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Oakland Athletics' starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy throws against the Seattle Mariners during the fourth inning of a game at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011. McCarthy blanked the Mariners and allowed three hits in the A's 3-0 win. (Ray Chavez/Staff)

All discussion about the A's ultimately revolves around their future -- the team they hope to build and the ballpark in which they hope to play.

But as pitchers and catchers report to camp Saturday in Phoenix, another topic moves to the forefront:

What should we expect from this 2012 team?

You would be challenged to find a club with more unknowns than the A's as they begin spring training. And the consensus outside the organization is this team will take its lumps.

"What we are in anybody's mind is pretty inconsequential," starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy said. "It's just a matter of what we do on an everyday basis and how we come together as a group that will define where we go.

"We have the potential to be a 60-win team and the potential to be a 90-win team."

There is no doubt which of those two extremes seems more realistic.

The A's traded three All-Star pitchers in Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey, and they are counting on a crop of inexperienced arms to help fill the void. They ranked 12th in the American League in runs last season and watched Josh Willingham, the team leader in home runs and RBIs, depart via free agency.

Even with the likely addition of much-hyped Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes -- who has agreed to a four-year contract pending the completion of paperwork -- and the possible signing of Manny Ramirez, there are concerns about the A's ability to generate offense.


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With two-time defending division champion Texas Rangers signing standout Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish and the Los Angeles Angels breaking the bank to add slugger Albert Pujols and All-Star left-hander C.J. Wilson, the odds are stacked against the A's to remain relevant in the A.L. West.

"I think the biggest issue for me is scoring runs," said one major league scout, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They don't really have a power threat or middle-of-the-order run-producer."

General manager Billy Beane is stressing down-the-road vision, saying that the prospects acquired from this winter's trades eventually will pay off as the team waits for approval to build a new stadium in San Jose.

But manager Bob Melvin -- entering his first full season on the job -- is intent on drilling home the message that 2012 is not a throwaway season.

"This is the big leagues," Melvin said, "and in the big leagues you're expected to win. At the end of the day, that's what it's all about. And that's what we're going to be all about."

For the A's to have any chance at surprising people, they need to identify two starters to fill out the rotation -- three if left-hander Dallas Braden misses extended time as he returns from shoulder surgery.

McCarthy and Bartolo Colon are penciled into two of the rotation spots, and Melvin expects Braden back by late April. Brett Anderson also is expected to miss at least the first half of the season while recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery.

But at least two starters have to emerge from a group that includes Graham Godfrey, Tyson Ross and newcomers Tom Milone, Jarrod Parker and Brad Peacock, all obtained in offseason trades. Those five have made a combined 20 major league starts.

Pitching coach Curt Young, back with Oakland after spending 2011 with Boston, is familiar with breaking in young pitchers. In 2009, he helped Anderson and Cahill ease into starting roles as rookies. Gonzalez also cut his teeth with them.

"Those were young guys who established themselves in a hurry," Young said. —... Hopefully we can help these guys and make them understand what they need to do and help them get to the level that those guys got to that quick."

The A's also must find a closer after Bailey's trade to Boston. Grant Balfour, Fautino De Los Santos, Joey Devine and Brian Fuentes are the leading candidates.

As for the batting order, Melvin isn't sure what it will look like.

"I've got a notepad with more lineups than I've ever written out," he said.

Melvin would like switch hitters Jemile Weeks and Coco Crisp hitting back-to-back atop the lineup. The bigger issue is who will fill the heart of the order.

Left fielder Seth Smith, obtained from Colorado, hit .284 with 15 homers and 59 RBIs last season. He might hit third. Josh Reddick, who came over from the Red Sox, is slated for right field, but the outfield figures to shuffle if and when Cespedes enters the fold.

The designated hitter spot also is up for grabs, which is why Ramirez remains an option. Chris Carter, whose power has yet to translate to the big leagues, Brandon Allen, Jonny Gomes and Kila Ka'aihue are all D.H. candidates. All besides Gomes will battle at first base, along with Daric Barton.