PHOENIX -- Never before has Jack Cust arrived at spring training secure in his standing with a major-league team.

So it's no wonder the A's designated hitter was in a jovial mood as he showed up Sunday to Papago Park Baseball Complex and joined his teammates for batting practice.

Cust, 29, has been part of a major league Opening Day roster just once in his 11-year professional career -- in 2004 with the Baltimore Orioles. But after getting traded to the A's in May of last season and leading the team with 26 homers and 82 RBI, Cust is a central figure in the team's plans for 2008.

Before last season, he had appeared in just 70 major-league games spread across four different organizations.

"It's cool," Cust said. "It feels like home. Last year when I came in, the guys treated me good. This year, with all the new faces, I'm going to try to make the other guys feel as comfortable as they made me feel."

Cust's offseason took a rocky turn when his name surfaced in the Mitchell Report, linking him to steroid use. He's denied ever using performance-enhancing substances.

The negative publicity didn't prevent Cust from enjoying what he said was the best offseason he's ever had in terms of preparation.

"I'm definitely in a situation I've never been in," he said. "It's a little bit easier to work (because) I knew where I was going."

Cust and most of the A's other position players already are in camp, though their mandatory reporting date isn't until Wednesday. Among the notables yet to arrive are third baseman Eric Chavez and shortstop Bobby Crosby.

Chavez lives in nearby Paradise Valley, Ariz., and visited Papago Park a few days ago.

Familiar surroundings

In Kirk Saarloos' previous stint with the A's, he was a swing guy capable of starting or filling a need in the bullpen. He won't be picky about how he's used if he makes the 25-man roster this spring.

The right-hander signed a minor-league deal in January and was invited to big-league camp. His experience would seem to make him a strong candidate for the fifth starter's spot, but he faces lots of competition.

"I know what I'm getting into," Saarloos said. "If they look at me as a starter, which I'd like to do, perfect. If they look at me in a role like I did before, so be it."

Saarloos was 19-17 in 70 appearances (48 starts) with the A's from 2004-06. In January 2007, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, who tried to use him in late-inning relief. Saarloos never took to it, posting a 7.17 ERA in 34 appearances overall.

In choosing a fifth starter, manager Bob Geren said he would consider a pitcher's past body of work, but he also wants to see them produce this spring.

"I like it to be a fresh slate," Geren said. "I know (Saarloos) is going to throw strikes and he's got a lot of confidence on the mound."

Short hops

Outfielder Ryan Sweeney -- one of three players obtained from the White Sox in the Nick Swisher deal -- found his way to Phoenix for camp, but it was an adventure. His 21-hour drive from his home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, included an overnight stay in Wichita, Kan., and a three-hour road delay for an ice storm in New Mexico. He arrived in Phoenix on Saturday night and was on the field Sunday. ... Right-hander Chad Gaudin, coming off left hip and right foot surgery, ran sprints Sunday. He's scheduled to throw off a mound for the first time March 1. ... Geren is eager to get a look at promising young right-hander Henry Rodriguez, whose first workout was Sunday after he arrived late due to visa problems. "I'm anxious to see him throw," Geren said. "He's an incredible young talent. He's supposed to throw close to 100 (mph)." Rodriguez pitched for low Single-A Kane County (Ill.) in 2007.

-- Joe Stiglich