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Led by Gray, A's could be even better this season

Winning 100-plus games not unreasonable for Beane and Melvin's talented team

PHOENIX -- Fastballs can't read calendars. Sonny Gray's should not have been beating up catcher John Jaso, not in his first bullpen session of the spring, but that was exactly what he was doing Sunday.

Luckily for Jaso, Gray threw only 25 to 30 pitches. One of the last ones was a heavy, running two-seam fastball that banged off Jaso's left thumb, bouncing off him and rolling to the side.

"That ball hydroplaned," manager Bob Melvin said, making a motion with his hand that looked like a jet plane on takeoff.

That's exactly what these Athletics are as they get ready for the season -- a jet plane beginning its ascent. They've quietly filed a flight plan for the 2014 season that could have them soaring above the competition the entire season, with the 24-year-old Gray one part of a very intriguing picture.

If you are thinking about the A's as a curiosity, some nice, little story that has run its course, you should think again.

Twelve teams won 100 games in 1999-2004, including that crazy 116-win season by the 2001 Mariners. But in the last nine seasons, only four teams have reached the 100-win mark, the last being the Phillies in 2011.

As Spring Training gets underway, no team is better built to win 100-plus than the Athletics. They know it, too, although as usual the offseason headlines were mostly about other teams. That's OK with them.

"The good thing about this team is they just focus on themselves, they don't read press clippings," Melvin said. "We're not reading any forecasts, whether we're underdogs or favorites. I don't think that affects us at all. Our expectations of ourselves are really all we have to worry about."

No team in the Majors has won more games than Oakland the last two years, as it followed a 94-win season in 2012 with 96 wins last season. The A's have lost their heavyweight, Bartolo Colon, yet few teams have deeper rotations and GM Billy Beane has imported Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson to improve a bullpen that was already a strength.

This is a stunningly deep team, especially considering that its payroll will be under $80 million. That must have felt like all the money in the world to Beane, who put a 102-win team together for $40 million in 2002.

There are many other resourceful front offices in Major League Baseball but none that have made more good decisions than the one run by Beane and assistant general manager David Forst. Those decisions start with Melvin, who like the team he manages should no longer be a secret. The former catcher should be recognized as one of the best managers in the game, and in fact has been.

Melvin may not yet be one of baseball's high-profile managers but he's been a Manager of the Year in both leagues and over the last seven seasons has accrued more points in voting for that award than anyone except the Rays' Joe Maddon.

His use of platoons and ability to run a bullpen and nurture young managers harkens back to Gil Hodges, who was on his way to being an all-time great before he died of a heart attack at age 47. He's firmly in charge but rarely in the spotlight.

The A's had gone through three managers in a decade before Melvin arrived in 2012, and he and Beane look like a lasting partnership. He was rewarded with a contract extension after overseeing a 20-win improvement two years ago and now has a deal that runs through 2016.

His lineup looks a lot like it has the last season and a half, with Coco Crisp setting the table for Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick.

Donaldson, fourth in MVP voting last year, is the only guy in the group coming off a great year. In fact, the A's project a lot of improvement from Reddick, who has recovered from surgery on his right wrist, and Cespedes, who is shortening his swing in hopes of eliminating strikeouts and addressing an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) that dropped from .861 in 2012 to .737.

Melvin was quietly moving around the Papago Park complex Sunday, with most of his time spent near the bullpen mounds. He got his first look at lefty Scott Kazmir and relievers Johnson and Gregerson in Oakland uniforms, and he was enthusiastic about all three afterward. The natural movement of Gregerson's pitches spoke volumes about his success with the Padres.

"You could put $1 million on the table and say it's yours if you can throw the ball straight, and I don't think he could get it," Melvin said. "Everything moves, even his [four-seam fastball]."

Kazmir, an independent-ball survivor, signed a two-year, $22 million deal as Colon's replacement after resurrecting his career with the Indians. He and Gray, the 2011 first-rounder promoted from Triple-A last August, give the A's six starters for five spots. Melvin expects a fierce competition from a group that includes Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone, all of whom are considered candidates for 30-start, 200-inning seasons.

That includes Gray, who came through his big league baptism with a 2.67 ERA over 64 innings. He gives the A's a potential No. 1 starter with elite stuff -- potentially the one piece missing the last two Octobers, when the A's couldn't get past Detroit in the Division Series.

Not that Melvin is looking ahead.

"Last year we talked about [handling success] when everybody got to camp," he said. "Just because we had that success, if you feel like you can just throw your glove out there, success will breed more success, you have the wrong mindset. We have to find our own identity this year, try to find ways to get better because you know the other teams are going to be doing the same thing."

Maybe so, but no team starts out any stronger than the one Melvin manages.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
Read More: Oakland Athletics, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, Jim Johnson, Sonny Gray, Luke Gregerson, Josh Reddick, Scott Kazmir