Following a tremendously successful season in which they surpassed any and all reasonable expectations from even the most optimistic of fans, the Oakland Athletics are poised to make another run at the playoffs in 2013.
Although general manager Billy Beane hinted that the roster would essentially remain the same, he’s still been a busy man over the last few months, continuing to tweak the roster through trades as recently as two days ago.
While it’s anyone’s guess as to who will actually take the field on Opening Day, one thing that is evident is the organizational philosophy that underlies each of these transactions.
Beane has given reigning AL Manager of the Year Bob Melvin plenty to work with for the platoon strategy that led to a division title last season, and this year’s spring training could be a prime opportunity for a beat reporter to win a Pulitzer if they can somehow decipher which players will win their respective competitions for an everyday spot in the lineup.
I could be cute here — or honest considering the realities of how Melvin is going to distribute playing time — and just say that every position is up for grabs. However for the sake of this article let’s narrow it down to five.
Catchers will be ruled out, as John Jaso and Derek Norris are the only two on the roster. The pitching staff, a huge question mark going into last season, is fairly set going into spring training. Josh Reddick will get most of the time in right field, as his accurate, powerful arm is a huge asset at that position. Daric Barton and Brandon Moss will likely see the brunt of the action at first base. We’re not going to cover the designated hitter since that will vary depending on who gets the nod to start on certain days, but expect to see Seth Smith there for the most part.
Thus, we’re left with the positions where there is a surplus of talent, which Melvin will have to masterfully insert into the game depending on certain situations and matchups: second base, shortstop, third base, center field and left field.
Starting off with the infield, I’m going to throw in a disclaimer here: ALL infield positions other than first base are in flux. Some of these questions won’t be answered until well into the season, and there is a strong likelihood that there could be a domino effect if one player doesn’t work out the way Beane and Melvin want them to, as David Schoenfield points out.
Now that we have that out of the way, second base seems to be the most wide open out of all of these positions. Management and fans alike had high hopes for Jemile Weeks heading into last season, however his poor offensive output (he recorded a whopping -8 RAR for the season) forced the coaching staff to look elsewhere for meaningful production.
Scott Sizemore, on the other hand, will be eager to get back on the field after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Originally intended to be the starting third basemen on last year’s squad, the emergence of Josh Donaldson at third and the addition of Lowrie means that he is probably going to have to acclimate to the right side of the infield if he wants to make an impact in 2013.
Obviously, in comparison to Weeks, Sizemore has more to offer at the plate, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out in Arizona. Sizemore posted a line of .249/.345/.433 in 2011, but it’s been a full year since he’s faced elite pitching and will need time to re-adjust.
Weeks has tons of potential, but he has to learn to play within himself and develop plate discipline that he hasn’t shown so far in his 215 games in the big leagues. Still, Weeks’ speed alone is a huge asset — he was third in the AL in triples with 8 — but his value right now is on defense, and if he continues to compile errors (11 in 2012, 4th highest in AL), Sizemore will win out if he can prove to be a competent fielder.
Also, don’t be surprised when Melvin inevitably brings in a utility infielder like Adam Rosales or Eric Sogard to shore up the defense in close game situations. Hiroyuki Nakajima could also be used at second depending on how things work out for him at shortstop.
Moving to the left side of the diamond, shortstop is a much more intriguing situation. The signing of Nakajima seemed to be the final infield addition to the roster, but Jed Lowrie’s arrival certainly changes the scheme of things. Whichever player proves to be better at the plate will likely see the most time on the field, at least initially.
Yet Lowrie may provide more value at third, where Josh Donaldson is still relatively inexperienced, and Melvin will surely tinker with different
combinations at second, shortstop and third, using Nakajima and Lowrie situationally and mixing in utility players like Rosales, Sogard, and Andy Parrino off of the bench.
Donaldson will go into spring training as the default third basemen as he finished the season there last year, but again, nothing is set and stone. Not only could Lowrie usurp his starting spot, but Sizemore was obviously good enough there in the past where he would logically warrant consideration as a third basemen this season, and you have to wonder if Donaldson’s timely hitting from last year will regress and force Melvin’s hand.
Now to the messiest section of the A’s roster, the outfield. This certainly could be a case of having too much of a good thing, and it will be interesting to see how some of these players react to a lack of on-field action. Repetition and consistent playing time are key for player performance in the baseball, and center field will be the most controversial position when it comes down to naming a starter.
Coco Crisp provided leadership and outstanding defense throughout the A’s amazing run last year, and should Melvin go with Chris Young to start off the season, it could rub some players in the locker room the wrong way (mainly Crisp).
Considering the amount of respect Melvin deservedly commands, that’s unlikely, and all of these players know what the deal is in regards to how Melvin manages the roster, but he’s going to have to find a way to keep both Crisp and Young happy.
While Yoenis Cespedes will undoubtedly eat up most of the playing time in left field, he did have some trouble with injuries last year, and there will certainly be instances where Cespedes gets a night off to prevent that from happening again. I’d expect Young to see some time in left, especially early on to see how he performs there. This means Cespedes could see some early rest, which could pay dividends in the fall when fresh legs are at a premium.
What I find to be most interesting here is Michael Taylor. Taylor stands at 6’5″ and 255 pounds, a whopping six inches taller than Cespedes and 45 pounds heavier. The prospect of having two hulking outfielders that knock can knock the ball out of the park has to be tantalizing for Beane and a fan base that fondly remembers the Bash Brothers era as the last time the A’s brought a World Series trophy back to the east bay.
I’m sure this is more a case of bringing Taylor along slowly and giving him a chance to compete in spring training for the sake of development, but it’d certainly be a quandary if he played well enough in Phoenix to make Beane and Melvin consider keeping him in Oakland as a sixth(!) option in the outfield.
The biggest wild card in all of this is health. Young has battled injuries in the past, Crisp is now 33 years old, and we already mentioned Cespedes. It’s practically impossible to expect all of these players to avoid the injury bug for the entire season, and in the case that they don’t, Beane and Melvin have a great insurance policy in place to shore up the outfield.
That holds true for the infield as well, but offense is more of a factor there when it comes to depth, or a lack thereof.
More than any other year in recent memory, the Oakland Athletics’ spring training will be one of the most interesting in the league to keep an eye on. We’ll see if the players can keep the amazing chemistry going while battling each other for the privilege of representing the Green and Gold come April.