OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -Eric Chavez acknowledges the Oakland Athletics could be bad - or they could be a surprise team.
The third baseman really doesn't know.
The A's are rebuilding, again. The difference is general manager Billy Beane is taking a new approach by reloading the franchise's farm system starting at the lowest levels.
This way, the innovative GM figures, the A's will have ample resources for years to come to make deep playoff runs like their trip to the AL championship series of 2006.
``We're a huge question-mark team,'' Chavez said. ``We could be somewhat good. We could be somewhat bad.''
Oakland will find out plenty when it opens the season Tuesday in Tokyo with the first of two games against the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
``You just never know,'' said Chavez, who didn't make the trip in order to rest his surgically repaired back. ``One thing we know is we have a ton of talent. I can see this team making a good second-half push. Some of the young guys are going to need their 100 at-bats first.''
Beane traded away ace Dan Haren to the Arizona Diamondbacks in December. The 2007 All-Star came to Oakland when Mark Mulder was dealt to St. Louis in a three-day span in late 2004 that also saw Tim Hudson sent to the Atlanta Braves.
Only the Baltimore Orioles have rebuilt as much as the A's heading into 2008.
``Let's set this straight: The GM has done a pretty good job around here,'' new outfielder Emil Brown said. ``He's got a really good history of putting together some pretty good teams. Maybe he knows something that you guys don't know or something that we don't know yet. He's put the pieces there. I trust he knows what he's doing.''
Beane realized when the A's finished one game out of last place in the AL West last year that something drastic had to be done.
Oakland is coming off its first losing season since 1998 at 76-86 and finished third in the division on the last day ahead of the Texas Rangers. Beane knew his club probably wouldn't compete with the favored and defending AL West champion Los Angeles Angels this year, so moving forward with the face-lift seemed like the best option.
Popular outfielders Nick Swisher and Mark Kotsay also were traded, as was super-sub Marco Scutaro - and almost all the players the A's received in those swaps were unproven minor leaguers. The A's also added designated hitter Mike Sweeney by signing the former Kansas City fan favorite to a minor-league contract, and he is likely to start opening day.
``We've had a great run of 10 years in our farm system,'' Beane said. ``Part of this process is to refocus on what got us to this point. ... Would you like to rebuild over 10 years - kind of rebuild, kind of not? Last year at the end of the year, we knew this day was coming.''
Ask any of the regulars who have been around here in recent years and even they had to check name plates and do their fair share of introductions upon arriving at spring training last month.
``We have a bunch of guys I recognize, but there's a lot more that I don't,'' said shortstop Bobby Crosby, the 2004 AL Rookie of the Year who hopes to play a full year after being plagued by injuries the past three seasons. ``It's different. We're going to be a little bit younger, but we've got a lot of guys who've been around.''
Joe Blanton is the new No. 1 starter in a remade rotation, and the burly right-hander is set to start Oakland's opener in Japan.
The 27-year-old followed his 16-win season in 2006 with a 14-10 showing last season, posting a 3.95 ERA in a career-high 230 innings. He had 140 strikeouts to only 40 walks in 34 starts, pitched three complete games and allowed only 16 home runs.
The defense behind him will feature a healthy Crosby at shortstop, Mark Ellis at second and new first baseman Daric Barton. Jack Hannahan is filling in at third until Chavez is ready to go. Chavez, a six-time Gold Glove winner, underwent three surgeries in three months last year - on his right shoulder in September, his back in October and the left shoulder in November.
``It's a good energy around here,'' Ellis said. ``We could be really good. A couple guys could get hurt and we could be not very good. But ultimately I think we're going to be a lot better at the end of the season. That's not saying we're going to be bad at the beginning of the season either.''
One thing second-year skipper Bob Geren is thrilled about is having a healthy roster. He hopes that's the case at least.
Right-hander Rich Harden is returning, too - and he is the starter for Game 2 in Tokyo.
The 26-year-old went 1-2 with a 2.45 ERA in only 25 2-3 innings in 2007 because of an inflamed right shoulder and didn't pitch after July 7. He threw two simulated games late in the year with the hopes of making two final starts, but ultimately decided it wasn't worth risking further injury.
He was 4-0 in nine games in 2006, spending time on the disabled list with a strained back and then a strained elbow ligament.
``There's a good feeling this time of the year. It's a time for optimism,'' Geren said. ``We're ready to go and anxious to get started. We have a team that's hungry and ready to win. The rebuilding process is done at the minor league level. The major leagues are all about winning.''
No matter the new faces, Oakland's laid-back clubhouse is still rockin' and a fun place to be.
``Maybe it's something they drink in the water in California, I don't know,'' Brown said with a smile.

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