OAKLAND - In a development few could have predicted, perhaps not even general manager Billy Beane, the A's infield has evolved into the backbone of the 2013 team.
It has outperformed what was a highly touted outfield group, and might even surpass the pitching rotation and bullpen, all things considered.
It seems like an eon ago now, but when spring training began, the A's infield situation wasn't just one big question mark, it was four. There was a measure of doubt at every position.
The double-play combination was supposed to be Scott Sizemore at second base and Japanese import Hiroyuki Nakajima at shortstop. Nakajima had never played a day in the majors and Sizemore had missed the 2012 season because of knee surgery.
There also was uneasiness about the corner infielders. Josh Donaldson had showed promise at third base, but his 2012 totals were nine homers and a .241 batting average in 75 games. Over at first, Brandon Moss hit .291 with 21 homers in 84 games, but there was uncertainty whether he could duplicate those numbers based on his journeyman resume.
When the A's couldn't re-sign Stephen Drew, who took over at shortstop for the final month and a half of 2012, questions arose about why Beane traded experienced, reliable shortstop Cliff Pennington to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Eight months later, it all seems like so much wasted worry.
It's easy to point to the acquisition of Jed Lowrie from Houston on Feb. 4 for first baseman Chris Carter and pitcher Brad Peacock as the turning point, but at the time it appeared manager Bob Melvin just had more uncertainties to consider.
"We weren't really sure in spring training what position Lowrie was going to play," Melvin said. "It looked like Sizemore was going to be our everyday second baseman. We didn't know Eric Sogard was going to come on like he did. So we knew we might be flipping some pieces around as the season went along."
As it turned out, Lowrie almost immediately seized the shortstop position from the struggling and subsequently injured Nakajima, who spent the entire season in the minors. Sogard had a fabulous spring and forged a platoon with Sizemore. When Sizemore then reinjured the ACL in his knee during the first week of the season, Sogard absorbed an increased workload with surprising aplomb.
Then there was the stunning emergence of Donaldson, who exceeded everyone's expectations with an All-Star caliber season at third base. Even Beane was knocked back on his heels by that.
"From the time he took over last August, he showed a lot of promise," Beane said. "But he just hasn't stopped. He just kept getting better and better, and he's been an absolute grinder out there. To think how far this guy's come in a year, and to now hear chants of MVP, that's just so impressive."
Although Moss' batting average dropped this season, his production (28 homers, 81 RBIs) hasn't. In addition, Moss has improved his defense at first while maintaining the versatility to play left and right field when Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes were dealing with injuries.
The infield, by comparison, has had comparatively few aches and pains. Lowrie and Donaldson both played in more than 150 games, Moss in more than 140, and Sogard nearly 130. None of them spent a day on the disabled list.