Oakland A's Spring Training Battles: DH

Although the Oakland A's signed Manny Ramirez on Monday, their DH situation is far from settled. With Ramirez set to serve a 50-game suspension at the start of the season, the A's will need to look to other options at that position for at least the first two months of the season. We take a look at the battle inside...

A Look Back At 2011

Matsui struggled for most of the season.

For much of the past 10 years, the Oakland A's DH position has been a revolving door. The 2011 season featured yet another new face at the position. During the off-season the A's signed former Tokyo Giants' and New York Yankees' star Hideki Matsui to a one-year contract and handed him the DH position. Matsui would appear in 141 games for the A's, 110 of them coming as the team's DH. In addition to Matsui, only Josh Willingham would appear in more than four games as the DH for the A's in 2011.

Overall, it was a disappointing season for A's DHs, as it was for the majority of the A's offense. In 153 games, A's DHs posted a .244/.312/.383 line. They did combine to hit 18 homers and drive-in 91 runs, but they walked only 61 times compared to 118 strike-outs.

Matsui was responsible for the bulk of the struggles from the DH position, especially early in the season. All but 103 of his 517 total at-bats came as the A's designated hitter, although his production was much better when he was playing in the field than when he was a DH (his OPS was nearly 80 points higher as a left fielder and pinch hitter). As a DH, he posted a 681 OPS in 416 at-bats with 11 homeruns and 64 RBIs. He had only one really good month in 2011. That came in July when he posted a 1009 OPS in 84 at-bats. His OPS was below 700 in every other month of the season.

Willingham, too, fared better as an outfielder than as a DH from a production perspective. As an outfielder, Willingham posted an 822 OPS with 21 homeruns in 354 at-bats. As the A's DH, he had a 775 OPS with seven homers in 128 at-bats. Matsui and Willingham accounted for all of the A's homeruns as a DH and all but three of the team's DH RBIs.

Good-Bye And Hello

The A's will be welcoming a new primary DH once again in 2012. They said good-bye via free agency to both Matsui (who remains unsigned) and Willingham (who signed with the Minnesota Twins) this off-season. In their place, the A's have brought in an even more recognizable name, although this new DH won't be eligible to play for the team until late May. That DH, of course, is Manny Ramirez, who signed a one-year, $500,000 minor league contract with the A's on Monday. Ramirez will be suspended for the first 50 games of the 2012 regular season thanks to a violation of the steroid policy he incurred last year while with the Tampa Bay Rays.

The A's also added another possible candidate for DH at-bats during the final week of the 2011 regular season – Kila Ka'aihue. Ka'aihue is primarily a first baseman, although his bat has always rated higher than his glove. He will be battling for a spot on the A's Opening Day roster as either a first baseman and/or as a DH.

DH Candidates Invited To Camp

Brandon Allen*
Chris Carter*
Jonny Gomes*
Kila Ka'aihue*
Manny Ramirez
Seth Smith*

*Denotes player on 40-man roster

Number Of DHs Likely On Roster –1

The Manny Ramirez Factor

The A's decision to sign Ramirez to a minor league deal was the latest in a string of surprising moves the team has made since the first of the year. Before the calendar changed, the A's appeared to be heading into a complete youth movement. At that time, it seemed that the team was going to cut ties with all of its veteran outfielders and that the DH spot would be filled by one or several of the team's young corner outfielders or first basemen. Starting with the re-signing of veteran Coco Crisp, that trend has changed. The A's now have the veterans Crisp, Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes slotted for outfield time and have brought in two additional major-league ready outfielders in Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes. Adding Ramirez into that mix makes it even less likely that the A's will turn over their DH duties to a rookie or second-year player.

That being said, there is a lot that can happen before Ramirez is officially eligible for regular season action with the A's. Although Ramirez will join the A's spring training camp on Friday and will be eligible to play with the team throughout the spring, he won't be a part of the team for at least the first 50 games of the season. While there isn't a 100 percent guarantee that the A's ever use Ramirez as their DH, the possibility is strong given the team's overall struggles with the bat the past few seasons. However, if one or two of the A's outfielders or first basemen take command of the position in Ramirez's absence, the A's could decide to release Ramirez before he ever dons the green and gold during the regular season.

Assuming Ramirez does join the club on May 30th when he is eligible to appear in a major league regular season game, it will be interesting to see what the A's get out of the 12-time All-Star. Historically, Ramirez ranks among the top right-handed hitters in the history of the game. With the exception of his first cup of coffee in the major leagues in 1993 and his five-game "season" with the Rays in 2011, Ramirez has never posted an OPS below 870 in any one year. His last real season came in 2010. He split that year between the Dodgers and the White Sox. With Los Angeles, Ramirez was dominant, posting a 915 OPS in 66 games. However, he struggled after moving to the White Sox, putting up only a 739 OPS and slugging at a .319 clip in 24 games.

