Hey there, hardball fans! Welcome to a special edition of the Roster Report. As the off-season transactions wind down, the Roster Report will shift its focus on to how each team will be shaping their 25-man roster through Spring Training cuts, injuries, and personnel decisions. Today, I’d like to take a closer look at a team who’s made wholesale changes to their roster this offseason: the Oakland Athletics. The A’s gutted their pitching staff in an attempt to reload to complete against their big-spending divisional rivals. Because of these moves,a resulting influx of new players, and big holes in the present roster, there are three rotation spots, a closer opening, two outfield positions, first base, and DH spots that will all be up for grabs this Spring.
The pitching situation will be something to watch, as talents such as Graham Godfrey, Tyson Ross, Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, and Brad Peacock all vie for roster spots. But even more interesting and messy is the outfield / DH / first base situation. The Athletics have, by my count, at least nine players vying for duty at these four spots…and all of these players have a non-zero chance of making the squad. Basically, the Athletics have a situation where if any player fails, there are two more people ready to take his place. That’s why I like to call this situation “The Hydra” – if you cut off one head, two more appear. It’s a rarity for a team to have so many question marks in such prime offensive positions, usually RF, LF, 1B, and DH are the four most prime power-hitting spots in the lineup.
So what I’ll do here is break down the Athletics middle-of-the order Hydra here, giving you odds on which players will make the major league roster and what their most likely role will be.
Smith is the only one of the nine guys I’m profiling who is absolutely assured of breaking camp with the big club. In the left-handed Smith’s career, he has been a terror against right-handed pitchers, and there’s no reason to think that this trend will end here. Over his career, he’s hit 47 of his 51 HR and has posted an excellent .377 wOBA against righties. If you can protect Smith against left-handed pitchers, perhaps by platooning him with another acquisition, he’ll be extremely effective. Given that Smith is an adequate fielder in left, has plenty of major-league experience, and has shown consistency and skill, you can be assured that he’ll start the lion’s share of games as Oakland’s LF.
Chance of making the 25-man roster: 100%
Likely role: LF against right-handed pitchers
The Athletics surprised some when they inked Jonny Gomes to a one-year, $1MM contract when they already had plenty of outfield options. Gomes didn’t have a great 2011, but to be fair, he hasn’t had a great year in his career. Jonny has some power, and stacks huge amounts of strikeouts, but his best use is as the small side of a lefty-righty platoon. Fortunately, with Seth Smith in house, Gomes is a terrific fit as someone who can take the at-bats against lefties that Smith would rather not get. Though Gomes only managed a .209/.325/.389 slash line, his walk rate jumped up and he was mis-used against too many righties. Despite a career wOBA of .378 against lefties but only .317 against righties, Gomes saw twice as many right-handed pitchers as he did lefties with the Nats and Reds last year. Used appropriately in Oakland, he could be a valuable asset for the team and a productive hitter. It turns out that this could be a wise and valuable addition to the team.
Chance of making the 25-man roster: 80%
Likely role: LF against left-handed pitchers, pinch-hitter
You’ll have to forgive me, but I used to get Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish confused. The good news is that should no longer happen, as Reddick is out of Boston and in Oakland, acquired as part of the return for Andrew Bailey. Josh Reddick can do a little of everything. In his rookie season he hit for a little power (7 HR and .177 ISO), got on base (.327 OBP and .280 batting average), and played solid defense (20.2 UZR/150) in a limited 87 game sample. He’s got the right combination of potential and performance to be a starter amid all the question marks in Oakland. I anticipate he’ll get first crack at right field, and he should stick around unless his bat falls apart or he succumbs to injury.
Chance of making the 25-man roster: 80%
Likely role: Starting RF to begin the season
First base has been a bit of a mystery for the Athletics ever since Daric Barton took over as starter in 2008. Barton is not your typical big-slugging first baseman…he hits for very little power (.378 career slugging percentage) and gets his value through walks and solid defense. Coming off of a 2010 where he notched 5.1 fWAR and put up a quiet All-Star-caliber performance, 2011 was a horror show. Daric posted a .212/.325/.267 slash line and found himself in Triple-A during 2011, and with no real potential to live up to, he’s got a tough task in reclaiming his spot as the starter. But even with that in mind, Barton has the major league pedigree, and he is only a year off an excellent performance. I think Barton gets the benefit of the doubt to start the season, unless one of the other first base contenders has a ridiculous Spring Training or his hitting continues to regress. But Chris Carter, Brandon Allen, and others are coming for his job, and Barton will have to produce with the stick to keep it.
