- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) - Before the season has even begun, the Oakland Athletics are dealing with a devastating injury that could affect their chances of chasing a third straight AL West title.

Right-hander Jarrod Parker, who had been the projected opening day starter, was lost to a season-ending elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery - his second such procedure.

“This is a guy who has meant a lot to us,” manager Bob Melvin said. “We’ll have to do something different.”

Like every year with this low-budget club, somebody always seems to step in and fill the void. Whether that will be enough for Melvin’s bunch in a much-improved division is to be determined.

Even before Parker went down, Oakland considered its club an underdog despite winning the last two AL West crowns.

“I don’t know if we’re the favorite,” left fielder Yoenis Cespedes said, “but the A’s are going to be in the playoffs again.”

These guys seem to thrive in this role, and now the divisional teams have made high-profile moves to try to take down the A’s - with Texas trading for Prince Fielder and Seattle adding Robinson Cano.

After losing in the AL division series in five games to Detroit in back-to-back years, these A’s are eager to get over that hump at last.

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

Five things to know about the A’s as they enter the 2014 season.

THE PITCHING: Pitching depth has long been a plus for the franchise, which builds from the bottom up in general manager Billy Beane’s system.

That will be tested now with Parker sidelined.

“We can only play the hand that we’re dealt, and we obviously put together pitching depth coming into the year, and some guys are going to have to step up,” assistant general manager David Forst said.

Jesse Chavez and Tommy Milone each will move into bigger roles in the rotation early on in the season, when the A’s also will be without A.J. Griffin because of his own ailing elbow.

CONSISTENT CESPEDES: Cespedes begins his third major league season determined to be more consistent, shortening his swing during the winter in an attempt to make better contact.

While he won the Home Run Derby last summer during All-Star festivities, Cespedes batted .240 with 26 homers and 80 RBIs. He hit .292 with 23 homers and drove in 82 runs as a rookie.

“You’re always going to have highs and lows,” the Cuban star said. “Last year I got into this low and just couldn’t recover the whole season.”

Cespedes knows how much he needs to complement Josh Donaldson, who batted .301 with 24 homers and 93 RBIs while playing 158 games in his first full big league season.

COCO’S POWER: Sure, Coco Crisp enjoyed hitting all those home runs from the leadoff spot last year - a career-best 22 to be exact. But the speedy center fielder and leadoff man hopes to get back to his base-stealing ways of previous years.

Especially as he begins with a fresh new two-year contract through the 2016 season that adds $22.75 million in guaranteed money.

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

CLOSING TIME: The A’s found quite the replacement for All-Star closer Grant Balfour: AL saves leader Jim Johnson.

Oakland acquired Johnson in a December trade with Baltimore.

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

“You’ve got to come with it every single day,” Johnson said.

IT’S SUNNY WITH SONNY: As a playoff first-timer and rookie, Sonny Gray dueled with Justin Verlander on the big October stage.

The 24-year-old right-hander went 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA in 12 outings with 10 starts last season - and now the A’s can’t wait to see just how good he can be pitching a full year.

Gray is also quite entertaining on Twitter: @SonnyGray2.

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