Sometimes the hardest thing in the world to do is just to do nothing. When it comes to the Oakland A’s, the urge to tinker has once again superseded the team’s need for a long-term direction. While no one can blame the team for looking for ways to improve the product on the field, the A’s lack of a firm commitment to a rebuild from within continues to limit their opportunities to create a dominating team.
I want to make it clear at the outset that I greatly admire the members of the A’s front office. They are smart, creative baseball people who care deeply about their organization and are committed to winning. However, those same qualities have prevented the organization from fully committing to the teardown and rebuild that will be necessary for the A’s to be competitive once again.
On Tuesday evening, Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com reported that the A’s had an agreement in place on a one-year deal with free agent infielder Trevor Plouffe. Plouffe joins Matt Joyce and Rajai Davis as the third free agent to sign with Oakland this off-season. While the Joyce and Davis signings weren’t headline grabbers, both deals made some modicum of sense given the A’s lack of depth in both the big leagues and in Triple-A in the outfield. Neither Joyce nor Davis is blocking a young player in the A’s system that appears ready for an everyday role in the big leagues. The Plouffe deal, however, is puzzling and potentially harmful to the overall development of the team.
Plouffe isn’t a bad player. In six-plus years in the big leagues, Plouffe has a .420 SLG and he has reached double-digits in homeruns each of the past five seasons. For a team that lacked power outside of Khris Davis last season, Plouffe’s power potential could be an asset. Plouffe is a particularly good hitter versus left-handed pitching, with a career 809 OPS versus southpaws. Lastly, he plays several positions, having logged time at first and third recently and in left field early in his career. For a playoff-contending team looking to add a right-handed platoon to its corner infield rotation, Plouffe makes a lot of sense. As an everyday third baseman on a team that isn’t likely to win 75 games, Plouffe stands to take away valuable playing time and reps in the field from players who could be the future of the franchise.
Soon after the news of the deal broke, Susan Slusser reported on Twitter that the A’s plan to have Plouffe play third base, with Ryon Healy moving into a role as a primary DH (with Yonder Alonso at first base). It is the impact of moves like this one that make the Plouffe signing so potentially harmful to the future of the A’s organization. While Healy may eventually have to move to first base or DH if the A’s top third base prospect Matt Chapman emerges as the A’s everyday third baseman, I think it is short-sighted to move Healy off of the position now before there is a compelling reason to do so. Healy earned his chance to be the everyday third baseman last season. He was the team’s best hitter from the moment he was called up from Triple-A and he was an adequate defender despite playing a position he had not had a lot of time at in the minor leagues. Healy wasn’t perfect at third, but he wasn’t a disaster either and showed signs of improvement during the season. To push him off of the position for a one-year rental player who isn’t appreciably better defensively is extremely vexing.
There was a time, back in the late 1990s and up through the Bobby Crosby era, that the A’s placed great trust in their young players. If a prospect earned an opportunity in the big leagues, he was given a fair chance to perform at that level. And if he performed, he stuck. That system produced some failures, but ultimately it was responsible for the run of playoff appearances from 2000-2003 and again in 2006. However, the A’s haven’t been nearly as successful at developing young position players who stick with them at the major league level over the past decade. Josh Donaldson is the only position player developed by the A’s system to put together an All-Star level performance for the A’s over the past 10 years. That isn’t necessarily because of a lack of talent. Instead, in my opinion, it has been because of a lack of patience with those young players once they reach the big leagues.
Take, for instance, the curious case of Chris Carter. From the moment Carter made his professional debut, it was clear that he was the kind of player for which the DH rule was created. This isn’t a slam on Carter, but he was never going to be a major-league caliber defender at any position. The A’s tried him at first, at third and in the outfield, and all three experiments were met with predictable results. However, just as it was clear that Carter was a poor defender, it was equally clear that he could rake. By 2009, Carter had reached Triple-A and, by 2010, he was in the big leagues. His first go-around in the big leagues wasn’t pretty, but anyone who had followed his development up until that point wasn’t surprised. He was a slow starter at every level. Going into the 2011 season, there was no reason for the A’s not to hand the DH position over to Carter to see what he could do.
Instead, the A’s signed Hideki Matsui to a one-year deal, blocking Carter from the DH spot. Back in Triple-A, Carter missed time with a hand injury that was originally traced back to a mishap he incurred while diving for a ball in the outfield. He got all of 70 at-bats with the A’s that season. In 2012, injuries opened the door for Carter in the big leagues and he shined in a platoon 1B/DH role, putting up a .350 OBP and a .514 SLG. But by then Carter’s stock in the organization had diminished. Rather than keep him in that platoon role (or hand the everyday DH role over to him completely once they didn’t re-sign Jonny Gomes), the A’s packaged him in a deal to the Houston Astros in exchange for SS Jed Lowrie.
At the time the A’s acquired Lowrie before the 2013 season, they had a need for an everyday shortstop because they were at an impasse in contract negotiations with free agent Stephen Drew (a late-season addition in 2012) and they had traded away middle infielder Cliff Pennington earlier that off-season in a deal that netted them outfielder Chris Young. The Pennington-Young deal came about because the A’s were looking for a right-handed platoon outfielder. The deal was not without logic, but it also left the A’s with a gaping hole at shortstop that they had to sacrifice Carter and a legion of other young talent to fill. While Pennington struggled badly offensively in 2012, he had two decent seasons with the bat in 2010 and 2011, and his glove alone brought significant value. If the A’s had trusted that Pennington could get back to his 2011-level offensive performance, they could have stuck with Carter. Lowrie gave the A’s plenty of offensive value in 2013, but his glove was a detriment throughout the season. One can imagine a scenario in which Carter’s bat value and Pennington’s glove value would have outweighed Lowrie’s contributions in 2013. And the A’s would have had several more years of control for Carter, Pennington and the other young players the A’s sent to Houston in that deal.
