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Originally published April 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 10, 2007 at 9:08 PM

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AL West | A's trying to avoid disarmament

Rich Harden is getting tired of answering questions about his health. He keeps insisting his right arm is strong and ready for the strain...

Special to The Seattle Times

PHOENIX — Rich Harden is getting tired of answering questions about his health. He keeps insisting his right arm is strong and ready for the strain of a full season.

"I came back at the end of last year," Harden said. "My arm was healthy then. It's not an issue for me. I want to pitch a full season and see what happens."

The Oakland Athletics have a lot riding on Harden's arm, particularly with the departure of Barry Zito. Harden needs to have a big year and remain healthy if the A's want to successfully defend their American League West division title.

Health is an issue for the A's. Center fielder Mark Kotsay will miss the first half of the season following March back surgery, and shortstop Bobby Crosby is playing again but remains a question mark in many minds.

And Thursday, first baseman Dan Johnson suffered torn cartilage in his left hip and might miss two or three months.

But the A's could still swim if key players like Harden — who has started just 28 games the past two seasons because of injuries — and Crosby stay healthy. They sink if anything else happens to weaken the outfield.

There's not much depth in the rotation. Dan Haren is the opening-day pitcher. He's followed by Esteban Loaiza, Harden, Joe Blanton, then left-hander Joe Kennedy, who earned the spot by default this spring.

"I think [Kennedy] is going to pitch a lot better coming up," A's first-year manager Bob Geren said. "He hasn't been that far off, and the numbers are a little misleading. I'd like to see him pitch the way he's capable. I can't pinpoint anything. It's not a specific thing. It's more like his overall location. There's no major concern that he lost his curveball, or his velocity. It's just location."

Harden said he doesn't feel the pressure to be the staff ace.

"It's always been about our entire staff," he said. "We're all ready to step up. We don't function as one person leading everybody. We're more like a unit, and that's how we function."

The bullpen remains Oakland's strength despite a setback to setup man Justin Duchscherer, who made his debut late in spring training because of tendinitis in his right triceps. Huston Street is the closer, with Kiko Calero and Chad Gaudin filling the setup role until Duchscherer is ready.

Jason Kendall will handle most of the catching duties and be the Athletics' leadoff hitter. Adam Melhuse will get a game or two but Mike Piazza won't get behind the plate unless there's a national emergency — he's the designated hitter, period.

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"It takes a little getting used to," Piazza said. "I'll have to watch the game closely and stay focused instead of wandering around in the clubhouse between at-bats."

Kotsay's surgery affected the outfield and infield. Nick Swisher, who the A's hoped would be their everyday first baseman, is now rooted in right field and is the main backup in center. The rest of the outfield consists of Milton Bradley in center, Shannon Stewart in left and Bobby Kielty getting time in both right and left.

Only Swisher has proven he can last an entire season. Bradley, Stewart and Kielty have suffered through various injuries the past two years.

"His timing at the plate has been pretty much perfect," Geren said of Stewart. "I feel like I'm being too cautious with him. Of course there's some concern with his health, but he's been great and everything is going so well."

Veteran Erubiel Durazo might get first crack at replacing Johnson at first base. But Durazo is considered a defensive liability, so the A's are considering other options. One possibility is to move Swisher back to first base, and put prospect Travis Buck in the outfield.

Another is to play rookie Daric Barton at first base.

Mark Ellis, who set the major-league record for fielding percentage by a second baseman with a mark of .997 in 2006, helps anchor an infield that includes six-time Gold Glove winner Eric Chavez at third and Crosby.

"My rookie year I had a pretty good season and I made a lot of good strides in my second year," Crosby said. "Last year was a step in the wrong direction. I am confident that if I'm healthy I can perform and help the team win."

Marco Scutaro can fill in at third, short or second. Antonio Perez will get the final spot on the roster, leaving former major-leaguers such as Lou Merloni and Ricky Ledee to resurrect their careers in the minors.

Rick Eymer covers the Athletics for mlb.com

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