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Six weeks spent in the desert provided plenty of twists and turns for the Oakland A’s.
The dominant news development from spring training, obviously, was the loss of starting pitcher Jarrod Parker to a season-ending elbow injury. But there were other storylines to emerge as well.
As the A’s head north for the Bay Area on Wednesday night, here’s a look back at what we learned from their Phoenix residency:
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Everyone knew about Billy Burns’ blazing speed when camp began. But who knew the switch-hitting center field prospect would utilize that speed so well against big league competition?
Burns’ 10 stolen bases entering Wednesday led the entire majors, and he complemented that with a .309 batting average. Perhaps most importantly, he got to bend the ear of veteran center fielder Coco Crisp and A's hitting coach Chili Davis, two switch hitters who passed on valuable advice.
The 24-year-old Burns, who has played just 30 games as high as Double-A – is breaking camp with Oakland to play in the Bay Bridge Series. Then he’ll head to the minors, likely having convinced the A’s that his major league arrival isn’t as far off as previously thought.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: It’s gotta be Yoenis Cespedes and his .154 batting average.
He’s tried to incorporate a shorter, quicker swing that so far has provided him only frustration. Maybe he’ll go back to his longer hack, or maybe he finds a happy medium by combining the two. Regardless, the A’s need their most dangerous hitter to find his rhythm at the plate.
And since we’d be cautioning not to read too much into the numbers if Cespedes were tearing up the Cactus League, it’s also fair to say his poor spring stats should only carry so much weight as well. It all starts for real Monday night against Cleveland.
WHO EMERGED: Nobody helped himself more than right-hander Jesse Chavez. He arrived in Arizona fighting to make the team as the last reliever. He’ll depart as a member of the starting rotation due to elbow injuries to Parker and A.J. Griffin. Now Chavez must show his Cactus League performance was no fluke.
Honorable mention to catcher Derek Norris, who entered Wednesday hitting .436 with 12 RBI in 13 exhibition games. He’ll bite his tongue and accept the platoon role he’s currently penciled in for, but Norris is right when he says that players can force their way into the everyday lineup via performance.
STILL A MYSTERY: A back injury suffered early in camp prevented newly acquired outfielder Craig Gentry from showing what he can do. A’s manager Bob Melvin said Gentry is a known quantity because of his time with division rival Texas, which is true. But Gentry will leave Arizona not having played in a single Cactus League exhibition.
Gentry shouldn’t stay on the 15-day disabled list long, but we won’t know if he’s playing at full capacity until he takes the field for the first time in the regular season.
INJURIES TO MONITOR: Parker has already undergone the elbow ligament replacement surgery that will sideline him for all of 2014. Now the injury to keep an eye on is Griffin’s. His elbow tendinitis first surfaced at the end of last season and flared up again in spring training. He’s been shut down for three weeks, and he could miss all of April depending on how long he needs to re-build arm strength.
A healthy return from Griffin is crucial for a rotation that has good depth but is already dipping into its reserve earlier than expected.
Reliever Ryan Cook, who missed the Cactus League season because of shoulder inflammation, will start the season on the DL but should return very soon. An under-the-radar addition might be reliever Fernando Rodriguez, who has looked very strong in his comeback from elbow ligament replacement surgery of his own.
[RELATED: Injuries alread ytaking toll on A's, Rangers]
PROSPECTS TO WATCH: Shortstop Addison Russell didn’t disappoint, though a strained hamstring cut into his exhibition time. Outfielder Billy McKinney, a 19-year-old who was the A’s 2013 top draft pick, and shortstop Daniel Robertson both impressed with their poise in the big league environment.
But if you’re looking for a player who could impact at the major-league level this season, keep an eye on right-hander Arnold Leon. He posted a 2.13 ERA over five spring appearances and will help anchor Triple-A Sacramento’s rotation. Leon is on the short list of starters Oakland will call upon if more injuries hit.
[RELATED: A's option Leon to Triple-A]