By Scott White, CBS Sports Writer

OAKLAND (CBS Sports) — The Oakland Athletics have gone an eternity without making the playoffs, at least by Billy Beane standards. The groundbreaking general manager, who never uses his lack of resources as an excuse to concede anything, begrudgingly began a rebuilding project in 2008 that has kept the Athletics out of the national spotlight for the last three years.

But they got back to .500 last year and, in what would be a remarkably quick turnaround by baseball standards, appear poised to compete again in 2011.

Not surprisingly, their strength now is the same as it was during the beginning of Beane’s tenure. With emerging aces Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez and the ultra-efficient Dallas Braden of perfect game fame occupying the first four spots, their starting rotation is comparable to the one led by Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder a decade ago. Even the fifth spot, which is up for grabs between former elite prospects Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy and Tommy John survivor Josh Outman, should give the Athletics a chance to win every time through the order.

Recognizing he has a championship-caliber rotation now, Beane stepped up his pursuit of a proper supporting cast this offseason, acquiring Josh Willingham and David DeJesus in separate trades with the Nationals and Royals and signing Hideki Matsui to a one-year deal. None of the three figures to make a huge impact, but for a team that had Kurt Suzuki and Kevin Kouzmanoff batting cleanup much of last season, all three represent significant upgrades. And even if they fall short of expectations, super slugger Chris Carter is still waiting in the wings, with Michael Taylor not too far behind him.

And it’s not like the Athletics needed to completely overhaul the offense to win games. Whatever innings their shutdown rotation can’t provide will go to an already strong bullpen that should only improve with Brian Fuentes, Grant Balfour and Joey Devine in the mix.

Breakout … Brett Anderson, SP

This should have happened last year. Anderson was a favorite of prognosticators everywhere after posting a 2.96 ERA, a 1.14 WHIP and 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 17 starts as a rookie. But injury after injury doomed him at the start of 2010, limiting him to one start in May (strained forearm) and one start in June (sore elbow). An increase in innings from 105 in 2008 to 175 1/3 in 2009 no doubt contributed to his problems. Once his arm calmed down and he returned to the rotation for good, he pitched exactly as everyone expected, posting a 2.59 ERA over his final 12 starts. Now that he’s refreshed and more accustomed to the rigors of a big-league season, he should be able to live up to his elite potential and become a legitimate ace.

Bust … David DeJesus, OF

Yes, he hit a career-high .318 last year, but much of that came from a ridiculously hot June when he hit .410. He was on the DL three weeks later, out for the year with a thumb injury, so he never got a chance to regress to the mean. He’s no stranger to hot streaks; the regression was coming. Given his track record and the fact he’s already 31 years old, DeJesus’ 2010 was more of a statistical anomaly than a legitimate step forward, and now he’s going to a park where he’s hit .250 with a .689 OPS for his career. Yuck.

Sleeper … Coco Crisp, OF

Granted, most people think of Crisp’s 2010 season as a disappointment because he missed so much time due to injury. But in between the strained pectoral and the two broken pinkies, he showed something he hasn’t shown since he was first making a name for himself with the Indians. He was an all-around threat, taking advantage of his freedom on the base paths after getting held back in Boston and regaining the power he lost as a part-time player. The result was eight homers and 32 steals in 290 at-bats, which translates to something like 15 homers and 60 steals over a full season.

(© 2011 CBS Interactive. All rights reserved.)


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