Oakland A's Spring Battles: Corner IFs

Spring training is just around the corner and things figure to be busy at the Oakland A's camp, as the team has several positions up for competition. Over the next week, we will be looking at the various position battles that are expected in A's camp this spring. We begin the series with a look at the A's corner infield position battles.

A Look Back At 2011

It was a disappointing season all around for the Oakland A's, who began the 2011 season with dreams of the playoffs and finished the year with fewer than 80 wins. Perhaps no two positions in their mostly futile line-up were more disappointing than the starting corner infield spots.

At the beginning of the 2011 campaign, the A's were counting on solid contributions from their starting corner infielders – first baseman Daric Barton and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. Barton was coming off of a breakthrough 2010 campaign with the A's, during which he hit .273/.393/.405 in 159 games while turning in one of the top defensive performances of any first baseman in the American League. It was assumed that Barton would be an everyday player for the A's at first and that he would build on his 2010 effort with an even better 2011 campaign. Instead, his season was anything but positive.

Daric Barton had a disappointing 2011 season.

Barton did lead the A's in games played at first base, but that total was a mere 65 contests. He injured his shoulder in April and while he never went on the disabled list in the big leagues, his production at the plate vanished and his defense declined, as well. The A's stuck with Barton despite his struggles until late June, when he was finally sent back to Triple-A Sacramento. Barton's struggles continued with the River Cats. He hit only .197 with a 576 OPS in 17 games for Sacramento before finally admitting the shoulder pain was too great for him to continue. He was shut-down on July 16th and eventually underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.

In Barton's absence, the A's turned to a myriad of players at first base. In total, the A's had eight players (including Barton) log time at first base in 2011, a motely crew of players that included second baseman Mark Ellis and catcher Landon Powell. Veteran Conor Jackson (47 games) and rookie Brandon Allen (41 games) would log the most time at first after Barton, although neither made much of an impression at the plate. Jackson posted a 702 OPS in 47 games as a first baseman (657 OPS in 102 total games with Oakland before being traded to the Boston Red Sox late in the season). Allen was acquired at the July trading deadline from the Arizona Diamondbacks. He got off to a fast start with the A's, which included an impressive multi-homer game at Yankee Stadium, but he faded badly down-the-stretch and managed only a 616 OPS in 41 games as the A's first baseman.

The only other player to log more than 15 at-bats as a first baseman for the A's in 2011 was prospect Chris Carter, who had two short stints with the big league team. Neither of those stints was productive, although Carter was never an everyday player during his time in the big leagues. In 30 at-bats as a first baseman, Carter managed only four hits and he struck-out 14 times. In total, A's first basemen managed a combined slash-line that would please only a pitcher: .219/.294/.316 in 598 at-bats.

Across the diamond, things also failed to go according to script. Kouzmanoff, like Barton, was expected to be the A's everyday third baseman after playing everyday for Oakland in 2010. Kouzmanoff didn't have great numbers with the A's in 2010 offensively. He posted only a 679 OPS. However, he did homer 16 times and his defense was solid throughout the season. That didn't stop the A's from spending much of the off-season pursuing free agent third basemen, to no avail.

Perhaps the A's flirtations with other third basemen bothered Kouzmanoff or perhaps it was just one of those seasons for the Southern California native, but the 2011 campaign was a disaster for Kouzmanoff. It began with an error-filled effort versus the Seattle Mariners before a sell-out crowd on Opening Day and never got better. In 46 games at third with Oakland, Kouzmanoff committed nine errors (.922 fielding percentage) and saw his range factor and zone rating fall precipitously from their 2010 levels. At the plate, he managed only a .222/.264/.356 line in 135 at-bats. The A's sent Kouzmanoff down to Triple-A in June and he would appear in 61 games for the River Cats before being traded to the Colorado Rockies late in the season. He played well for Sacramento (890 OPS) but didn't hit much better in a stint with the Rockies late in the year than he had with Oakland.

Kevin Kouzmanoff struggled from the get-go in 2011.

Unlike the first base situation, the A's third base picture did solidify after a mid-season acquisition. Scott Sizemore was picked up by the A's in a May 27th swap with the Detroit Tigers for reliever David Purcey. Sizemore was originally assigned to Triple-A Sacramento, but he spent only nine games with the River Cats before the A's called on him. A natural second baseman, Sizemore was moved to third base when he was brought up to the big leagues. He struggled defensively at times, but offensively, he managed a solid rookie season. In exactly 300 at-bats while playing the hot corner, Sizemore posted a .243/.341/.417 line with 10 homeruns.

