They began the winter with a nice wad of cash to spend, only to find their money was hard to give away.

But even as the A's have been denied in their pursuit of their top free agent targets, there's reason for fans to be encouraged with spring training less than five weeks away.

Take a look at the offseason moves that have -- or haven't -- been made around the American League West, and Oakland hasn't exactly lost ground to its division rivals. Indeed, the A's are in pretty nice shape.

Defending AL champion Texas signed third baseman Adrian Beltre, who repeatedly stiff-armed the A's and their overtures, but the Rangers lost ace Cliff Lee to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Los Angeles Angels' additions so far consist of relievers Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi, and they have yet to address offensive shortcomings.

The Seattle Mariners were 61-101 last season and will simply try steadying themselves under new manager Eric Wedge.

Oakland was spurned by free agent hitters Beltre and Lance Berkman but added designated hitter Hideki Matsui (via free agency) and outfielders David DeJesus and Josh Willingham (via trade).

None of those moves sent shock waves through the majors. But with the emergence of the A's young rotation in 2010, even moderate improvement offensively could make a difference in 2011.

"I like what Oakland has done, I really do," said a major league scout who requested anonymity. "I'm a big DeJesus fan. I think he's one of the most underrated players in the game. Their pitching staff, of course, is going to carry them. I think those guys are going to maintain or, if anything, get better."


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Still, all enthusiasm should be tempered.

A's general manager Billy Beane talks highly of the depth on his roster, key for a team that's been ravaged by injuries since 2007. But all five projected outfielders missed major time last season with health problems, including DeJesus (right thumb) and Willingham (left knee).

Can Willingham, who hit 102 homers in five full National League seasons, adjust to AL pitchers as well as the tough hitting conditions at the Oakland Coliseum?

Elbow problems landed left-hander Brett Anderson on the DL twice last season, and All-Star closer Andrew Bailey is coming off minor elbow surgery that cut short his season.

Also, the aforementioned scout, while praising the A's moves this winter, still feels they lack a pure power bat.

But the hitters the A's have imported are a welcome sight to starting pitcher Trevor Cahill.

"I've always been a big fan of DeJesus," Cahill said. "I always thought he was a tough out. I think Matsui was a guy we needed -- an RBI guy, and he's always been a clutch guy."

Matsui gives the A's a credible middle-of-the-lineup presence. Just as important, he's a free agent hitter who embraced coming to Oakland. The team reportedly offered Beltre as much as six years and $76 million and also courted Berkman heavily, only to watch Berkman sign with St. Louis.

Beane has contended the Coliseum -- widely regarded as an outdated venue -- drives players away. However, two agents -- who each have represented major leaguers for many years -- said the A's stadium gets overblown as a factor that's kept many free agents away.

"What is frustrating for them is that none of them believe that they can win (with the A's)," said one agent, requesting anonymity. "A lot of players potentially are only going there to get their money. You look at Minnesota, other small-market teams, and they don't have that attitude. They go in thinking, 'We can win this thing' "... and players don't feel that way in Oakland."

It's worth noting the Minnesota Twins no longer spend like a small-market team since they moved into a new ballpark, Target Field, last season. Their payroll soared past $100 million in 2010.

The A's -- who went 81-81 last year and haven't posted a winning record since 2006 -- have just $41,947,500 committed to their 2011 payroll, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. That's after they agreed with free agent reliever Grant Balfour to a two-year, $8.1 million deal Friday.

And the A's might not be done fortifying their bullpen. They're known to be eyeing lefty reliever Brian Fuentes.

Oakland still has to negotiate salaries for five players eligible for arbitration -- pitchers Dallas Braden and Craig Breslow; third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff; and outfielders Willingham and Conor Jackson -- so the payroll could easily increase beyond last year's $58,304,900.

Cahill believes the A's are strong enough to compete with defending division champ Texas even without more additions.

"They've got Nelson Cruz batting sixth. They're a good ballclub," Cahill said. —... But our attitude is we can hang with these guys. We're not going to get 30 homers out of our sixth spot. But we'll score runs when we need them and pitch and play defense."

Note: The A's avoided arbitration with reliever Brad Ziegler, agreeing to a one-year, $1.25 million deal.

new faces
A look at who the A's have added and subtracted this offseason:
WHO'S IN
RHP Grant Balfour*
OF David DeJesus
RHP Rich Harden
DH Hideki Matsui
RHP Brandon McCarthy
OF Josh Willingham
WHO'S OUT
OF Travis Buck
3B Eric Chavez
DH Jack Cust
OF Rajai Davis
RHP Justin Duchscherer
OF Gabe Gross
RHP Vin Mazzaro**
RHP Henry Rodriguez**
RHP Ben Sheets
* Balfour's signing is pending a physical
** Mazzaro sent to Royals in trade for DeJesus. Rodriguez sent to Nationals in trade for Willingham.