MIKE PIAZZA: Free-agent acquisition replaces Frank Thomas.
MIKE PIAZZA: Free-agent acquisition replaces Frank Thomas. (TONY GUTIERREZ -- Associated Press)
MAYBE THE worst clause you can use to preface a team's chances heading into a baseball season is "If everything goes right. ..." After all, when does everything ever go right?

Unfortunately, no other lead-in seems to fit the Oakland Athletics or San Francisco Giants fortunes heading into 2007. If everything goes right, they have a chance to win and go to the postseason.

Um, right.

At least for the A's, there's already no chance of it. Center fielder Mark Kotsay is out for at least the first half of the season following spring training back surgery, and the defensive domino effect could be devastating. Plus, their fifth-starter situation already is a mess with top candidate Joe Kennedy sporting an Andrew Jackson ERA.

The Giants? For all of their offseason machinations, they will open the season with a bullpen not fit for Comedy Central. They are so desperate they will likely hitch their hopes to Armando Benitez as theircloser. Benitez has had a decent spring, but it's a delusion to think that a guy with Mando's eggshell psyche pitching in front of a fan base that wholly despises him can prove everybody wrong.

Hence, just citing those few not-so-right warts, playoffs are a difficult projection this year for the locals. Too many questions. Too many ifs. Too many dicey propositions. And perhaps, more important, too much competition, particularly for Oakland.

The A's look like a fairly solid but mundane second choice in the AL West, while the Giants will be second at best in the NL West and more than likely third or fourth.


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Don't buy it? Let's check our cross-Bay questionnaire:

Can Rich Harden and Bobby Crosby stay healthy, and if they do, could that vault the A's to first? Really, it's the Alpha/Omega question for Oakland. But until they demonstrate it, remain skeptical about the Dynamic Disabled Duo. In Harden's case, there are no Marco Scutaro-type fallbacks as with with Crosby. If he goes down for an extended period, the A's really do disconnect.

How about a projection for Barry Zito's first season as a Giant? Look for a typical Zito-like year: 33 starts, 15-9, 3.67 ERA. Good, but not what you expect from the highest-paid pitcher in the history of baseball.

How much will the A's miss Zito and Frank Thomas? Tons. But they will miss role-playing guys like Jay Payton and Kirk Saarloos, too. Payton gave the A's defensive flexibility Shannon Stewart does not. With any luck, Travis Buck by July.

Will Barry Bonds break The Record? As long as he doesn't spend any extended time on the D.L. — always a consideration for a 42-year-old who must play the outfield — yes. Bonds is in his best physical shape in three years, but it'll still be a day-to-day proposition for an old man. Look for Bonds to pile up a lot of homers early and coast. I'm calling No. 756 for Sept. 9, against the Dodgers.

Can Mike Piazza make a successful conversion to designated hitter? So few career NL guys have done it — nobody notable in recent years — it's fair to doubt, particularly for a guy coming into the league cold at age 39. Piazza was a great hitter once, but don't expect Thomas-type numbers. Take your .278, 21 homers and 86 RBIs and savor it if it eventuates.

Who's the Giant nobody is talking about and should be? Noah Lowry. Lowry won 13 games in 2005 and looked to be a comer, but he won just 7 last year in 27 starts and his ERA went up nearly a full point. If he only was as productive as his good buddy Dan Haren, the Giants might move off the hope-and-prayer list.

BARRY ZITO: Free-agent acquisition replaces Jason Schmidt.
BARRY ZITO: Free-agent acquisition replaces Jason Schmidt. (ROY DABNER -- Associated Press)

Who's the A's player that nobody is talking about and should be? Dan Johnson. Because if he flops again, Nick Swisher can't move to first base as easily. The next best option may be Erubiel Durazo wearing a glove. Eeek.

What'll be a consistent A's story line? Count on them chirping all year about getting no respect in the Bay Area, even more so than usual. The Giants have all the headline fodder even if they don't win: Bonds, Zito, Benitez, and on top of all that, the All-Star Game is at AT&T Park. Milton Bradley could compete for the Triple Crown, it still wouldn't matter. Might be an idea anyway, Milton.

And the Giants' No. 1 story line? Cripes, you need to ask? From Day One, Bonds' every sneering twitch will dwarf all else. We don't yet have full comprehension of what his pursuit of the most coveted record in sports will be like. But count on huge, chaotic, and because of its immense negative overtones, a polarizing extravaganza like nothing we've ever seen or experienced before.

By mid-August, when very little is going right for the A's and Giants and both teams are at least 10 games out, we may be thankful for the bloated Bonds drama, unsettling as it may be.

Carl Steward can be reached at (510) 293-2451 or by e-mail at csteward@angnewspapers.com.