Since the off-season began, the Oakland A's have made four trades, sending seven players to other teams. In return, they have received 11 players. In addition, the A's have picked up several other non-roster players through a variety of avenues and are expecting a group of prospects back from injuries that limited them in 2011. While the team has released some players and has seen a few walk via free agency, they will still be entering the 2012 spring training with more talent than they had at the same time in 2011.
Having more talent is a good problem to have, but it will create some difficult roster decisions for the A's front office in the coming months. Below is a look at some of the positions within the A's system that are particularly impacted by the A's recent acquisitions and how that will impact minor leaguers throughout the system (note: we will take a look at the pitching-side of the ledger in a separate article).
In 2011, first base was a black hole for the A's at the major league level. Daric Barton was expected to handle the everyday duties after he posted a strong 2010 campaign, but he injured his shoulder early in the season and struggled badly while trying to play through the pain. The A's tried a variety of players at the position, including Brandon Allen, Chris Carter and Conor Jackson, but none of them were particularly productive.
The A's will be entering spring training with essentially the same cast of characters competing for the first base position as they had cycle through in 2011, with the exception (at least for now) of Jackson, who is still a free agent. Allen, Carter and Barton will be joined by newcomer Kila Ka'aihue, who was acquired by the A's from Kansas City for prospect Ethan Hollingsworth early on in the off-season.
Of this group, only Carter has options remaining, so the result of the position battle doesn't figure to have a huge impact on the minor league depth chart. Still, if Carter is sent down to Triple-A to start the year or one of the other three is designated for assignment and clears waivers, it could create a major ripple effect throughout the organization.
Michael Spina figures to be the player who is most impacted by the result of the A's major league first base roster battle. The first baseman has been a solid performer since the A's drafted him in 2009. In 2011, he posted an 803 OPS in his first season at the Double-A level and showed marked improvement with his glove work at first. In a fair world, that performance would earn Spina a shot at Triple-A in 2012. However, if Carter, Barton, Allen or Ka'aihue are on the Sacramento roster, they will receive the everyday playing time at first, which could push Spina back to Double-A. Spina does have experience playing at third base, so the A's could move him back to that position to get him to Triple-A, but there are other candidates for third base playing time with Sacramento that the A's are more likely to give priority to in 2012.
If Spina does return to Double-A that could mean that East Bay native and St. Mary's College alum Anthony Aliotti will find himself repeating at the High-A level despite a solid 2011 season with the Stockton Ports. Aliotti, who is arguably the best defensive first baseman in the A's system, hit .276 with a .392 OBP and a career-high 11 homeruns with the Ports in 2011. He has been a first baseman for his entire career, so moving him to another position isn't likely at this point.
Aliotti's presence on the Ports' roster would make an already crowded first base picture in Stockton even more difficult to manage. One of the players the A's acquired this off-season was infielder Miles Head, who had been in the Boston chain. Head split his 2011 season between Low-A and High-A. While there is an outside chance that Head will move to Double-A to start the 2012 season, it is far more likely that the 20-year-old will begin the season with Stockton. He was a third baseman in high school but has played first base almost exclusively as a pro. The A's could move Head to third, but most scouts don't see him sticking at that position and the added stress of switching spots could slow his progression as a hitter.
Before Head's acquisition, the A's were already going to have a playing time battle in Stockton at first base. The two best hitters from the 2011 Low-A Burlington Bees – Josh Whitaker and A.J. Kirby-Jones – are both primarily first basemen who were forced to share time there and at DH in 2011. Whitaker does have some experience in the outfield and may move there to make room for Head and Kirby-Jones, but it is a situation to watch. None of the three is a candidate to go back to Burlington after the numbers they each put up with the Bees last season and the progress they showed during the A's fall Instructional League.
At the lower levels, the A's first base situation is a little more clear. Third basemen Chad Lewis and Jacob Tanis have each seen time at first and figure to continue to share time at the two corner infield positions with the Bees. The A's short-season rosters will be determined during the season, with the draft playing a big factor in those roster decisions.
The first base situation may seem crowded, but it pales in comparison to the potential logjam at the catcher position throughout the system. At the major league level alone, the A's have an extremely crowded picture. The team is currently carrying four catchers on its 40-man roster, and three have a legitimate chance of making the big league roster. In addition, the A's designated catcher Landon Powell for assignment earlier this off-season and he cleared waivers and is returning to the organization as a non-roster player.
Barring a trade or injury, Kurt Suzuki will be the A's starting catcher and he will continue to see the vast majority of the playing time behind the plate for Oakland. Josh Donaldson, Anthony Recker and Powell will be competing in camp for the right to be Suzuki's back-up. All three have major league experience, although Powell has significantly more big league time than the other two. He is at a disadvantage being the non-roster player of the group, however. All three have also logged significant time at the Triple-A level during their careers.
Assuming the A's don't release or trade one of these catchers before the start of the season, Oakland will potentially be sending two experienced catchers back to Triple-A. Both Powell and Recker have a little experience playing first base and could see some time there to get their bats in the line-up, but given the A's aforementioned backlog at first, that isn't a likely to be a regular occurrence for either player. Donaldson, a third baseman in college, has been seeing more and more time at the hot corner and could be a regular at third for the River Cats in 2012, although the A's would likely still want him to get regular reps behind the plate to keep him fresh.
