Despite winning 96 games and a division title in 2013, the Oakland A's have had a busy off-season remaking their roster for the 2014 campaign. One of the A's first moves this winter came on November 13 when Oakland inked free agent infielder Nick Punto to a one-year deal worth $3 million. The contract also has a vesting option for the 2015 season.
Punto turned 36 the week before he signed with Oakland, and he is the oldest member of the A's current 40-man roster. A veteran of 13 big league seasons, Punto is joining his sixth MLB organization. Despite drawing interest from several organizations, Punto was quick to decide on making Oakland his home for 2014.
"I have been a guy who has been through free agency and has signed in January, and I have been a guy who signed in November," Punto said on Friday. "It feels more comforting to sign earlier than later, especially when you feel really wanted by the club that signs you like I did with the Oakland A's.
"It was an exciting time for me and my family. To be able to get that stuff done and go through the holidays without that stress, it was a good thing."
Punto spent the past two seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2013, Punto appeared in 116 games for the NL West champions, hitting .255 and playing all over the Dodgers' infield.
Defensive versatility has been a trademark for Punto throughout his career. A natural shortstop, Punto has logged time at every position except catcher and pitcher during his big league career. Last season, Punto appeared in 49 games at shortstop, 35 games at third base and 33 games at second for the Dodgers.
Two of the A's top offensive performers in 2013 man the left side of their infield – third baseman Josh Donaldson and shortstop Jed Lowrie. Health-permitting, Donaldson and Lowrie will get the majority of the starts at third and short, respectively, again in 2014, although Punto is expected to spell both players throughout the season to give them additional rest. Punto, an excellent defender, may also be used as a late-game defensive replacement for Lowrie at short, as Lowrie struggled with the glove at times in 2013.
Punto is expected to see the majority of his playing time at second base, however. A switch-hitter, Punto has hit significantly better as a right-handed batter throughout his career and he hit better than .300 against left-handers last season. That should make Punto an ideal platoon partner for Eric Sogard, a left-handed batter who hit .274 versus right-handed pitchers last season.
Punto is prepared for any role that comes his way.
"I'm here to win baseball games. Whatever the role is, I will embrace it," Punto said. "I really love competing and playing baseball or else I wouldn't still be in uniform. I love to see my name in the line-up and I love competing. That's what I'll do. Whatever the role is, I'll be ready when they call my name."
Punto has played a number of roles during his career. From 2005-2009, Punto was a regular part of the infield for the Minnesota Twins. He appeared in 135 games in 2006, helping the Twins win the AL Central. He and his Twins' teammates took on the A's in the ALDS that season. Although Minnesota was favored going into the series, the A's pulled off the sweep, marking the only post-season series win the A's have had since 1992.
That series made an impression on Punto.
"That was a really tough series for us to lose because I felt like we were all lined up," Punto said. "We had Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Boof Bonser. We had everything lined up. That was a heart-breaking series for me personally. That was my first time really in the playoffs and playing."
Punto would play in the post-season with the Twins again in 2009 and then he helped the St. Louis Cardinals win a World Series title in 2011. Last season, Punto appeared in five post-season games for Los Angeles. Having a chance to reach the post-season again was a big factor for Punto in making his decision to sign with Oakland.
"I saw a team playing in the playoffs the past couple of years that I really enjoyed watching," Punto said. "A team that I thought played baseball the way that I liked to play baseball. I knew that it would be a good fit for me on the field."
Punto also considered how he would fit into the clubhouse culture with the A's.
"For me, that is the most important thing. Am I going to enjoy the group of guys that I am going to go to battle with every night?" Punto said. "That was an absolute ‘yes' from what I have seen on TV and from what I have heard. The things that I have heard about Billy Beane and Bob Melvin and Mike Gallego and Chili Davis, these are all guys that for me had a big role in why I came here."
During his 13-year career, Punto has experienced the full spectrum of baseball's economic haves and have-nots. He spent seven years with the Twins, but Punto began his career with the big market Philadelphia Phillies. He also spent time with the Cardinals, the Boston Red Sox and the Dodgers. Punto was part of the big-market Boston-Los Angeles trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez and others (including Punto) from the Red Sox to the Dodgers.
Along the way, Punto has learned different aspects of the game from each of the organization of which he has been apart.
"If you don't learn, you are really missing out. There is a lot to be learned every year you play in this game," Punto said. "I have definitely taken little pieces from my Minnesota days and St. Louis and Boston and LA and Philadelphia.
"There are so many similarities between Minnesota and Oakland. Small markets that have teams that play the game really hard and play the game right and don't make too many fundamental mistakes."
Playing in the big market glare in Boston and LA was a different experience for Punto.
"When the spotlight is on you all of the time like it was in Boston and in LA, it is just a different feel," Punto said. "You feel like in Minnesota or here [in Oakland], you can play with a chip on your shoulder and really get a lot done."