Chance of making the 25-man roster: 75%
Likely role: Opening Day “regular” 1B, quick hook if he struggles
Chris Carter has power. Chris Carter has patience. Chris Carter is under team control. What’s not to like? How about the fact that in his short time in the majors, Carter hasn’t been any good at all. He’s only had 124 plate appearances, but he’s managed a
world-class average super-awful .167/.226/.254 slash line. Despite this, he’s still got the pedigree to be a very effective major-league hitter. Not only that, but Carter hits right-handed and could spell players like Josh Reddick, Brandon Allen, Seth Smith, and Daric Barton, making him a solid fit among all the left-handed hitters in the A’s lineup. Still, he could find himself back in Triple-A with a poor showing in the spring.
Chance of making the 25-man roster: 55%
Likely role: Opening Day DH
Cowgill had an explosive season in Triple-A Reno, posting a .354/.430/.554 line in his first go-round in the league. He even stole thirty bases and played solid D in the outfield. But Cowgill was never an elite prospect, and those gaudy offensive numbers were buoyed by the park and league he played in. Still, he has a solid approach, and does a lot of things well. That should be enough for him to stick as a do-everything fourth outfielder for a team like Oakland. And if he can maintain the speed and a decent batting approach, he could be a starter in the league and a potential fantasy steal as well.
Chance of making the 25-man roster: 55%
Likely role: Fourth outfielder
At the risk of over-simplifying, Brandon Allen is basically a left-handed version of Chris Carter. He’s hit for monstrous power in the minors like Carter. He’s capable of taking walks (10.9% BB rate in the majors) like Carter. He has some very serious strikeout issues (he projects to strike out one out of every four PA) like Carter. He plays first base and tries to fake it in the outfield like Carter. He’s even roughly similar in age, just one year older than Carter. Yet that one year difference seems to be a big deal in prospect circles, and Allen is really on his last legs to prove himself beyond Triple-A. A Carter-Allen platoon at first base or DH could be a potent use of both players, but given the defensive limitations of both men, and another platoon already in place in LF, the A’s may be unwilling to go down such a path. Like so many of the young Athletic players, he needs regular time in the lineup to prove his worth at the ML level. He could be Adam Dunn-lite from 2009, or Adam Dunn-lite from 2011.
Chance of making the 25-man roster: 30%
Likely role: Could be either Triple-A 1B / DH or 25th man
No other head of The Hydra has more potential than Michael Taylor. The hulking outfielder was once a blue-chip prospect, but his stock has fallen after uninspiring performances in Triple-A in both 2010 and 2011. Nevertheless, Taylor has power potential and a solid batting eye. Despite getting a little old for a prospect (he is entering his age-26 season), Taylor has earned a chance to show his stuff at the major-league level. I’m sure he’ll get his chance in 2011, but word out of Oakland is that the team wants to see him get off to a good start in Triple-A before getting extended run with the big club. I think he’ll be patrolling right field (or playing DH) by mid-season, and he’ll get his chance to make his mark.
Chance of making the 25-man roster: 25%
Likely role: Triple-A outfielder and mid-season callup
Kila Ka’aihue came over from Kansas City at the very end of the 2011 season after getting blocked at first by uber-prospect Eric Hosmer. Ka’aihue has always put up good minor league numbers (especially OBP), but is old for a prospect at 28 to start 2012. The left-handed hitter hasn’t been particularly effective in the majors (84 wRC+) despite his excellent batting eye, but he’s only been given about 300 plate appearances. Given his age and lack of upside, Kila probably won’t kick off the season with the big club unless something weird happens. He’s probably just the Sacramento first baseman, and some injury insurance.
Chance of making the 25-man roster: 10%
Likely role: Triple-A first baseman
These nine players may not be the most well-known, or the best players in the league. The ZiPS projection system doesn’t have a single one of these nine players posting an offensive season better than league-average. But there’s still a lot of potential here, and with the right combination of playing time and development, the A’s might find themselves with a middle-of-the-order bat or building block that emerges from this bunch of talented-but-flawed players.