OAKLAND -- You can make a case that the A's will finish last in the American League West this year. That's where they finished last season.

At the same time, throwing Oakland to the bottom of the heap might be selling the team quite a bit short.

Of the 15 teams in the A.L., perhaps none is more of a mystery than the A's. This team was destroyed by its bullpen last year, losing 31 games while finishing last in the big leagues in saves and save percentage.

The good karma that is usually found in the A's clubhouse dissolved, and the goal over the winter was to rebuild the chemistry.

It was a season in which almost everything that could have gone wrong did. And it stung.

Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Chris Bassitt (40) pitches against the San Francisco Giants in the first inning of an exhibition game at AT&T Park in
Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Chris Bassitt (40) pitches against the San Francisco Giants in the first inning of an exhibition game at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, March 31, 2016. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group) ( Josie Lepe )

"When you lose as much as we did last year, you're not going to have a good clubhouse," right fielder Josh Reddick said. "But I like the clubhouse we have now. I think we all do."

The 2015 A's relied on their starting pitching, and it fared reasonably well. Although the starters were a combined 47-63, their 3.91 ERA ranked third in the league.

But the starters were betrayed by an offense that ranked ninth in the league in runs scored (694), a defense that made a major league-leading 126 errors and the woeful bullpen with its A.L.-worst 4.63 ERA and major league low 28 saves. The relievers allowed a staggering 74 homers.

Now the rotation has questions, the exception being opening day starter Sonny Gray.


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Left-hander Rich Hill had a spectacular month of September with the Boston Red Sox last season, but his 11.25 ERA in four spring training starts is a concern. So were 15 walks in 12 innings.

Righties Chris Bassitt and Kendall Graveman had rocky beginnings in the spring but got markedly better toward the end. Jesse Hahn had a rocky start, and when he didn't improve, he was shipped to the minors and lefty Felix Doubront was picked to start in his place.

But Doubront came out of Saturday's start with tightness in his left forearm. He had an MRI later in the day, and the A's will decide Monday if he's healthy enough to remain in the rotation.

"We've got some guys here who have had success," Gray said. "And everybody here has real talent. It's going to be important for the younger guys to step up, myself included. Felix will be a big part of it. He knows how to get people out, and the way he's pitched most of the spring, hopefully he can run with it. And for us to get to where we want to go, Jesse Hahn is going to be a big part of that."

Meanwhile, the bullpen has been transformed and has the potential to equal some of the relief staffs that helped the A's reach the postseason three years in a row from 2012-14.

Closer Sean Doolittle is healthy and throwing hard. Ryan Madson and John Axford bring 97-98 mph heat in the setup role, and both have closed in the past. There is situational lefty Marc Rzepczynski, who appeared in 72 games last season with the Indians and Padres and pitched 35 innings. Veteran Liam Hendriks struggled in the spring but brings a good track record. Ryan Dull and Fernando Rodriguez were lights out except for one bad game each.

"Last year wasn't fun, not with all that losing, but this one could be a lot of fun," Doolittle said. "We've got guys with real power arms. But it's more than that. These are guys who have pitched in the postseason. They know what it takes to get there, and they give us a chance to get back there."

The offensive upgrade wasn't as dramatic, but adding power-hitting left fielder Khris Davis and having Danny Valencia's power at third base for a full season indicates that Oakland's offense is on the upswing.

After scoring eight runs in the 2015 opener, the A's managed eight runs or more just 19 times for the rest of the year. The A's were shut out eight times and scored two or fewer runs in 52 games.

That's not a model for success. But this year Oakland has double-digit home run potential at catcher, from three-fourths of the infield, outfielders Davis and Reddick, and D.H. Billy Butler.

Mark Canha, who doesn't have a set position, hit 16 homers while playing in 124 games last season. And Chris Coghlan, who had 16 homers while playing for the Cubs last year, is in a floating role, too.

Manager Bob Melvin will have the opportunity to platoon at several positions, and he plans to take advantage of it, beginning with the season-opening four-game series against the White Sox that begins Monday night at the Coliseum. The Sox will start left-handers the first three games, so even Reddick, the A's player most likely to play every day, will get some time off.

What could change Melvin's platoon plan is the defense. The A's followed up their weak defensive showing last season by leading the majors in errors this spring.

More frightening was the team's propensity for errors that don't show up in the box score -- mental mistakes such as throwing to the wrong base or missing the cutoff man.

It's odd, too, because the A's have spent an exceptional amount of time working on defense this spring.

"Bad defense exaggerates everything," Melvin said. "We can't beat ourselves. We might not be a great defensive team, but we can't be a bad defensive team. We have to make the routine plays -- pick it up, throw it to the next guy. That's what we need to do."

There is going to be extra pressure on Yonder Alonso at first base and Marcus Semien at shortstop to patrol exceptionally wide swaths of the infield, because Valencia and second baseman Jed Lowrie don't have great range -- not good when the starters, in particular, throw a lot of ground balls.

In the outfield, Reddick in right and center fielder Billy Burns run down balls with the best. But Burns frequently has to use his great speed to make up for bad initial breaks toward the ball. Davis in left catches what he gets to but doesn't have great range. Backup Coco Crisp gets to the ball very well, but he and Davis have weak throwing arms.

"I think the defense will be OK," said third base coach Ron Washington, who works primarily with the infielders. "The guys have put in the time, and they want to get it done. It will come."

If it does, that in itself would improve the pitching, taking some of the mystery out of this team and making it competitive again.

For more on the A's, see our Inside the A's blog at ibabuzz.com/athletics. Follow John Hickey on Twitter at twitter.com/jhickey3.