Losing Scott Sizemore for any long period of time would be a significant blow for the Oakland A's. Acquired from the Detroit Tigers in May, Sizemore was one of the A's top offensive performers as a rookie last season. In fact, among the A's regular hitters, only Josh Willingham posted a higher OPS than Sizemore's 778 mark in 93 games with Oakland.
Update: The A's announced on Monday evening that Sizemore will miss the entire year with a torn left ACL.
Sizemore was forced to make a position change when the A's traded for him last season. Primarily a second baseman with the Tigers, Sizemore slid over to third base to fill an organizational need. He supplanted veteran third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, who struggled both offensively and defensively with the A's last season.
That the A's asked Sizemore to move to third base is an illustration of the team's lack of depth at the position. Sizemore struggled defensively at third for much of last season, but he was showing improvements with the glove by the end of the year. Even if he isn't forced to miss significant regular season playing time with the knee injury, Sizemore will be missing out on development time at third from a defensive perspective if he is out for a few weeks during spring training. One of the A's biggest goals this spring was to improve defensively, especially in the infield. This injury presents an immediate obstacle for the team achieving that goal.
If the news on Sizemore's knee is dire, the A's may need to look outside of the organization for his replacement. However, if he is only expected to miss a few weeks of the regular season, Oakland may opt to go in-house to fill that void. We take a look at both scenarios below.
The In-House Options
From 1999 through 2006, there was never a need for the A's to worry about who was going to man the third base position. Eric Chavez appeared in at least 115 games for the A's during that eight-year stretch and he was one of the league's top third basemen to boot. Since Chavez's body began to betray him in 2007, however, the A's have experienced a Chicago Cubs-like revolving door at third. Oakland has run out several players at the position, including Jack Hannahan, Marco Scutaro, Kouzmanoff, Akinori Iwamura, Jake Fox, Jeff Baisley and Sizemore. None have taken control of the position the way that Chavez did.
Over the years, the A's have had a handful of decent third base prospects (Baisley, Mark Teahen, Brian Snyder, etc.) but none of them were given significant opportunities at the major league level with Oakland – if they reached the big leagues at all. Currently, the A's top prospect list is relatively thin on third basemen, with 2011 third-round pick B.A. Vollmuth, teenager Renato Nunez and 2009 fifth-round pick Stephen Parker leading the charge. Josh Donaldson, one of the A's top prospects at the catcher position for the past several years, has received increased playing time at third base and is also among the A's top prospects.
In fact, despite being the least experienced third baseman of the aforementioned quartet, Donaldson is the most likely to get a long look by the A's this spring at the position, should Sizemore's injury require a replacement. For many who have followed Donaldson's career since he joined the A's organization via a trade in 2008, it may seem odd to think of him at third base. However, playing the hot corner is nothing new for the Auburn alum.
When Donaldson began his collegiate career at Auburn, he was primarily a third baseman. Just last season he told OaklandClubhouse.com correspondent Gabby Micek that he dreamed of being an infielder growing up and referred to third base as his "natural position." His conversion to catcher took place during the latter stages of his career at Auburn, in part because the team had a need at that position and in part because moving Donaldson to catcher positioned him better as a prospect for the MLB draft.
Donaldson was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the supplemental first round of the 2007 draft as a catcher and he remained at that position once he turned pro. In fact, he played exclusively behind the plate during his time with the Cubs. The A's acquired Donaldson in the Rich Harden trade midway through the 2008 campaign. He continued to be primarily a catcher with the A's, although he did appear in three games at third and two at first with the High-A Stockton Ports in 2008. In 2009, he made 15 appearances at third and four at first for Double-A Midland, and in 2010, he had eight appearances in at third and three at first (he also appeared in two big league games at first that season).
Up until the 2011 season, however, the A's limited Donaldson's time at third in order to give him more time to focus on developing as a catcher. Last season, that focus changed to some extent, in part because Donaldson showed significant improvements behind the plate, giving the A's confidence that he would be able to concentrate on more than one position. Donaldson made 27 appearances at third base for Triple-A Sacramento last season. He also played exclusively at third base over the winter during a short stint in the Dominican Winter League.
At the end of last season, A's Assistant General Manager David Forst spoke of Donaldson's versatility as a major asset.
"I think ultimately Josh's versatility is going to help him out getting here and hopefully staying here [in the big leagues] at some point," Forst told OaklandClubhouse last September.
"That said, he has improved a lot behind the plate and I know that the pitchers down there feel good about him. He's thrown out runners as well this season as he ever has. We have made a point to make sure that he has played some third base and has played some first base and his ability to do that is going to be valuable in a big league role at some point."
The A's have had positive reviews of Donaldson's glove work at third base; however, he isn't likely to make anyone forget Chavez's work at the hot corner. In college, Donaldson was considered a bat-first prospect, even before he moved behind the plate. The biggest question surrounding Donaldson's candidacy to play third for the A's will not likely be the glove, however. It will likely be centered more on whether or not he can hit enough to justify playing him there everyday.
