The Oakland A's offense has been less-than-impressive for the past three seasons, but rarely has the team looked as bad at the plate as it does right now. As a team, the A's currently have a slash line more fitting of a National League pitcher (.236/.305/.345) than a projected contender for the American League post-season.
Those responsible for the A's offensive woes are not small in number. Oakland's revamped outfield/DH rotation has underperformed thus far. The only player on the A's current roster with an OPS greater than 750 is back-up catcher Landon Powell (who sports a 760 OPS). Josh Willingham leads the team in homeruns and RBIs with three and 13, respectively. To put those numbers in perspective, Ben Zobrist had two homers and 10 RBIs on Thursday alone (he played in both ends of a double-header).
Because the A's offensive woes are so widespread, finding a fix for the problem is not going to be easy. If the slide continues past the middle of May, it is likely the A's will look outside of the organization in search of someone (or someones) who can jumpstart the offense. However, for the time-being, it seems likely that the A's will choose to see how the season unfolds before trading some of their chips.
One easy way for the A's to shake-up their current line-up would be to give more playing time to their bench players who are currently out-performing the starters – Powell, Ryan Sweeney, Andy LaRoche and Conor Jackson. LaRoche, in particular, seems like an obvious choice for increased playing time. He had an outstanding spring training and has swung the bat decently well. More importantly, he plays a position (third base) that is currently being handled by Kevin Kouzmanoff, who has arguably had the worst start of any player on the team, both from an offensive and defensive perspective.
The other in-house option the A's have, of course, is to turn to their minor league system for reinforcements. But are there any strong candidates for promotion currently?
Generally speaking, the biggest bats on any American League roster are at the corner infield and outfield positions, as well as DH. None of the A's regular starters at the corner infield and outfield spots or at DH are playing all that well. However, the A's invested both trade capital and money in new outfield acquisitions Willingham and David DeJesus and have a lot of money tied up in DH Hideki Matsui, so it is unlikely Oakland will give-up on those players so soon. First baseman Daric Barton is not expensive, but he is coming off of a very solid 2010 season and is one of the A's cornerstones for the future, so he isn't going to be replaced in the everyday line-up anytime soon.
Even if the A's were willing to bench one of the aforementioned starters, there isn't a natural replacement at Triple-A Sacramento ready to jump into the fray. Top outfield/first base prospects Chris Carter, Michael Taylor and Sean Doolittle are all currently at various stages of recovery from injuries and aren't available.
If A's centerfielder Coco Crisp's leg injury turns into a more serious ailment that requires a DL stint, Oakland could try to catch lightening in a bottle and add Jai Miller to the roster. Miller would have to be added to the 40-man roster, but he is by far the hottest-hitting outfielder on the Sacramento roster right now. The Pacific Coast League Player of the Week for the week of April 18, Miller is currently batting .364 with a .478 OBP and an .818 SLG. Over his last 10 games, Miller's OPS is 1483.
Miller is a talented player and was a promising Florida Marlins' prospect just a few seasons ago. He appeared in 20 games last season with the Kansas City Royals, but had a 645 OPS as big league pitchers exploited his lack of plate discipline. Miller has above-average power, but he has struggled to keep his strike-outs down throughout his career. He has already struck-out 23 times in only 16 games for Sacramento. Still, Miller has been a streaky hitter throughout his career and the A's could benefit if his current hot streak carried over into the big leagues.
Matt Carson would be the other option for the A's should Crisp's thigh injury require a DL stint. As he has for the past two seasons, Carson is putting up good numbers for Sacramento, posting an 847 OPS in 16 games. He recently missed a few games with a back injury, although he has been playing regularly since Monday. Carson, like Miller, doesn't have great plate discipline, something that has been exploited by major league pitchers during Carson's previous two stints in the big leagues. In 46 career major league games, Carson has struck-out 30 times and has walked only twice.
If the A's are going to make a switch at this early stage in the season, it is far more likely to come at the infield positions (minus first base) than in the outfield or at DH. The A's current starting infielders – Kevin Kouzmanoff, Mark Ellis and Cliff Pennington – are all off to slow starts. In Kouzmanoff's case, the slow start has been both offensively and defensively.
On a team of bad offensive performances thus far, Ellis has had the worst. He has 90 at-bats, one shy of the team lead, but he is batting a team-worst .200 with a 542 OPS. Ellis hasn't had a multi-hit game since April 20 and he has an ugly 20:4 K:BB ratio, uncharacteristic numbers for a player who has averaged roughly 68 strikeouts and 38 walks a season. At 33 years old, Ellis is probably at the start of the decline phase of his career offensively, but defensively he has been as reliable as ever. Given the A's problems defensively early in the season, the A's front office is unlikely to want to bench their one reliable glove, at least at this early stage.
If the A's were to make a move at second base, it would be because they felt that Jemile Weeks was ready for an everyday role in the big leagues. Weeks, the A's top pick in 2008, is off to an outstanding start at Triple-A after two injury-plagued seasons with High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland in 2009 and 2010. On Thursday night, Weeks fell a single short of the cycle and raised his slash line to .333/.440/.547. He is the kind of player who can ignite an offense from the top-of-the-order in that he has some power, well above-average speed and the ability to work a walk. Weeks has reached base safely in every game he has started this season and he has 14 walks and 14 runs scored in 19 games for Sacramento.
