How can the Oakland A's jumpstart their anemic offense? This is the question that has been hanging over the team since 2007.
The A's offensive woes have been particularly dramatic this season. Oakland currently boasts the lowest team ERA in the major leagues and yet they sit in last place in the mediocre American League West with a 24-27 record thanks to an offense that ranks 24th in runs scored, 25th in batting average, 26th in on-base percentage and 27th in slugging percentage.
The A's feature a veteran-heavy line-up with numerous off-season acquisitions who were brought in to improve what was a poor offense last season. With the exception of centerfielder Coco Crisp, who joined the team before the 2010 season, all of the A's entire starting outfielders/designated hitter were off-season acquisitions.
Thus far, none of those off-season acquisitions are playing up to expectations. The team's best offensive player has been fourth outfielder Ryan Sweeney, who has a .314/.415/.400 line, but has only amassed 70 at-bats. No regular has an OPS above 750 and Crisp, the lead-off hitter, has the team's best slugging percentage at .412. The team's first-baseman and most valuable all-around player last season, Daric Barton, is currently batting .206 with a 586 OPS.
With so many veterans under-performing their career averages, there are some who believe that the A's will eventually start performing significantly better offensively and that the answer to the A's woes is simply patience. That line of thinking was easy to adopt in April, but as the season has moved closer to its third month, time is quickly running out for this iteration of the A's line-up to start producing.
After all, if the law of averages dictates that the A's offense will improve to bring their players closer to their career norms, that same law would state that the A's pitching will regress some. If the best the A's can do with super-human pitching is three games under .500, they will have no chance at competing for the playoffs with a merely outstanding pitching staff if their offense doesn't improve dramatically - and fast.
One option for improving the offense would be for the A's to make a trade for a star position player. However, with only two teams more than 7.5 games out of first place at this point in the season, there aren't many teams who are likely to be sellers at this stage in the season. And given the lack of teams with players available for trades, those players who are available are likely to be over-valued.
So where can the A's turn at this stage in the season? The obvious place to look is internally. With Barton currently struggling, top prospect and first-baseman Chris Carter would be the ideal candidate to target for a call-up, but Carter has been out since April 20 with a thumb sprain. Although Carter is likely to return soon, he will need at-bats before he is ready for a major league call-up.
The A's also have top prospects performing well in left-field (Adrian Cardenas) and second base (Jemile Weeks). Cardenas is batting .351 with an 879 OPS in 44 games. Weeks is hitting .322 with a .412 OBP and an 866 OPS.
Cardenas, a natural middle infielder, has only recently started playing regularly in left-field. He profiles as a very similar offensive player to Sweeney, but with less speed and more patience. And he doesn't have Sweeney's defensive skills. The A's are more likely to give Sweeney an everyday role at this stage of the season than to promote Cardenas, at least for now.
Weeks would seem like an ideal candidate for a promotion given that starting second baseman Mark Ellis currently has the lowest OPS of any A's player - regular or bench player. Ellis is the longest-tenured A's player by several seasons and his leadership and defensive skills at second base are highly valued by the A's front office. Any rookie, even one as talented as Weeks, who replaces Ellis mid-season will face tremendous scrutiny given Ellis' popularity with fans and his teammates and may be set-up for failure before he even begins.
So where can the A's turn?
There is another prospect who is currently performing very well for Sacramento: outfielder Michael Taylor. Taylor was the A's top prospect going into last season, but he struggled in his first year in the A's organization, posting a 740 OPS with only a .392 SLG in 127 games. Those numbers were down significantly compared to Taylor's previous two seasons in the Philadelphia organization, when he posted OPSs of 968 and 944 and SLGs of .557 and .549.
The A's were hopeful that Taylor would recapture the form he displayed with Philadelphia this season, but his 2011 got off to a poor start when he injured his wrist during spring training. Taylor wasn't cleared to leave extended spring training until six weeks into the season. Wrist injuries can often be devastating for a hitter, so it wouldn't have been surprising if Taylor had gotten off to a slow start after he debuted for Sacramento.
Instead, Taylor has shined. On Thursday, he went 3-5 with his first homerun of the season and he drove-in four runs. He has hit safely in all but one game since he returned and in 53 at-bats, Taylor is batting .377 with an 882 OPS.
Although Taylor doesn't have the pure homerun power of fellow prospect Carter, Taylor is much more of a power hitter than Cardenas or Weeks. Taylor's power was down in 2010, but his track record up until last season projected him to be a player who could collect more than 50 extra-base hits in a major league season. Taylor is also a solid defensive corner outfielder with a plus arm and decent speed.
If the A's were to add Taylor to the starting line-up, they would most likely start him in left field, with Willingham sliding to DH and Matsui coming off of the bench. With Conor Jackson playing at third base, the A's could either part ways with Kevin Kouzmanoff or Andy LaRoche to make room for Taylor on the roster.
But is Taylor ready? Certainly 53 at-bats is not a large enough sample to state definitively that Taylor is back to the level of play that made him one of the top hitting prospects in baseball at the start of last season. Taylor has only had three extra-base hits and if he isn't hitting for power, he won't be a huge upgrade for the A's.
On the flip-side, there is no question that Taylor is hot right now. There was a school of thought that many of Taylor's struggles in 2010 stemmed from a lack of confidence in his swing. If he is feeling good at the plate, now might be the ideal time to bring him to the big leagues.
Sometimes with prospects, timing is everything when bringing them to the big leagues. In September 2007, Barton was promoted to the major leagues in the middle of the Sacramento River Cats' post-season run. Although it was only going to be a matter of days before the River Cats' season was going to end, the A's decided to have Barton make his debut at that point because he was in the middle of a white-hot streak at the plate. He responded with a .347 BA and a 1067 OPS in 18 games that September, as the hot streak carried into his time in the big leagues.
On the other hand, Barton was brought up in September when the A's were well out of the playoff race and there was little pressure on him to perform. If Taylor were to be brought up now, his performance would be heavily scrutinized. Given that Taylor seemed to be affected by the pressure to put up big numbers last season in his first year in the A's chain, placing the A's playoff hopes on his shoulders this season may be an unwise decision. Carter struggled with a similar pressure when he made his major league debut last season.
Still, it is clear the A's need a jolt of something new to get themselves going at the plate. Taylor could bring a different energy and look to the offense. And at the end of the day, there isn't much use in collecting talent at the minor league level if you aren't prepared to use it. Taylor is 25 years old, so he is firmly in the prime years of his playing career.
In reality, the A's are unlikely to call on Taylor's services just yet. However, if Taylor puts together another week hitting like he has the past two, it will be hard for the A's not to make a move, especially if they continue to see their season slip away in an avalanche of uninspired offensive performances.