Over the past two seasons, Donaldson has played exclusively at Triple-A while in the minor leagues. He has demonstrated good power over those two seasons (.454 SLG), but his patience at the plate has suffered for that power. At the lower levels of the minor leagues, Donaldson posted OBPs of .379 or higher at every level but Low-A. His OBP with the River Cats has been only .341 and his OPS overall in 201 Triple-A games has been 795. Those numbers serve Donaldson fairly well as a catcher but they pale in comparison to the numbers of most top third base prospects around baseball. Donaldson also struggled with his plate patience during his short major league stint in 2010. If he can show a command of the ‘zone similar to what he had with Midland or Stockton in 2009 and 2008, respectively, he will put himself in a better position to be the A's everyday third baseman in Sizemore's stead.
Outside of Donaldson, the A's options for an everyday third baseman are fairly limited in-house. Vollmuth and Nunez are years away from being big-league ready. While Parker is significantly more advanced than Vollmuth and Nunez, he, too, isn't quite ready for prime-time. In fact, he isn't even a non-roster invitee to major league camp, although Parker is participating in the A's minor league spring mini-camp, so he will be available to play with the A's big leaguers at any point this spring should the A's like to take a longer look at the BYU alum. Still, Parker has only a handful of games under his belt at the Triple-A level and there are questions about whether he will stick at third defensively.
The A's believe he has the skills to remain at third, but he struggled with errors while with Midland last season. Parker has an excellent eye at the plate and has demonstrated the ability to hit for average since turning pro, but the left-handed hitter saw a significant dip in his power numbers last season with the Rockhounds. Another year of development will likely serve Parker well in the long run.
Back-up infielders Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales both have experience at third base at the big-league level and both are capable of filling in at the position on a temporary basis. However, neither profiles as a third baseman from an offensive perspective. Sogard, a natural second baseman, is an extremely patient hitter who makes a lot of contact and works the count well. He has average power for a second baseman, but he isn't close to having corner infield power. Rosales has flashed decent power at times, but his offensive game profiles best as a middle infielder and he is coming off of a down year at the plate.
Looking For Help
Should Sizemore's injury prove to be serious enough to knock him out for the majority of the season, it is likely that the A's will consider the trade or free agent markets to fill the void. The A's have depth in the outfield and in the bullpen that they can dip into should they try to go the trade route. The pickings are relatively slim at the moment, however.
Displaced Detroit Tigers' third baseman Brandon Inge is a possibility, although Inge is coming off of a terrible season offensively and is owed $5.5 million for the season. The Angels could be willing to talk about Maicer Izturis if the Mark Trumbo-to-third experiment goes well. Izturis doesn't have a traditional third baseman's bat, however, and he posted a 722 OPS in 122 games for the Halos last season. The A's were reportedly interested in Chone Figgins last off-season and the Seattle Mariners would probably love to move the expensive veteran, who has been a massive disappointment in two seasons with Seattle. However, Figgins comes with a big price tag and was abysmal in 81 games last season, making him a less-than-ideal candidate, to put it lightly.
The A's could also call on Seattle to gauge their interest in dealing third base prospect Alex Liddi. Liddi had a promising 15 game stint with the Mariners last season and had an 821 OPS for the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers. The 23-year-old native of Italy is considered average, at best, defensively and his swing can get long, but he has potential. With the Mariners considering moving second base prospect Kyle Seager to third, Seattle could be willing to part with Liddi. It wouldn't be cheap, however, and the A's won't have much of a big league track record to go on with Liddi.
Another possibility is New York Yankees' third base prospect Brandon Laird. The younger brother of former A's catching prospect Gerald Laird, Brandon had a down 2011 season in the Yankees' organization, but he did have a cup of coffee with New York in 2011 and had a promising 2010 campaign at the Double-A level. He is only 24 and it might not cost a lot to pry him away from the Yankees. Laird would be better served as a temporary replacement, however.
On the free agent market, there aren't many options still remaining. Former A's star Miguel Tejada is available and would likely jump at the opportunity for another big league tryout. However, his level of play has declined significantly the past two seasons and his offensive output with the San Francisco Giants was so bad last year that the team cut him during the season despite being one of the worst offensive teams in baseball. Wes Helms is also still on the free agent market, but the longtime National Leaguer will turn 36 in May and hit .191 last season for Florida. Felipe Lopez, Pedro Feliz and Angel Berroa are other names on the free agent list, but none are particularly attractive options.
The A's could also wait until the end of spring training to see which players become available as teams set rosters and make final cuts. This may be a little more difficult for the team to do given their early start in Japan, but may be their best recourse should they need a full-season replacement for Sizmore.
No matter how anyone spins it, Sizemore's injury is a blow to the A's, especially if it lingers deep into the regular season. The chances of the A's making a move that replaces Sizemore's production from 2011 are relatively slim. Also, if Sizemore misses all or most of this year, the A's will be losing the opportunity to see how his defense develops at the position.