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Still best in West?

What to watch for as A’s start camp

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POSTED February 12, 2014 9:16 p.m.

OAKLAND (AP) — Five things to know about the Oakland Athletics as they start spring training camp:

No pressure

Yoenis Cespedes has no problem making a bold prediction at this early stage: The A’s are headed back to the playoffs in 2014. Somehow, he says, the overachieving, small-budget club will find a way to do it again — even if they’re not the favorite.

These guys thrive on the underdog role, even as defending division champion for the second straight year.

“I think we’re still trying to prove people wrong,” center fielder Coco Crisp said.

A bullpen to beat

With last season’s AL saves leader, Jim Johnson, joining an already stout bullpen, manager Bob Melvin realizes how good he has it once his starter is done.

With All-Star Grant Balfour gone to Tampa Bay in free agency, the A’s would have been comfortable having Sean Doolittle or Ryan Cook handle the ninth-inning duties. Then, they were able to acquire Johnson in a December trade with Baltimore.

“This was one of the places I wanted to be,” Johnson said.

He converted 50 of 59 save opportunities in 2013, going 3-8 with a 2.94 ERA, and was tied with Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel for most saves in the majors.

“Bullpen depth is something that every team strives for,” Melvin said. “Not only do we have it, we have it in numbers.”

Cespedes swinging

The slugging Cuban defector is determined to make more consistent contact with a shortened swing he insists won’t take away much of his power, if any. Cespedes is determined to forget a frustrating second big league season in which he batted .240 with 26 homers and 80 RBIs. He hit .292 with 23 homers and drove in 82 runs as a rookie.

“It’s trying to maintain a certain approach for the entire season that’s going to make him more consistent,” Melvin said. “No one goes through the season with the same stroke all the time.”

Cespedes made big strides in September and had another impressive playoffs, another five-game division series defeat to Detroit.

“The biggest adjustment for him is just staying driven every day,” hitting coach Chili Davis said.

Crisp at the top

As Melvin repeats so regularly, the A’s start with Crisp at the top of the order.

Last week, Crisp received a new two-year contract through 2016 that adds $22.75 million in guaranteed money.

“There’s a reason Coco Crisp is still here,” Melvin said.

Crisp is coming off a year in which he hit a career-high 22 home runs and surprised even himself with the display of power. He hopes to steal more bases this year with fresh legs.

“Hopefully Father Time doesn’t kick me in the butt ‘til I’m in my 50s,” the 34-year-old Crisp said. “I was a little beat up last year with my legs.”

Crop of catchers

There’s Stephen Vogt and John Jaso, Derek Norris and Chris Gimenez.

The A’s have a strong competition for catcher, and the reliable Vogt certainly did his part in a surprising showing last season — including the winning hit in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Tigers.

Jaso was medically cleared six weeks ago after missing more than half of last season because of a concussion. He is eager to do everything he can to get back on the field. Jaso, making $2.3 million in 2014, didn’t play again after sustaining a concussion when he took a foul tip off his mask July 24 at Houston and complained of a headache. He batted .271 with three homers and 21 RBIs in 70 games.

Norris became the youngest catcher to start a postseason game in A’s history (23 years, 235 days), while Gimenez was claimed off waivers from the Rays.

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