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Athletics camp report: In Bob Melvin, A's have the right guy back

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider

PHOENIX -- There's a real chance that Jonny Gomes' name has been mentioned more in A's camp this spring -- when he's not here -- than it was last spring, when he was.

Everyone wants to know whether the A's of 2013 can be what the A's of 2012 were, and in some ways that means what everyone is asking is whether the A's can be Jonny Gomes-like without actually having Gomes. Somehow, this team found a way to outplay the more expensive and more heralded Rangers and Angels in the American League West, and the popular narrative was that Gomes' presence had a lot to do with that.

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Gomes is gone now, off to try to help save the Red Sox, but he said this spring that he doesn't worry about the A's team he left behind. Others may worry about who will take over Jonny Gomes' role, but Jonny Gomes doesn't.

"I think the most important part they have on that team is having their manager back," Gomes said.

Good point.

The A's didn't do what they did in 2012 so much because they were Jonny Gomes-like. They did what they did because they were Bob Melvin-like.

It's a recurring theme, wherever you go this spring and find players the A's couldn't afford to keep or otherwise decided not to keep. It's a theme that plays well in the A's clubhouse, too.

If you're trying to figure out why the A's were able to win when everyone said they shouldn't have, you really ought to begin by looking in the manager's office.

The young rotation was outstanding (and if the A's are going to win again, those same guys had better be outstanding again). The second-half power surge was impressive (after the All-Star break, no team hit more home runs or scored more runs than the A's). Yoenis Cespedes was everything the A's hoped he would be, and more.

General manager Billy Beane and his scouting staff did a great job getting talent back in trades, and also in filling the many holes that developed during the season.

But in a season where voting for American League Manager of the Year may have been tougher than ever (Buck Showalter of the Orioles was also extremely deserving), it's pretty clear that the voters did a good job in picking Bob Melvin. It's pretty clear that this wasn't just a case of a manager getting rewarded simply because his team outperformed expectations, but rather a team outperforming expectations in large part because the manager did such a good job.

"He makes it very comfortable for guys to be here," said A's outfielder Josh Reddick, whose 32 home runs were also a big part of the A's 2012 story. "He allows us to be ourselves, not just in [the clubhouse], but on the field.

"If I can be Josh, on the field and off, then I can be the player Josh."

Melvin faces an interesting challenge this year, and not just because Gomes (and Brandon Inge and Brandon McCarthy) are gone from a clubhouse where they were significant figures.

Teams like the A's, who find a way to overachieve and win a division title when they shouldn't, come back the next spring wanting to feed off the confidence they developed, but also carrying expectations that just weren't there the year before. The A's may have played last year like they had nothing to lose, but it's harder to carry that feeling into this season, even though they're still in a division where the other teams have much bigger payrolls and much bigger names.

"For the first time, we have an identity," Melvin said. "But we can't just say this is who we are."

Melvin has made those words the theme of this A's spring, and he can use them in almost any way to relate 2012 to 2013.

"The trap is, 'I had success one year, and this is who I am,'" he said. "Until you have multiple years of track record, you can't say, 'This is who I am.' If you just stay the same and say, 'This is who I am,' someone's going to pass you by."

Just as the Orioles know it's unlikely they'll win as many one-run or extra-inning games as they did a year ago, Melvin understands that the A's can't assume they can win 15 games on walk-offs, as they did in 2012.

The A's believe they can be contend again in the AL West, and who can blame them? They'd like to think they can get more than 129 games out of Cespedes (they were 82-46, a 104-win pace, with him in the lineup last year), and would like to think they're a deeper team, better protected against injuries.

Melvin and his players would also like to think that some of those walk-off wins came from playing the game the way the A's played it, and that the never-give-up style can become part of what they are.

"Last year, we were a team that beat other teams to the loose ball, so to speak," Melvin said. "The 15 walk-offs don't come without doing that."

Just as important, the A's didn't give in when they were below .500 and 13 games out of first place at the end of June.

"Teams crater, but this one didn't," said Phil Garner, the ex-big league manager who is a huge Melvin supporter and works as an A's consultant. "Young teams can think if we just show some improvement over the second half, that's OK.

"Bo didn't let them think that way. Of course, it turned out to be a magical season. And they did it with a bunch of kids. That's pretty remarkable."

What would be really remarkable is if the A's can do it again. It would really be remarkable if they can do it this time without some of the clubhouse leaders who helped make it possible in 2012, guys like Jonny Gomes.

Gomes isn't here anymore, no matter how often you hear his name.

Bob Melvin is here. And Jonny Gomes thinks that will give the A's a chance.

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