TEMPE, Ariz. -- Daric Barton, the rookie who's projected as the A's starting first baseman this season, returned to the lineup with a bang on Monday after missing eight straight starts with soreness on the side of his left hand.

Barton's three-run, second-inning homer off Angels reliever Matt Wilhite also was his first hit of the spring. Barton, who was walked by starter John Lackey in the first inning, is 1-for-11 in Cactus League play.

"Everything feels good," Barton said after the Angels came from behind to win, 5-4, at Tempe Diablo Stadium. "I'm looking forward to playing again."

The A's are counting heavily on the 22-year-old Barton to blossom this season as part of their youth movement.

With Nick Swisher traded to the White Sox, Barton has virtually displaced Dan Johnson, who played 97 games at first base last year. Johnson is in a battle this spring for a roster spot, along with veteran Mike Sweeney, who was invited to camp on a Minor League contract and is batting .400 (10-for-25).

"I'm just going out there just doing what I can do," Barton said earlier. "If I make the team, I make the team. I'd like to start, but if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. If I don't succeed in the Major Leagues, maybe they'll send me back."

That's unlikely. The A's are out of options on Johnson to send him to the Minors, which means he must be traded or designated for assignment if the A's determine they want to keep Sweeney. Opening up Johnson's spot on the 40-man roster is one way of getting Sweeney on the team. But the slow recovery of Eric Chavez from back surgery may leave spots for both Johnson and Sweeney until the third baseman is healthy.

Barton played the 2007 season at Triple-A Sacramento, but he was a Sept. 1 callup and started 18 games at first base for the A's, impressing many by batting .347 with nine doubles, four homers and eight RBIs.

"He had a great September for us. He's a good hitter. He really is," A's manager Bob Geren said. "I'm projecting him to be in the middle of everything [this season]."

Barton said that his hand problem was a repetitive injury, the result of swinging the bat so much too early in Spring Training. He also said the root of the injury was a swipe tag at first base last July when he was still playing for the River Cats.

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"And I was good to go," he said about missing only two games at that time. "This time it took a little longer. It was a precautionary thing to give me some time off."

The A's, concerned about the slow nature of the recovery, sent Barton to see a hand specialist, who told him late last week that the injury wasn't serious. Barton was cleared to take batting practice on Sunday, and he pinch-hit in the eighth inning during a 5-2 loss to the Brewers. After striking out, Barton was sent out to play first base for the last half inning.

It was his first action in eight days.

"My timing's good and my hand's good," Barton said. "I'm not favoring it. They made sure I was 100 percent before I went out there."

The A's are coming off a season during which the disabled list was utilized 22 times, costing players 1,259 games. In addition, with Opening Day against the Red Sox in the Tokyo Dome on March 25, any injury at this point has to be considered critical.

For Barton to be ready for that trip, he's going to need 40-50 plate appearances, he suggested. He has 12 now.

Asked if Barton would play every day until the team breaks camp in nine days, Geren said: "He's going to play as much as he can play."