The A’s may have not felt a need to acquire an outfielder like Young had they put their trust in the development of Grant Green. The A’s 2009 top pick was initially a shortstop, but he was moved to the outfield during his second full professional season (2011). However, the A’s never seemed to be willing to stick with a plan for Green defensively. One day he’d be out in centerfield, the next he’d be back at shortstop, the next he’d be at second, and the next he’d be taking groundballs at first base (but never actually getting into a game at that position). He never got an opportunity to grow comfortable in the outfield and the A’s missed an opportunity to have him slide right into their platoon system in the outfield. Green’s bat has never developed as anticipated at the big league level, and maybe it never would have, but I do believe the lack of a consistent home defensively hurt Green’s development offensively, especially in the big leagues.
Michael Choice, the A’s 2010 top pick, was another player the A’s seemed to give up on way too early. Choice debuted with the A’s in September 2013 and looked like a perfect fit to replace Young, who left that off-season via free agency. Like Young, Choice was a right-handed hitter with contact issues but the power to make an impact at the plate and the speed to play all over the outfield. Instead of giving Choice Young’s role, the A’s traded him to the Texas Rangers for another right-handed outfielder, Craig Gentry. While Gentry had a longer big league track record and better defensive skills, he also came with an injury history that continued during his time with the A’s and very little chance to be a better player than he already was. Choice, on the other hand, was still at the point in his career where he could have developed into something special.
Like Green, Choice’s post-A’s career hasn’t gone the way that anyone would have expected, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have gone differently had Choice stayed with the A’s. Choice has always had a complicated swing and the A’s had a good feel for how to help him when he struggled. Moving to a new organization that didn’t know him as well as the A’s did likely hurt his chances to succeed as a big leaguer. It’s always hard to speculate, but either way, for a platoon role like the one that the A’s acquired Gentry for, it would have been nice to see the A’s give that to a young player like Choice who had a chance to develop into an everyday player rather than acquire a veteran whose role was already well established.
All of this, of course, is easy for me to say now and certainly can be termed revisionist history. However, I fear that the patterns that we saw a few years ago are continuing today. The A’s have already shown a tendency to use young players more as trade chips than as foundations for the future, dealing top position player prospects Addison Russell, Billy McKinney and Daniel Robertson for veterans and blocking the path of young players to the big leagues with veterans such as Plouffe, Lowrie and Alonso. The A's tend to be quicker to cut the string with young players than they are with veterans. They have also often put young position players in difficult situations when they are called up; for instance, playing Max Muncy at third base in his MLB debut season despite him having limited experience at the position before getting to the big leagues or asking young players to platoon when they have only experienced playing everyday up until that point in their careers. While no one gets a free passageway to the big leagues, there are better ways to ease young players into major league roles than the way many A's players have been brought to the big leagues over the past five years.
The A’s are in a difficult spot. Big time free agents such as Dexter Fowler aren’t going to come to Oakland – at least right now when the team is coming off of two straight horrible seasons and are still in an unsettled stadium situation. But that type of situation can also be an opportunity. Rather than trying to band aid together a roster with veterans that have limited upside, the A’s should focus on building a roster anchored by their young players – with a sprinkle of veterans where there is no young player ready to take on that role.
The A’s are not going to win the AL West this season, so why not take this year to figure out what they have for the future? They don’t have to completely emulate the Chicago Cubs or the Atlanta Braves, but the A’s can come closer to that model. All of the A's prospects have flaws, but the A's shouldn't let those flaws overwhelm the assessment of those prospects' strengths. The grass isn't always greener on someone else's roster.
If I were to play theoretical GM, this is how I would have approached the position-player side of things this year:
- Sign Davis but probably walk away from the Joyce and Plouffe deals since they are corner-only defensive players.
- Open up the second base job to Joey Wendle and Chad Pinder and see if one of them can step forward as the second baseman of the future, much the same way the Cubs let Russell, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara play in the middle infield until someone stepped forward.
- Leave Healy at third and let him continue to develop there until such time that Chapman forces his way onto the roster, and only then move Healy across the diamond or to DH, if need be.
- Give Matt Olson an opportunity in the big leagues at first base at some point this season instead of running him out there in right field. His first base glove and his batting eye are ready now. It’s time to see if his solid second half with Nashville can translate.
- Commit to moving Renato Nunez to left field in Nashville and see if he can fit into the A's outfield picture by the end of the year.
- Work Jaycob Brugman into the outfield rotation at some point during the season to see what he can do in the big leagues.
- Carry Bruce Maxwell as a third catcher on the roster so that Stephen Vogt can DH more to rest his legs and Maxwell can continue to develop with the A’s pitching staff.
- Extend Marcus Semien and make an affirmative decision about where Franklin Barreto fits into the team’s 2018 plans and then move Barreto to that spot in Triple-A so he can be ready when he gets to the big leagues.
Most of all, make 2017 about the future. Put the team in a position going into next year of knowing which of their young players are worth building a foundation around and in which areas the team still needs help. The benefit of knowing where the organization is headed will far out-weigh the extra four or five wins from a one-year, stop-gap veteran.