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Top Five Reasons Oakland Athletics Fans Can Be Optimistic

The Oakland A's wrapped up 2010 at 81-81. Although the team didn't make the playoffs, fans have plenty of reasons (five specifically) for optimism heading into the upcoming offseason.

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The 2010 Major League Baseball regular season wrapped up yesterday with the San Francisco Giants clinching the NL West and the Oakland Athletics wrapping up their first non-losing season since 2006. We'll have plenty of Giants discussion this week as they prepare for their first playoff appearance since 2003. However, before we get to that I thought we'd put a little bit of a bow on the A's 2010 season.

The A's wrapped up 2010 at 81-81, marking the first non-losing season since the team went to the American League Championship Series in 2006. Since then, the team has finished 76-86, 75-86, and 75-87. While 81 wins isn't exactly something to write home about, it's certainly a positive step forward for an A's franchise that really struggled the last few years. Equally impressive was the manner in which the Athletics got to .500. The A's were 77-81 after being swept in Anaheim by the Angels. They then went up to Seattle and swept four games against the Mariners to reach .500. The Mariners struggled all season long, but a four game sweep is always solid.

The A's won't be joining their cross-Bay rivals in the playoffs this year, but here are five reasons A's fans can remain optimistic heading into the offseason.

1. The Starting Rotation

Without a doubt, the biggest strength for the 2010 Oakland A's was their starting rotation. The team came into 2010 with young pitchers that had a ton of upside, but still had a lot to prove. They brought in Ben Sheets on a one-year deal hoping he could help mold that rotation. Not surprisingly Sheets went down with a major injury leaving the young staff to sink or swim. And swim they did.

Brett Anderson was the one with the most upside and also the one who had proven the most, going 11-11 with a 4.06 era last season. Anderson struggled with injuries but finished out the year on a fairly strong note at 7-6 with a team-leading 2.80 era. However, it was the twin emergences of Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez that has to have A's fans stoked for 2011.

Cahill was inconsistent in 2009 and began 2010 in the minors. However, he emerged as the staff ace when he was called up in late April and made a run at the Cy Young award, finishing 18-8 with a 2.97 era and representing the A's in the All-Star Game.

The A's also saw Gio Gonzalez take a huge step forward in his development. After struggling mightily in his first two major league seasons, Gonzalez settled down and finished 15-9 with a 3.23 era. He had struggled with consistency but finished out 2010 strong and will make an excellent #3 starter behind Cahill and Anderson. And the new veteran presence at this point and likely #4 start in 2011 is 26-year-old Dallas Braden. Braden threw a perfect game this season and was generally consistent even though he wasn't spectacular. Given the team's 1-4 they can afford to work with Vin Mazzaro and Bobby Cramer as potential #5 options.

2. Chris Carter

Heading into 2010, A's fans pointed to Chris Carter and Michael Taylor as reasons to be excited for the future of the offense. We have yet to see Taylor up in Oakland, but Chris Carter's brief appearance in The Show has to have A's fans incredibly intrigued about 2011.

Carter finished 2010 hitting .186 which might have casual observers wondering what I'm smoking. However, folks have to remember that Carter started out abysmally, going 0 for his first 33 at bats. Once Carter finally got that first hit he heated up and finished the season 13 for 37 (.351) with three home runs and seven runs batted in. Those aren't exactly superstar numbers at this point, but he was really looking the part of a big league slugger as the season wore on. I don't know how his power numbers will last over a full season, but if he can maintain his sweet swing, the A's could finally have their first home-grown slugger in quite some time.

3. The Need For Speed

The Oakland A's offense struggled immensely at times in 2010. If the team can add some power to the lineup, they might have a very solid set of table-setters that can keep things crazy on the base paths. The Oakland A's finished the season with 156 stolen bases, which was good for third in Major League Baseball. Some folks joke about the disdain shown towards stolen bases during the "Moneyball era" because of the wasted outs. Of course this is one more area in which Moneyball has been misinterpreted. The problem was with wasted outs in the form of poor decisions. In 2010, the A's stole a ton of bases, but they were also efficient in their stealing. The A's finished with an 81% success rate, which was good for second in the majors.

Heading into the offseason the A's will need to decide if they want to hang on to Coco Crisp. Although he struggled with injuries, when healthy he was a strong catalyst for the offense. Crisp played in only 75 games in 2010 but he finished with 32 stolen bases. OF Rajai Davis added a career-high 52 and SS Cliff Pennington had 29. I'll mention some other stealing options below, but if the team brings all three back in 2011 they could have a nice set of table-setters at the top of the lineup.

4. Money to Spend

The Oakland A's head into this offseason with the chance to clear considerable amounts of salary. Ben Sheets was a one-year deal at $10 million and he won't be back. The team will be free of $4 million it had to pay Willy Taveras and second baseman Mark Ellis has a $500,000 buyout that may or may not be utilized. However, the true golden goose is that Eric Chavez's albatross of a contract should finally come off the books. The team has a $12.5 million option, or it can elect to buy Chavez out for $3 million. The team will be taking that buyout option, without a doubt.

The A's will have a variety of arbitration cases to deal with and have to decide whether they want to bring back Mark Ellis. After struggling in 2008, Ellis bounced back a bit in 2009 and then had a very solid 2010 season, hitting .291 with only three errors. His power numbers took a big drop, but he was a solid producer. There are some solid options available on the market if the team does decide to go in another direction at second base, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Ellis back for a little bit longer.

Where it gets really interesting are in the various OF/DH bats on the market. Carl Crawford has been one of my favorite players for some time and at 29 he's consistently producing quality numbers. 2010 saw him hit .307 with 19 home runs, 30 doubles, and a league-leading 13 triples. Moreover, the Tampa Bay Rays have made it fairly clear that they've lost a ton of money and will be slashing and burning payroll this offseason. I have to admit that Crawford is the guy I would love to see in the green and gold.

Now, just because the A's have some money to spend certainly doesn't mean they'll invest in big name free agents. And maybe it would be smarter to spread the wealth to add some overall depth. Hideki Matsui indicated he might be interested in coming to Oakland, and he could certainly be a nice power option at a relatively decent price.

5. The AL West still isn't really all that good

The AL West certainly isn't as awful as the NFC West is in the NFL, but it's not a division that any team could be expected to dominant next year or for the foreseeable future. The Rangers ended up winning the division handily, but a few breaks and the A's could have made this a lot more interesting the final weeks.

The Rangers will potentially lose Cliff Lee and Vladimir Guerrero. The Angels added Dan Haren this year but could never find any consistency. And the Mariners would appear to have gotten lost in the rain up in the Pacific Northwest. The division certainly won't be handed to them but if the A's pitching can build on this year and the offense improves even a little bit, this division is there for the taking.