Defensively, Weeks is not Ellis' equal (who is?), but he is much better than people anticipated he'd be when he was drafted out of Miami. He'd likely be, at worst, an average defensive second baseman right now in the big leagues, although he is still prone to the occasional silly mistake.
That all being said, Weeks has only had 19 games at the Triple-A level and he has had a tendency in his career to get off to good starts at a level, only to cool off. He has also yet to demonstrate that he can stay healthy for an extended period of time. The A's would undoubtedly like to see him prove that he can sustain this level of performance and health for a longer period than three weeks before making him their everyday second baseman and lead-off hitter.
Eric Sogard, who almost won a job on the A's Opening Day roster this spring, is the best defensive second baseman on the River Cats' roster. He brings many of the same skills to the table that Ellis does: he sees a lot of pitches, can hit for average and plays solid defense. Sogard doesn't have Ellis' power, however, and he is off to a bit of a slow start with the River Cats (725 OPS), although he is batting .356 over his last 10 games.
Unlike Weeks, who has played almost exclusively at second base in his career, Sogard can play at second, short and third, so he could be considered for any of those positions should the A's decide to make a move.
Current A's starting shortstop Pennington is batting only .239 with a 589 OPS. He also had a slow start defensively, although he has played better in the field lately and his bat has also heated up some. Last season, Pennington was arguably the second-most valuable defensive shortstop in the American League behind Alexei Ramirez. Given the A's value on defense, Pennington is likely to be given a bit longer leash. None of the River Cats' current infielders are in the same realm as Pennington in terms of defensive ability.
The biggest target to be moved to the bench at this early stage of the season has to be Kouzmanoff, the A's starting third baseman. Although he is second on the team in homers with two, Kouzmanoff has been a black hole offensively and defensively this season, for the most part. His OPS is 605 and he has a .244 OBP. He has also committed six errors, most of them in costly situations in close games. The A's had attempted to upgrade at third base over the off-season but were unable to lure All-Star Adrian Beltre on a free agent deal or make a trade. The A's have no long-term commitment to Kouzmanoff and given his rough start, one would think he'd be on a very tight leash.
Unfortunately for Oakland, there are no obvious replacements for Kouzmanoff at Triple-A either. As was mentioned earlier, the A's current back-up infielder LaRoche is the best internal candidate to take over for Kouzmanoff at third. Sogard profiles more as a middle infielder than a third baseman. Top catching prospect Josh Donaldson has seen some time at third base with the River Cats this season, but he is still viewed as a catcher first and a third baseman second.
Steven Tolleson is another option, although the A's have had two opportunities to keep him on their 40-man roster in the past few months and have declined to do so. Tolleson had a breakthrough offensive season in 2010 with Sacramento and had decent success with the A's, hitting .286 with a 748 OPS. He is currently batting .280 with a .400 OBP for Oakland and would certainly be an improvement over Kouzmanoff in the plate discipline category. However, Tolleson profiles more as a utility player in the big leagues, so handing him the everyday third base job in Oakland seems unlikely.
Josh Horton has received the most playing time at third base for the River Cats this season. A natural shortstop, he has moved to third to make way for Sogard, who has played there in every game but three this season. Horton is a solid defensive player at short and has handled third base just fine. Like Sogard and Tolleson, Horton has a good eye. He doesn't have much power, however, and he is off to a slow start offensively with Sacramento, so it doesn't seem likely the A's will turn to Horton right now to replace Kouzmanoff.
The other candidate to replace Kouzmanoff is Adrian Cardenas, who has been one of the organization's top prospects since he was acquired from Philadelphia during the 2008 season. Cardenas is off to a hot start with the River Cats at the plate, batting .364 with an 878 OPS in 19 games. This performance is a stark contrast to his start with Sacramento last year, when he struggled to get his average above the .200 mark and wound-up being sent back to Double-A after a month.
Cardenas doesn't currently have the power normally associated with a third baseman, but he is only 23 and that may develop over time. What he does have is the natural ability to spray line-drives all over the field. He was a career .300 hitter coming into this season and profiles as a guy who can hit for average and get on-base at a solid clip in the major leagues.
Unfortunately, Cardenas' bat is well ahead of his glove at the moment. A shortstop in high school, Cardenas has been moved from short to second to third and back again throughout his minor league career. The A's attempted to have him make a more permanent move to third base last season, but he really struggled with the glove there and those struggles may have had something to do with his difficulties at the plate early in the season, as well. When he returned to Sacramento late last season, he was the team's everyday second baseman and he appeared much more comfortable there.
This year, Cardenas has yet to get much time during the games at third base, although he has been working before games at the position. In 21 games, River Cats' manager Darren Bush has sent out Cardenas at third six times. In those six games, Cardenas has had 11 total chances and has committed three errors, so there is still clearly work to be done on Cardenas' part to improve defensively at third. It may very well wind-up that he is unsuited for the position and the A's will have to make room for him at second or short. More than likely, he will continue to get some looks at third and those looks will get longer if he shows improvement. However, given the negative impact Kouzmanoff's errors have had on the A's thus far this season, there is little chance that they will throw a shaky glove like Cardenas' out there right now, even if his bat would likely be an upgrade.
In the end, it seems that the A's and their fans are going to have to exercise a little more patience with the offense and hope that things turn around soon. If the A's don't start hitting like they were expected to soon, however, don't look for Oakland to wait until the July trading season to make a deal.