Ramirez will turn 40 on the day he is eligible to have his suspension lifted, so expecting him to be the hitter he was even a few years ago is probably asking too much. The A's should be getting an extremely motivated version of Ramirez, however. Over the years, he has been accused at times of not putting in a full effort, but Ramirez appears to be playing this season only to prove that he has something left and, perhaps, to restore some of the hit his reputation took with his two steroid suspensions in three years. Money certainly won't be a factor. His $500,000 salary is prorated, so Ramirez won't even make the major league minimum this year. Motivation can only do so much, however, so whether Ramirez has success as the A's DH will have more to do with how much he has left of his bat speed than anything else.

For the A's, the risk of bringing in Ramirez isn't great given that they have little financial commitment to him and can release him at any time. They are clearly hoping to catch lightening in a bottle the way that they did in 2006 when Frank Thomas dominated as the A's DH. Since that time, they have brought in a number of high-profile veteran DHs (Mike Piazza, Jason Giambi, Mike Sweeney, Matsui) but none have come close to replicating Thomas' success. This strategy may have hurt the team in the long-run, as they have stuck with struggling veteran DHs later into seasons than they would have with younger players posting similar numbers. Giving Ramirez a look is mostly harmless, but if he struggles, one hopes that the A's will have learned to have a quicker hook than they have with their veterans in the previous few seasons.

The Pre-Manny Era

Regardless of how long of a leash they give Ramirez once he is eligible, the A's are going into this season knowing that they will have to find other solutions for their DH position until Ramirez has served his suspension. Below is a look at the battle for those at-bats.

Favorites For Early Season DH At-Bats

Smith will be making his AL debut this season.

Jonny Gomes/Seth Smith Platoon: Two of the veteran outfielders acquired by the A's in January were Gomes and Smith. In many ways, the two are the perfect compliments to one another. The right-handed Gomes has a long track record of hitting well versus left-handed pitching and the left-handed Smith has had similar success versus right-handers. Before the A's signed Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes last week, it seemed likely that Gomes and Smith would split time in left field for the A's. However, with Cespedes on board, the A's have three outfielders who are better defensively than both Gomes and Smith (Cespedes, Crisp and Josh Reddick). With that being the case, it would make sense for the A's to shift the Smith/Gomes platoon to the DH position, at least before Ramirez joins the team.

Battling For DH At-Bats

If the A's decide to go with a full-time DH while waiting for Ramirez's arrival rather than a platoon, they may turn to one of three of the players competing for the team's first base spot. Daric Barton, the fourth candidate for the A's first base job, is the best defensive player of the four and has the least amount of power, so he isn't a candidate for the DH spot. Below is a look at the other three players who could get at-bats at DH if they don't win the first base job outright.

Brandon Allen: Allen was acquired by the A's at the July trading deadline last season as part of the Brad Ziegler trade. The former Arizona Diamondbacks' prospect showed flashes of his impressive power early in his stint with the A's, but he finished the year in a terrible slump. Allen had a particularly difficult time making contact during the final few weeks of the season. He struck out 34 times in 77 at-bats in September. Allen's contact issues continued into the winter when he whiffed 17 times in 49 at-bats in the Dominican Winter League. Allen is an excellent athlete who can play a solid first base and fill in out in left field, so carrying him as a DH would also give the A's some additional positional depth. The Texas native is out of options and he isn't a strong candidate to clear waivers, so if the A's want to retain Allen's services beyond this spring, they will likely have to find a spot for him somewhere on the roster.

Carter needs a fast start this spring.

Chris Carter: In some ways, the DH position was made for players like Carter. The lanky first baseman isn't a bad athlete, but he is most comfortable with a bat in his hands and not a glove. He also has a classic DH's bat – he hits for power, can take a walk and is a run producer. Throughout Carter's professional career, he has gotten off to slow starts at every new level. Those slow starts haven't hindered him in the minor leagues because he has been left alone to hit his way out of those slumps. Without exception, he has shaken off those slow starts to post excellent numbers at every minor league level. The slow starts have hurt him at the major league level, however. Although he only has 114 career big league at-bats, he has looked bad in most of them. The A's haven't shown the same level of patience with Carter at the major league level as they did in the minors, at least not yet. There are a lot of reasons for the A's to give Carter a long look in the big leagues, but he would make it easier for the team to grant him that opportunity if he put together a hot spring training. Carter has options remaining, a factor that could work against him in the competition with Allen and Ka'aihue.

Kila Ka'aihue: Ka'aihue will be making a first impression on the A's coaching staff this spring. Although he was technically acquired before the end of the 2011 season, he has yet to compete in a game for the A's at the major league or minor league level. Up until this season, Ka'aihue had spent his entire professional career as a member of the Kansas City Royals. In three stints with the Royals, he has a .216/.309/.375 line in 283 at-bats. It is his career minor league line that intrigues the A's, however. In more than a 1,000 minor league games, he has a .266/.390/.458 line. His Triple-A line is even better (.281/.412/.497 in 353 at-bats). The A's like Ka'aihue's power and his patience at the plate and will give him every opportunity to make a strong impression this spring. He isn't a strong defensive player, however. Like Allen, Ka'aihue is out of options.

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