Should the A's send two of the Powell-Recker-Donaldson triumvirate back to Sacramento, it could mean that top prospect Derek Norris will be pushed back to Double-A Midland. Norris, acquired in the Gio Gonzalez trade, is the team's top prospect at the position and is arguably the man the A's are now looking to as Suzuki's eventual replacement. While with the Nationals' organization last year, Norris spent the entire season at the Double-A level. He struggled to hit for average, but still posted an 813 OPS and improved his defensive work. As a priority prospect for the A's, Norris will be the everyday catcher wherever the A's send him.
Sending Norris to Double-A would impact another top backstop prospect, however. Ryan Ortiz spent the second half of the 2011 season with Midland. While he struggled during the final month of the season, Ortiz hit well against advanced competition at the Arizona Fall League and is still a solid prospect. He struggled with his arm strength last season after undergoing shoulder surgery in 2010, but he was making strides with his throwing during the fall league and should show marked improvement in that area in 2012.
Ortiz hit better than .340 with High-A Stockton in 2011, so sending him back to that level isn't an option. Besides, the catcher position with the Ports figures to be crowded, as well. Max Stassi, who was the A's top catcher prospect before Norris' acquisition, will be returning to the Ports in 2012 after missing much of the 2011 season with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Stassi is one of the best defensive catchers in the A's system and Oakland still has high hopes for his offensive potential. The 20-year-old is likely to play everyday behind the plate with Stockton in 2012.
With Stassi ensconced behind the plate in Stockton, the A's will have an interesting decision to make in terms of where to send 2011 draft picks Beau Taylor and Nick Rickles. Both catchers had impressive professional debuts last season. Taylor played mostly with Burlington, while Rickles was the short-season Vermont Lake Monsters' everyday catcher. Both are promising catchers both offensively and defensively and the A's will want to find a situation that allows both ample playing time behind the plate. In an ideal world, they would be starting catchers for different teams next year, but that may not be possible with the A's current logjam.
In addition to those aforementioned catchers, the A's have a number of other backstops who will need to be slotted on rosters throughout the organization, including veteran Joel Galarraga and Ryan Lipkin, John Nester, Diomedes Lopez, Juan Nunez and Daniel Petitti.
Outfield situations are always a little more fluid because there are three positions on each roster to fill rather than one. That doesn't mean that the A's outfield situation isn't facing a backlog, especially at the upper levels, however.
At the moment, the A's have five outfielders on their 40-man roster and six more who have been invited to big league spring training as non-roster players. Oakland is also rumored to be still seeking another veteran outfielder to join the recently re-signed Coco Crisp in the A's outfield picture.
Even if the A's don't bring in another veteran outfielder, there still figures to be an intense competition for roster spots amongst the outfielders this spring. Only Crisp is guaranteed a starting spot, with recently acquired Josh Reddick and Collin Cowgill competing with A's organization incumbents Michael Taylor and Jermaine Mitchell. In addition, first baseman Brandon Allen might get a look in left field as a way to get him and another first baseman on the roster. Mitchell is expected to be slowed this spring while he recovers from knee surgery, although he should be healthy fairly early on in the season.
Joining the roster battle will be minor league veterans Cedric Hunter, Brandon Moss, Jeff Fiorentino and Jason Pridie. All four players have big league experience. Hunter was claimed off of waivers by the A's this off-season from San Diego Padres. The A's later designated him for assignment, but he cleared waivers and has returned as a non-roster player. The other three were free agents signed to minor league deals this off-season.
Assuming the A's carry five outfielders on their Opening Day roster, they will still be sending several of these players down to the minor leagues, not to mention top prospects Grant Green and Michael Choice, who will also be in camp as non-roster players. Green is expected to be the everyday centerfielder for Triple-A Sacramento, while Choice will fill the same role for Double-A Midland at the outset of the season.
Pridie, Moss and Fiorentino are locks to make the Triple-A roster if they don't make the A's roster, and Hunter is a strong candidate to be at Triple-A, as well, and if Mitchell, Taylor or Cowgill aren't on the A's roster, they will be playing everyday for Sacramento.
Given this current scenario, it seems almost impossible for the 2011 Midland Rockhounds' starting outfield to move up to Triple-A. Shane Peterson and Matt Sulentic have been logging time with Midland since 2009, while Jeremy Barfield has a full season of experience at that level. With all three of those outfielders returning to Midland, there may not be room for 2011 Stockton outfielders Myrio Richard and Rashun Dixon to move up to Double-A and get regular playing time. If they return to Stockton, it could impact the A's decision about whether to send 2011 draft pick Bobby Crocker straight to Stockton or have him play with Burlington to begin the 2012 campaign. It may also mean that utilityman Conner Crumbliss sees more time at second base than in the outfield for Midland in 2012, possibly impacting the second base depth chart, as well.
The A's will also have to make room in the Stockton outfield for Eliezer Mesa, who was acquired as the player-to-be-named-later in the Mark Ellis trade this off-season. Mesa had an injury-plagued 2011 season with High-A Modesto and figures to repeat the California League. 2011 Burlington outfielders Royce Consigli and Jose Crisotomo might be repeating at that level to start 2012 despite showing promise with the Bees in 2011.
This backlog isn't exclusive to the position players. We will look at how the A's off-season has impacted the depth chart for the A's starting and relief pitchers at all levels tomorrow…