Sizing up what’s on the horizon for the guys in white shoes as the calendar turns to March.
SPRING TRAINING COMPETITIONS
For a team that could easily lose 100 games this season I think the A’s are surprisingly more entertaining to follow through spring training than a team that could win 100 games. Don’t get me wrong, I wish the A’s had all the makings of a 100 game winner but those kinds of teams rarely enter spring training with much intrigue. There are a ton of new faces in camp for the A’s and there are open competitions for playing time all over the diamond.
FIRST BASE: Daric Barton, Brandon Allen, Kila Ka’aihue, and Chris Carter are all in the mix. I think Barton’s the favorite to pull away from the pack and reclaim the starting gig at first but the next month will be pivotal for each man to make a case for playing time in Oakland. The fact that Barton will be relegated to DH’ing for a while as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery should give Allen, Ka’aihue, and Carter a few extra opportunities to impress manager Bob Melvin and the front office.
THIRD BASE: If Josh Donaldson runs with the opportunity to be an everyday third baseman for at least one year he owes it all to Scott Sizemore’s busted knee. You have to assume that Adam Rosales and Eric Sogard will get at least a little time at the hot corner and general manager Billy Beane will keep his eyes peeled for some trades or waiver claims to add some much-needed depth to the position.
Any chance we have a Miguel Tejada sighting? I love Miggy and he wants a chance to come back but I think that’d be a waste of time. I seriously doubt Tejada has anything left in the tank and even if he does have something to offer I’m not sold on the idea that he’d really be able to outperform Donaldson over the long haul. Unless Donaldson spends the next month striking out left and right while booting almost every ball hit his way I’d have to assume he’s in the starting lineup in Tokyo.
BACKUP CATCHER: Aside from Donaldson, Anthony Recker and Landon Powell stand to benefit from Sizemore’s injury. Donaldson was their main competition to win a spot at the end of the A’s bench collecting dust all year while the team runs Kurt Suzuki into the ground but now he’s pegged as the main man at third. Recker’s bat might give him a slight edge over Powell but neither man generates much excitement. If the A’s are really serious about finally giving Suzuki more days off this year, the backup catcher spot could stand to get an upgrade by the end of camp. This could be another spot where Beane makes some minor moves to add to the competition.
CLOSER: Right now smart money says the team breaks camp with Brian Fuentes in charge of getting the final three outs in the ninth inning but nothing is set in stone. I can understand why Melvin would take the comfortable route and lean on the only proven veteran closer he has in camp but if Fuentes stinks it up over the next few weeks and Grant Balfour, Joey Devine, or Fautino De Los Santos pitch too well to be ignored they could force their way into the ninth inning gig. As much as I hate to admit it, overall the A’s are probably better off with Fuentes closing out games just because it should bump up his trade value at the deadline. I just cringe every time he comes into a game and slings that slop of his up to the plate.
DESIGNATED HITTER: Melvin is going to have to be creative to get a good look at everyone in the mix for this spot in the limited at-bats he’ll have to work with while the team is rounding into form in the desert. Manny Ramirez is clearly going to need to get his swings in and Barton is going to be relegated to DH for a while which will get in the way of some other players getting their work in. Allen, Ka’aihue, and Carter have a shot at winning this job for at least 50 games while Manny serves his drug suspension and Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith are also candidates to hold down the DH gig early in the year. With that many players in the picture, the designated hitter position is currently stuffed with more bodies than a clown car. Personally, my top two picks to break camp in this spot are Carter and Smith but that’s simply out of a selfish curiosity to see what they could do with regular playing time.
THE ROTATION: I’m assuming the starting five will be Brandon McCarthy, Bartolo Colon, Dallas Braden, Jarrod Parker, and Tom Milone but the last three spots are up for grabs considering the fact that Braden is recovering from major shoulder surgery and Parker and Milone are just kids. Brad Peacock, Tyson Ross, and Graham Godfrey all have a chance to force their way into the rotation if Braden’s recovery stalls and Parker and Millone fail to take control of the final two slots in the rotation. My gut says my first guess at the rotation will hold up.
OUTFIELD: The A’s consider Yoenis Cespedes to be a center fielder. Coco Crisp considers himself to be a center fielder. Something has to give and when Cespedes finally gets his visa cleared up and lands in Phoenix we’ll see who’s right. One way or another both men should leave Arizona firmly entrenched in Oakland’s starting lineup alongside Josh Reddick. I’m more curious to see how Collin Cowgill and Jermaine Mitchell perform and if they can do enough to win a job as a backup. It’s kind of sad that as I write this up Michael Taylor is simply an afterthought.
Clearly, the spring will go a long way toward determining what the regular season roster will look like but considering the fact that the 2012 club will probably be terrible no matter who leaves Phoenix with a starting job, this month also offers a chance to look at the kids who have the potential to really be key members of the next great A’s team.
The No. 1 thing I want to see in spring training is a glimpse of the future for the A’s. I want to see some impressive small sample size numbers even though I know they don’t really mean anything. I want to read stories from Joe Stiglich and Susan Slusser about teammates and coaches raving about how great they can be even though I know a lot of it is just standard lip service.
Hope is a beautiful thing and it’s part of the charm of spring training. Right now, everyone’s in first place. Every player is on the verge of an amazing comeback or a suprising breakout. In September when the A’s may have 90 losses the concept of hope may seem like a bad joke but for now I’ll gladly dream about a 2013 outfield of Green, Cespedes, and Choice with a rotation that includes Parker, Cole, and Gray leading a playoff run that shocks the world.
I guess that’s closer to complete insanity than hope but if you’re going to dream you might as well dream big.
WHEELING AND DEALING
The A’s seemingly have a million outfielders and no third baseman so something has to give, right? It’s hard to imagine the A’s going from March 1 to Opening Day at the end of the month without making some moves even if they’re just minor tweaks. They’ve been rumored to have an interest in trading for Texas reliever Koji Uehara and they’ve also been mentioned as a possible landing spot for free agent reliever Mike Gonzalez. As I mentioned earlier, I can see them making a move for some third base and catching depth and you can never put it past Beane to make a big trade when no one is expecting it.
This team is still in rebuilding mode and you have to figure Fuentes and Balfour could be in play toward the end of spring training if an injury on another team creates a need and an opportunity for Beane to nab a decent prospect. And depending on how the outfield competition shakes out I could see Crisp being dealt if he really has a major problem moving to left field for Cespedes and a young outfielder appears to be ready for a full-time job.
I don’t think Crisp is going anywhere for the moment but nothing surprises me anymore with the A’s. And as the Sizemore injury shows, every team is just one play away from having a major hole in their lineup. If a center fielder for a contender goes down in a heap Crisp may suddenly be a hot commodity.
FINALLY, REAL BASEBALL
Mark your calendars for March 28 when the A’s send ESPN coverboy Brandon McCarthy to the mound to take on Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners in Tokyo. Who knows? If you’re a die-hard fan with some money to burn you may already have your flight booked to go to Japan and root for Melvin’s squad in person. If you’re going, I’m jealous. I’m half Japanese and I’ve never been to Japan so this would have been a great opportunity to combine my love for the A’s with my curiosity for the land of the rising sun but parenthood and the realities of a modest household budget are going to keep me at home.
I guess the next best thing to being there is plopping down on the couch in front of the TV with some sushi and sake and making the best of it when the season finally starts. Even in a year that could realistically see the A’s lose 100 games I’m still fired up for Opening Day. The players may come and go faster than ever but some things never change.