2013 A’s can shine without the spotlight

Much of the Bay Area’s attention has been on the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants, but the Oakland Athletics surprised the baseball world last season by winning the American League West with the lowest payroll in Major League Baseball.

Both Bay Area teams had identical 94-68 records and — if the A’s had been able to beat the Detroit Tigers in the Division Series — there might have been another Bay Bridge World Series.

The A’s have made some changes to their 25-man roster. Most notably, Manager Bob Melvin has a new veteran outfielder in Chris Young whom he managed in Arizona.

Oakland also has two new shortstops in Stanford alum Jed Lowrie and Japanese sensation Hiro Nakajima.

Nakajima, though, will begin the season on the 15-day disabled list with a strained left hamstring. He sustained the injury running from first to second base during spring training.

Nakajima did not impress at the plate during the Cactus League, batting only .167 with one double, four walks and 11 strikeouts. When he does come off the DL, he’s likely to be playing for the Triple-A Sacramento Rivercats.

2012 was a remarkable year in many ways for the Athletics. General manager Billy Beane continues to be the master of salary manipulation and finding hidden talent.

Right fielder Josh Reddick, acquired in a trade in exchange for closer Andrew Bailey and right fielder Ryan Sweeney, was more than a diamond in the rough.

Reddick hit 32 home runs and had 85 RBI while winning his first gold glove for the A’s since Dwayne Murphy in 1985. Reddick is a fan favorite for his quirky antics and this season, he’s grown a beard making him a doppelganger for Forrest Gump.

Yoenis Cespedes earned his nickname the Cuban missile for his prodigious home run blasts. Last year as a rookie, he batted .292 with 23 home runs and 82 runs batted in.

The pitching staff has a few changes. Brandon McCarthy left for greener pastures with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Lefty Brett Anderson appears to be fully recovered from his strained right oblique. Anderson has also had an entire offseason following his rehab from “Tommy John” surgery. Anderson is the team’s number one starter and draws the opening night assignment against Seattle Mariners’ ace, Felix Hernandez.

A’s manager Bob Melvin

“Three opening days we end up getting (Hernandez) but you’re going to have to deal with good pitching in this division anyway so we got a pretty good pitcher going ourselves and it’ll be a really exciting opening day in front of this crowd. “

Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, and Dan Straily round out the five starters in the rotation. Veteran Bartolo Colon has served his 50-game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs and will begin the campaign as the sixth starter. Colon will make his 2013 debut at Houston on April 7th. Oakland has an off day on Monday April 8th before beginning a three game series in Anaheim against the Los Angeles Angels.

Grant Balfour had an up and down season as A’s closer, losing the job in May to Ryan Cook who was the lone All-Star representative. But it wasn’t long before Balfour got his job back and Cook emerged as a solid set up man alongside lefty Sean Doolittle. Balfour was near perfect, converting 24 of 26 save opportunities. Look for Balfour to continue to be the man to close out games in the ninth inning.

Many experts pick the A’s to be in the middle of the pack in the AL West, behind the big spending Angels and Texas Rangers. That only serves as motivation to this squad of ‘Moneyball’ misfits who defy the odds with their exciting and unconventional approach to the American pastime.

Infielder Eric Sogard tore it up in Arizona, batting .444 with a .500 on base percentage and a .648 slugging performance with eight doubles and nine RBI. He told SFBay he likes that the A’s are an overlooked ballclub.

A’s second baseman Eric Sogard

“We feel great about that (being the defending AL West Champions). Obviously last year was exciting. Nobody expected us to go that far. We did believe we could do that and this year we believe we could go further.”

Prediction: 90-72 (2nd place in American League West)