotel has a little heat on him this year, too, which might help him bear down. Youngster Huston Street, who throws a live fastball in the mid-90s, may be the closer in waiting. The A's bullpen also has depth, with Justin Duchscherer, Kiko Calero (obtained from the Cardinals in the trade for Mulder), lefty Ricardo Rincon, new live arm Juan Cruz (from the Braves for Hudson) and some other guys who won't make the starting five. Other strengths include the defense, especially the left side on the infield, Mark Kotsay and Eric Byrnes in the outfield and catcher Jason Kendall.
Team's biggest weakness
This team could use another big bopper -- Eric Chavez is the main guy -- but the A's have enough decent-sized boppers to be at least middle-of-the-road there. What should scare A's fans most is the team's youth, especially in the rotation. After Zito the Elder, you're looking at Rich Harden (23 years old), Danny Haren (24), Joe Blanton (24) and Dan Meyer (23). Oakland likes them all, and they all have shown they have the stuff. But wow, that's showing a lot of faith. Not that the small-revenue A's have much else to go on at this point.
Manager Ken Macha loves his defense, and spent 15 minutes with me before a workout extolling the virtues of center fielder Kotsay, who has a monster arm. Kotsay, as Macha is quick to point out, has more outfield assists (92) than anyone since 1998. More than Vlad Guerrero (87). ... This doesn't hold true for every team, but the A's are a perfect example of a bunch of guys reflecting the image of their general manager. Billy Beane shows up, as he so often does, to workouts in shorts, an aloha shirt and sandals. And his loosey-goosey team follows his lead. ... Macha may never be accused of being wild and free, but he has a funny side to him. After a recent road trip to Tucson, he instructed the team bus to pull into a Dairy Queen, where everybody -- in full uniform -- made like Little Leaguers. "I got the biggest Blizzard I could get, $7," said rookie Nick Swisher. "Chocolate-chip cookie dough." ... Miguel Tejada used to be the player who kept this clubhouse fired up. That job now falls to Dotel, a high-strung but carefree guy who everybody on this team seems to like. ... Phoenix Muni, as I've said before, doesn't have the amenities that many of the newer Spring Training digs in Arizona have. Not a lot of restaurants around, no great views of majestic mountain ranges in the distance, no quirky food items on the menu. But for pure baseball, and a beautiful view of Papago Park's red rock formations from the first-base side of the stadium, give me Muni anytime.