NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- How can the Oakland Athletics stage a suitable encore of their amazing 2012 season?
The literal answer to that comes in three parts -- pitching, pitching and pitching. When the A's won the American League West last season, after being widely picked to finish last, their success could have seemed improbable. But it was built on the most fundamental strength in baseball.
The Athletics had the AL's second-best team ERA last season. The good news for the future -- short term, medium term, maybe even long term -- is that much of their pitching talent is young and still developing.
At baseball's Winter Meetings, at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, the vast majority of clubs are seeking pitching. Not the A's. They are in the position -- somewhere between comfortable and wonderful -- of having an actual surplus of highly capable Major League pitching.
Oakland manager Bob Melvin met with the media Monday and was suitably optimistic about his club and its continuing chances. When the topic of the Athletics' admirable, enviable pitching depth was broached, Melvin knocked on wood, or whatever material the interview table was underneath a pseudo-suede covering.
Melvin pointed out that the depth extended beyond the rotation into the bullpen and said, "We're in a really good spot as far as our pitching, and it played out that way last year."
This is the organizational game plan, the same sort of emphasis that has brought the team from across the Bay, the Giants, to two World Series championships in the last three seasons.
"That's the way we envision doing things," Melvin said. "It always comes down to good pitching and defense, and it comes down to that in the postseason."
The AL West had baseball's highest winning percentage as a division last season, and the competition will be fierce again in 2013. The Astros are newcomers and they're rebuilding. They're in for a long season. But the Rangers and the Angels are loaded with talent and financial resources. And the Mariners are improving.
But the A's have all this pitching and an offense that made, as Melvin said, "dramatic improvements" in the second half of 2012. This is a team in a position to demonstrate that its success, while surprising to many, does not have to be considered as an aberration. The A's prefer to see it as the beginning of an era in which they will be, to put it mildly, highly competitive.
Other clubs may try to pry some of that pitching talent away from Oakland. Whether the A's want to part with a portion of their greatest strength is another issue. They do appear to need a frontline shortstop, but they also have considerable outfield depth. Their overall situation is promising.
They lost outfielder Jonny Gomes, a productive hitter against left-handers and a positive clubhouse presence. Gomes signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Red Sox. Gomes will be missed, but there are absolutely no hard feelings.
"Congratulations to him," Melvin said. "That was a nice little deal. What you do at this point is wish him the best."
The A's are hoping to re-sign free-agent starter Brandon McCarthy, who will be coming back from taking a line drive to the head.
"That door is always open until it's closed," Melvin said.
The club has already welcomed back its other veteran starter, Bartolo Colon. He was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.
Melvin said there was no doubt that Colon was fundamentally one of the good guys.
"Everybody who was around him knows that," Melvin said. "He just made a mistake and he's paid for it. He's looking forward to coming back to the ballclub."
Melvin, who was named the AL Manager of the Year for 2012, was optimistic about his club before last season, but he seemed almost alone in that optimism. Now, when he voices optimism for 2013, the rest of us may have learned enough to pay attention.
"I'm kind of a glass-half-full guy," Melvin said. "I like what we have."
What they have includes really good pitching, both quality and quantity. In a rugged division, nothing can be assured, but with that pitching, the Oakland A's can be much more than a one-year wonder.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.