In total, six players appeared at third base for the A's in 2011. The other four were Jackson (six games/11 at-bats), Andy LaRoche (26 games/52 at-bats), Adam Rosales (six games/19 at-bats) and Eric Sogard (10 games/27 at-bats). A's third basemen had 544 at-bats and posted a combined .228/.306/.375 line with 16 homeruns.

Good-Bye And Hello

Much of the A's turnover at the corner infield spots took place during the 2011 regular season, when Oakland bid adieu to Opening Day roster members Kouzmanoff, LaRoche and Jackson. Since the 2011 season ended, the A's have added only one corner infielder onto the major league roster – first baseman Kila Ka'aihue, who was acquired in a trade with the Kansas City Royals at the start of the off-season. On the minor league side, the A's re-signed free agent Wes Timmons and invited him to big league camp. Timmons saw time at first base and third base with the Sacramento River Cats and Midland Rockhounds last season, but he is primarily a middle infielder.

Corner Infielders Invited To Camp

Brandon Allen*
Daric Barton*
Chris Carter*
Josh Donaldson*
Kila Ka'aihue*
Adam Rosales*
Scott Sizemore*
Eric Sogard*
Wes Timmons

*Denotes player on 40-man roster

Number Of Corner Infielders Likely On Roster – 3 or 4

Locks To Make The Team

Scott Sizemore stabilized the third base spot for the A's.

Scott Sizemore: Unlike last season, there is really only one corner infielder coming into Oakland A's camp this spring with a strong hold on a roster spot: Sizemore. The battles for the first base and back-up infielder spots figure to be fierce and to last for most of camp.

Although Sizemore isn't 100% percent guaranteed to be the A's starting third baseman on Opening Day, he'd have to have a dramatically poor camp or suffer an injury to lose his spot. Despite his growing pains with the glove, Sizemore was quietly one of the A's top performers in 2011 after he joined the team. Offensively, he finished the year with the second-highest OPS on the team at 778. With Josh Willingham's departure for Minnesota, it can be argued that Sizemore is the A's best returning offensive weapon.

As the A's learned with Barton last season, young players can see their production levels vacillate wildly from season-to-season. However, there is optimism in A's camp that Sizemore will continue to improve on his 2011 offensive output and that he will develop into a more steady presence defensively at third base. He committed 13 errors in 196 total chances for a .934 fielding percentage, but he was learning a new position and the A's felt he made strides with the glove as the season progressed. Defense figures to be his main focus this spring.

Favorites For The Final Spots

It's hard to call out any favorites for the A's final roster spots for first base and back-up infielder. Player options and positional flexibility may be the biggest factors in the decision-making process if none of the corner infielders in camp distinguish themselves with standout performances.

Of the group of corner infielders at A's camp, only Ka'aihue and Allen are out of options. Being "out of options" under MLB rules means that a player can no longer be sent down to the minor leagues without first being removed from the organization's 40-man roster, thereby exposing that player to waivers. Consequently, if a team is not sure it will be able to get an out-of-options player through waivers, that team may be more inclined to keep the player over a player with options, if those players had similar performances during spring training.

That being said, there were rumors that the A's were looking to deal Allen at various points this off-season and Ka'aihue is a newcomer to the organization, so it's difficult to make either of them the favorite for the first base spot. In addition, the battle for the back-up infielder spot appears to be equally wide-open. Consequently, no favorites will be named in this article.

Battling For A Spot

There are plenty of contenders for corner infield roster spots, however, starting with Allen.

Can Brandon Allen make enough contact to earn a spot?

Brandon Allen: When the A's acquired Allen in the Brad Ziegler trade last July, he was first assigned to Triple-A Sacramento. However, after a short time in the minors, Allen was recalled to Oakland and immediately stepped into the A's everyday first base spot. He had a strong first two weeks with the club at the plate, but he faded badly after those two weeks. Making contact was a particularly big problem for Allen. He struck-out 55 times in only 146 at-bats with the A's and 68 times in 175 major league at-bats total (he spent some time in the big leagues with Arizona before the trade). On the plus side, Allen showed promise defensively and occasional flashes of the big-time power he consistently displayed in the minor leagues. He will be only 26 years old during the 2012 season, leaving room for optimism that he will be able to replicate his minor league success at the major league level. He can also play a decent left field, giving him an advantage over some of the A's other first base candidates who are strictly first basemen or DHs. However, his contact issues are troublesome and they continued into his Dominican Winter League season. He will need to cut down on the strike-outs this spring to entice the A's to keep him. If it becomes clear that he won't make the team out of spring training, he is a strong candidate to be traded.

