The company line has not changed.

The A's still talk of the future, of building around their core of young players and setting the table for long-term success.

But take stock of the moves they've made this offseason, and it's obvious they also see a nice opportunity in 2009.

Rather than ship off veteran players as they did last winter, the A's instead imported established stars Matt Holliday and Jason Giambi.

Last season, A's fans were cautioned to show patience with a youthful team that eventually stumbled to a 75-86 record. But as pitchers and catchers report to camp Saturday, the feeling this spring — inside and outside the organization — is that the A's can contend in the American League West.

"It's probably a bit much to expect their young (pitching) to carry the load, but it wouldn't surprise me, if Oakland is a sleeper this year," one major league scout said.

At the same time, there's a possibility the two-time defending AL West champion Los Angeles Angels come back to the pack after losing impact players such as closer Francisco Rodriguez and first baseman Mark Teixeira this offseason.

Asked recently whether his team was equipped to win the division this season, A's manager Bob Geren listed the Angels as the clear favorites but expressed confidence in his club.

"I think if our starting pitching threw strikes and was very aggressive — all of them met or exceeded what they did last year — and we stay healthy "... we definitely could" win the division, Geren said. "But it's like the last couple years, we have to stay healthy."


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Any improvement on 75-86 has to begin with the offense. The A's ranked last in the majors in 2008 in batting average (.242) and slugging percentage (.369), and last in the AL in on-base percentage (.318) and runs (646).

Enter Holliday — the left fielder acquired from Colorado for outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and pitchers Greg Smith and Huston Street — and Giambi, a first baseman/DH signed as a free agent .

The A's have acknowledged that Holliday, who is represented by Scott Boras and can become a free agent at season's end, could be traded by the July 31 deadline if the team isn't in contention.

But returning A's players are excited about the impact they think Holliday and Giambi can have over a full season.

"I think we've got a legitimate shot," said Ryan Sweeney, slated to shift from right field to center this season. "Obviously, everybody's goal is to win the World Series. But I think first and foremost we're going to be right up there in the AL West."

But despite their need to improve offensively, the A's biggest question mark entering camp is their starting rotation. Ace Justin Duchscherer is coming back from right hip surgery for the second straight year, and promising right-hander Sean Gallagher missed time late in 2008 with shoulder fatigue.

Left-hander Dana Eveland has made all of 35 career starts, and that qualifies him as the rotation's most experienced member. Geren has mentioned left-hander Dallas Braden as a front-runner for another rotation spot. Fellow lefties Gio Gonzalez and Josh Outman, with 16 career major league appearances between them, are among those in the mix for the fifth spot.

In a show of confidence for the starting staff — not to mention a hotshot group of pitching prospects considered close to being big-league ready — the A's have not signed a starter in free agency.

General manager Billy Beane said this winter that he'd rather rely on talented, young arms for his rotation than overpay a free agent. In contrast, he's supplemented the bullpen by adding veterans Russ Springer (via free agency) and Michael Wuertz (via trade).

"I'm excited that Billy has decided to stick with the young (rotation) he has, because I felt like we deserved it," Eveland said. "I felt like all of our young guys really threw the ball well last season. So why not?"

If third baseman Eric Chavez and second baseman Mark Ellis make prolonged healthy returns, the A's will offer a seasoned group of starters around the diamond.

The daily lineup (including DH) should feature just three of nine position players with fewer than two years' experience — Sweeney, catcher Kurt Suzuki and either first baseman Daric Barton or right fielder Travis Buck, depending on how Geren platoons his players.

When camp opens next weekend, the A's will begin blending their youth and experience to see if what they come up with can meet expectations — expectations that would have seemed unrealistic just a year ago.

Contact Joe Stiglich at jstiglic@bayareanewsgroup.com.