Health of Harden, Crosby critical to A's success

PHOENIX -- You might expect spring training injuries to two prominent outfielders to put a crimp in team morale. But spirits are high in Oakland's camp, where the Athletics always see the intravenous drip as half full, rather than half empty.

As Oakland general manager Billy Beane points out, Bobby Kielty just needed an "oil change" on his knee and should return by Opening Day. Mark Kotsay could miss three months with a "microdiscectomy" -- also known as back surgery -- but it's almost comforting for his teammates and the Oakland staff to see the issue resolved after all the pain and discomfort Kotsay has endured.

The A's are fortunate to have enough depth to make do. Milton Bradley feels comfortable sliding from right field to center field, and left fielder Shannon Stewart seems rejuvenated after extended bouts of plantar fasciitis. Then there's Nick Swisher, who's moving from first base to right field and who's so hyperactive he would probably sell foam rubber fingers between innings if management just asked.

"We thought if we put Nick at first base, chatting everybody up over there would keep him occupied. But the rest of the league insisted that we put him back in the outfield," Beane cracked.

The Athletics are conditioned not to overreact to the outfield dings … or DH Mike Piazza getting plunked on the elbow by Kansas City's Brian Bannister last week … or reliever Justin Duchscherer nursing triceps tendinitis in his right elbow … or starter Esteban Loaiza leaving a Cactus League outing early with tightness in his shoulder … because they know things usually work out OK in the end.

Despite losing Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Johnny Damon, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson to free agency or trades, the A's have finished first or second in the American League West eight years running and made five playoff appearances since 1999. Their 376-217 record after the All-Star break is the best in the majors during that eight-year span.

Manager Art Howe gave way to Ken Macha, and Macha gave way to Bob Geren, and the A's still lead the majors in Don King haircuts and juvenile pranks. Phoenix Municipal Stadium wasn't exactly brimming with tension Thursday, when Swisher's teammates drove his black Ford pickup onto the warning track and announced over the loudspeaker that the team would be raffling off the vehicle during the game against Texas.

"Everybody in here screws around and has a good time," said shortstop Bobby Crosby, who should know. He's one of the reasons why the A's are so upbeat.

Beane says it's "very, very critical" that Crosby and No. 1 starter Rich Harden stay on the field this year, and for the moment it's all systems go. The news is especially positive with Harden, who struck out nine batters in his first five Cactus League innings and drew rave reviews. The expectations are even bigger now that Barry Zito has lugged his staff ace label and guaranteed 200-plus innings across the Bay Bridge.

"I played behind Mulder, Hudson and Zito at the top of their games, and Rich is so much more dominating than those guys," second baseman Mark Ellis said. "They're pretty good pitchers, but he's special. I know you hear this a lot, but the sky is the limit with him."

The medical bills have been astronomical, too. After Harden whiffed 167 batters in 189 innings at age 22, he was hailed as the biggest threat to Johan Santana's Cy Young Award hammerlock. But he contributed only 174 innings in 2005-06 because of a strained left oblique, a strained right lat, a muscle strain in his back and a sprained elbow ligament. Now Harden is saddled with a reputation as just another undersized power righty who can't stay healthy.

Harden attributes his elbow trouble to the strain of throwing his changeup. He has a tendency to pronate his arm, or roll it outward, as pitchers do when they throw a screwball. Oddly enough, Harden is aiming for a straight downward motion. Since he throws his changeup at 88-89 mph, it's most effective when it dive-bombs.

Harden eased his mind somewhat when he returned to throw 5 2/3 innings in a 3-0 loss to Kenny Rogers and Detroit in the American League Championship Series. Now that he's made adjustments to his delivery, you can color him cautiously optimistic.

"Even if you say, '[The injury] doesn't bother me,' it's hard to get it completely out of your mind," Harden said. "But to come back in the playoffs in 30-degree weather with all that adrenaline, that was about as much stress as I could put on my body. It was a real confidence booster."

Crosby hit 22 homers and won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2004. He's a fine defender, and ESPN's Peter Gammons wasn't alone in heralding him as an MVP candidate last spring. But the overall numbers leave something to be desired. Crosby has a .244 batting average, a .318 on-base percentage and a .405 slugging percentage in three seasons, and the A's have had to rely on Marco Scutaro to bail them out during his extended absences.

After playing 151 games as a rookie, Crosby has been a wrong-place, wrong-time kind of guy. He fractured two ribs in April 2005 and broke his ankle in a collision with catcher Sal Fasano four months later. Last year Crosby missed almost two months with a fractured vertebra in his back, then vented publicly when it became clear the Oakland medical staff had misdiagnosed the injury.

Crosby is sensitive to the perception that he's fragile. He was healthy in high school, healthy at Long Beach State, and pretty much healthy through the minors with the exception of a hip flexor. But when a guy makes four trips to the disabled list over two seasons, he's not in a position to pick his labels.

"I don't think I'm injury-prone," Crosby said. "You just get bad luck. Some guys are fortunate and some guys aren't. You go through two rough stretches with stuff going on and now you're labeled as injury-prone? Give me a break."

Crosby knows spring training in Arizona can be hazardous for things other than spicy Mexican food and the photo radar speed traps in Scottsdale. In March 2004, Crosby and Ellis collided in pursuit of a Sammy Sosa ground ball. Crosby's right quadriceps met Ellis' right shoulder, and the Oakland second baseman suffered a torn labrum that forced him to miss the entire season.

Ellis fought his way back, and now Crosby is accustomed to the same ordeal of rehabbing and discovering just how far he can push his body. Crosby passed a significant test last week when he cut it loose in batting practice and woke up the next day feeling fine. He'll take his hacks against Loaiza in a simulated game Wednesday, and go from there.

To prevent a relapse, Crosby is committed to a "back stimulation program" with ice and heat treatments and exercises to enhance his "core" and hip strength.

"You get smarter with it," Crosby said. "If this was my first or second year, I'd be out there trying to play right now. But it's not worth the risk that I could reinjure myself and not be ready for Opening Day."

Crosby and Harden both laugh and roll their eyes when asked how much money they'd have if they got a nickel every time someone asked them for a health update this spring.

"I'd double my contract," said Harden, who'll make $2 million this season.

Said Crosby, "All it means is that people care. It gets old, sure, but it's better than no one asking you. That means no one really cares about you."

The Athletics care, for sure. Now it's time for Harden and Crosby to live up to their end of the deal. The best way to make the questions stop is to start providing the right answers.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.