Daric Barton: All things being equal, the A's would probably love to have Barton take hold of the first base spot this spring. Of the first base candidates in camp, Barton is by far the best defensive player and he has the best major league track record. However, he is also coming off of a major shoulder procedure to repair a torn labrum, among other things, in his throwing shoulder. He is expected to be limited with his throwing early in camp and could be behind the rest of the A's players for much of spring training. Barton as a hitter, in many ways, is the opposite of Allen. Barton makes consistent contact and can work a walk with the best of them, but he has yet to show the kind of prodigious power that Allen has at the minor league level and, in brief spurts, in the major leagues. The A's have been searching for power in their line-up for the past several years and may feel they need more power from the first base slot than Barton can provide. Barton was a third baseman in high school and has some minor league experience at the position, but it wasn't a positive experience, so he is a candidate for first base only. He also has an option left, so if the A's believe he is healthy but still rusty, they could send him down to Triple-A for additional seasoning until he hits his way back to the big leagues.

Chris Carter: Carter is another player in need of a good spring. One of the A's top prospects for the past several seasons, Carter has excelled at the minor league level but has failed to make a strong impression during limited time in the major leagues the past two seasons. He appeared especially lost both at the plate and in the field during his brief big league time last season. Given that the A's changed managers during the middle of the 2011 campaign, Carter needs to prove more to new manager Bob Melvin this spring than perhaps he would have if former manager Bob Geren were still at the helm. Carter is arguably the best power hitter on the A's 40-man roster at the moment, but he hasn't shown that power yet in the big leagues. He is also limited defensively. At his best with the glove, he is a slightly below-average first baseman, but he will always be a bat-first player. If the A's don't bring in a veteran DH before the start of the regular season, Carter will also be a major player for the A's DH role this spring.

Josh Donaldson has emerged as a candidate at third base, in addition to catcher.

Josh Donaldson: Donaldson will be in camp battling primarily for the A's back-up catcher position, but he could factor in the back-up infielder race, as well. Donaldson was a third baseman for most of his collegiate career and he has been spending an increasing amount of time at third base over the past few seasons, with positive reviews. This winter he played in the Dominican league and was exclusively a third baseman. The A's like the progress Donaldson has made defensively behind the plate, so it doesn't appear they are going to move him to third base permanently, but if he can show a major league caliber glove at third, he could give the A's roster some needed positional flexibility. He is also a solid emergency option at first base defensively. At the plate, Donaldson has shown an increase in power during his past two Triple-A seasons, but his plate discipline has slipped some and he had contact issues during his brief major league stints in 2010. Donaldson will need to show more patience and that he can keep up with a major league fastball this spring to earn a 25-man roster spot.

Kila Ka'aihue: Ka'aihue will be in an unusual situation this spring, trying to make an impression on a new organization while battling for a roster spot – all while having no options remaining. For the opportunity to evaluate Ka'aihue this spring, the A's gave up a decent pitching prospect in Ethan Hollingsworth. Ka'aihue is joining the A's after spending his entire career in the Kansas City Royals' organization. A 15th-round pick in 2002, Ka'aihue had a relatively slow rise through the minor leagues, but he gained notice around baseball in 2008 when he posted a 1085 OPS in 124 games at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. Since that season, Ka'aihue has put up solid numbers at the Triple-A level, but he has failed to establish himself in 87 career major league games. Ka'aihue was the Royals' starting first baseman on Opening Day last year, but, in reality, he was only keeping the seat warm for uber-prospect Eric Hosmer, who took over for Ka'aihue in early May. Ka'aihue has a good eye at the plate and power, although his power-hitting track-record in the minor leagues isn't as strong as Allen's or Carter's. Defensively, he is average, at best, at first base and is only an option at that position. Like Carter, he will also factor in the DH battle should the A's not bring in a veteran for that position. He will turn 28 in March and is the oldest of the A's first base candidates in camp.

