Burden falls on Zito, Harden

Originally Published: February 22, 2005
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN Insider
PHOENIX – Jason Kendall bears the relaxed, liberated look of a man who's just received his "Get out of Bradenton Free" card. After nine straight losing seasons in Pittsburgh, he looks dapper in Oakland green and gold, and ready to contribute to a winner in any way he can.

Kendall's mission in Oakland is two-fold: 1) The Athletics want him to play up to his career standard and get on base at a clip of .390 or thereabouts; and 2) they'd like him to spend the next eight months doing a mind-meld with their pitching staff.

Even though Kendall is known primarily as an offensive catcher, he takes pride in his defense. He is, after all, the son of a catcher, and aware of the cerebral shortcomings of the men who stand 60 feet, 6 inches away.

"Pitchers are really out there," Kendall said, "so you don't want them to think. You want to do the thinking for them, because they're not very bright. That's just my opinion."

In Oakland, the pitchers are bright enough to know they'll spend a big chunk of spring training fielding questions about whether this team can win without Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder at the top of the rotation. While that's preferable to inquiries about Jose Canseco's book, leaked grand jury testimony or the pluses and minuses of Alex Rodriguez, the routine still has the potential to get old in a hurry.

Soon the focus will shift to holdover Barry Zito and whether he's ready, at 26, to rediscover his 23-5, Cy Young Award form of 2002. The A's claim they're confident Zito is up to the challenge, even though his 11-11 record and 4.48 ERA a year ago weren't exactly inspiring.

The hard part is figuring out what to expect from the rest of Oakland's precocious staff.

Jerry Crasnick

ESPN Senior Writer