Adam Rosales: Last year at this time, Rosales was rendered a non-factor thanks to a stress fracture in his foot that was still healing after off-season surgery. Rosales missed the first few months of the season and made his 2011 major league debut on June 6th. He homered in that game, but that would be one of the biggest highlights of his major league season. In 24 big league games, he had only six hits in 61 at-bats. Rosales spent much of the second half of the season with Triple-A Sacramento. In 40 games with the River Cats, he posted only a 697 OPS. Rosales' production in 2011 was a far cry from his A's debut season in 2010, when he had a 721 OPS and seven homers in 80 games as the A's primary back-up infielder. Rosales spent his entire 2010 season on the A's 25-man roster and won a lot of fans with his hustling style of play and occasional flashes of homerun power. Rosales is a valuable player defensively in that he can play all of the infield positions except catcher and has shown he can handle left field in an emergency situation. He doesn't offer much by way of speed off of the bench and he is an aggressive hitter, but his versatility and pop make him a strong candidate to be the primary back-up infielder. He will battle Eric Sogard for that position this spring and could have a slight edge over Sogard because of his longer track record in the major leagues. Rosales will need to show early on in camp that his disappointing production in 2011 was a product of coming off of an injury and not a trend, however.

Eric Sogard has a strong glove.

Eric Sogard: Last spring, Sogard was one of the A's final cuts, as he narrowly missed out on winning the back-up infield spot to Andy LaRoche. The A's eventually parted ways with LaRoche and Sogard emerged as the A's back-up infielder for the final nine weeks of the season. Sogard didn't receive much playing time with the A's last season despite being on the roster for more than two months. He appeared in 27 games and totaled only 70 at-bats. All but one of those at-bats came as either a third baseman, shortstop or second baseman (he had one pinch-hitting appearance). Like Rosales, Sogard is versatile, although he doesn't offer the ability to play first base or in the outfield. Sogard is the better defender between the two, however, and is a left-handed hitter, which could serve as a better compliment as a back-up to the right-handed hitting Sizemore at third. Sogard doesn't have plus power, but he has slugged better than .400 in each of his four full minor league seasons. His best assets as a hitter are his command of the strike-zone and his ability to make contact. For his minor league career, he has walked more than he has struck-out and he has only 243 strike-outs in 2,033 at-bats. Sogard has similar running ability to Rosales in that both players can swipe an occasional base but aren't big threats on the base-paths. Whether Sogard makes the team will likely depend mostly on how he performs defensively at all three of his infield positions. He has also been a slow starter in each of his two seasons as part of the A's organization, a trend that he'll need to break to win the job away from Rosales.

Looking To Make An Impression

Wes Timmons can play all over the infield.

Wes Timmons: Of the infielders the A's have invited to spring training, Timmons is the only player who isn't currently on the A's 40-man roster. Despite being the oldest infielder in A's camp, he is also the only player from this group who has never made his major league debut. Timmons will be starting his second season in the A's organization. He signed a minor league deal with Oakland before the 2011 campaign after nine seasons in the Braves' chain. Timmons had an excellent year in the minor leagues with the A's, posting an 888 OPS and batting .341 in 95 games with Triple-A Sacramento and Double-A Midland. The A's also liked what they saw from Timmons in big league camp last spring and kept him with the big league club for much of spring training. However, he will be playing in front of a different coaching staff this spring and, in many ways, will be looking to re-make the strong impression he made with Geren's staff last spring. Timmons is a better hitter than he is a defensive player, but he does offer versatility, having played second base, third base, shortstop and first base during his minor league career. Shortstop isn't as much of an option for Timmons as it was a few years ago, but he has handled second, third and first without major issues. The A's have a history of bringing up longtime minor league veterans who have strong big league camps during the regular season. With a strong showing in front of Melvin and crew, Timmons could position himself for consideration during the season.

Here For The Future

With a 40-man roster crowded with corner infielders (first basemen in particular), the A's have chosen not to invite any minor league corner infield prospects to camp, at least for the moment. A's third base prospects Stephen Parker and B.A. Vollmuth and first base prospects Michael Spina and Miles Head are all participating in the A's minor league spring training mini-camp that begins in late February. All four players could make appearances in big league spring games for the A's, especially early in camp when the veteran players are only appearing for a few innings at a time. Other than those appearances, however, the A's spring training camp will be focused less on the future and more on the present this spring.

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