Oakland A's Camp Notes: Position Battle Updates

As the first week of spring training games comes to a close, the battles for 25-man roster spots and starting positions are beginning to intensify. While it is still very early, here is a look at where those battles stand and who is winning them at the moment.

The first four games of the spring training schedule have not been particularly successful for Oakland. Their pitching and defense betrayed them in two of the games and their hitting betrayed them in the other two. However, wins and losses are secondary concerns for any team during spring training, so the A's are not particularly concerned about their 0-4 start. What has garnered more focus has been the individual play of guys on the edge of making the 25-man roster. There are three main battles going on this spring: for a bullpen spot, for the starting second base slot and for starting time in the outfield.


The bullpen competition got a bit more fierce when it was learned on Saturday that reliever Chad Bradford would be missing the first two months of the season with a back injury. Bradford entered camp assured of a spot in the A's bullpen, so his absence will open a spot for someone else. Before Bradford's injury, there was one possible bullpen spot available. Now there will be at least one and likely two spots open in the A's ‘pen.

Assuming Oakland doesn't trade for another reliever, there are ten pitchers with a realistic chance of filling those two possible slots. Four are rookies (Huston Street, Jairo Garcia, Chris Mabeus, and Tyler Johnson) and six are (more or less) veterans (Tim Harrikala, Kirk Saarloos, Britt Reames. Jim Serrano, Seth Etherton and Keiichi Yabu). Etherton and Yabu are also competing for starting roles and it is very likely that one of them will open the season in the starting rotation, taking them out of the bullpen competition. If Yabu does not win a starting rotation spot, he will most assuredly be in the bullpen, as he has extensive experience in the bullpen from his time playing in Japan.

Yabu made his first spring training game appearance on Friday, allowing two runs in two innings of work. He wasn't hit hard, however, as most of the hits he allowed were of the seeing-eye variety, and he kept the ball on the ground, which is a good sign for his future success. Etherton, on the other hand, had more of a "so-so" outing on Sunday. He was strong in the first inning, retiring the side, but gave up three hits and a run to start the second inning. That should have been the extent of the damage, but his defense betrayed him and he ended up allowing four unearned runs after two were out. His curveball looked good in his first outing, and the jury is still very much out on his chances to make the starting rotation. He doesn't have as much bullpen experience as Yabu, so Etherton may not make the 25-man roster if he doesn't win a starting rotation spot.

The remaining veterans are only competing for bullpen roles. Although Saarloos is capable of starting, it is thought that the A's would prefer to keep him in the bullpen for now to protect his elbow, which gave him trouble last season. He could still be an outside contender for a starting role, but he is much more likely to be considered for the bullpen. He is the only one of the bullpen competitors who has yet to pitch in a spring training game, but he did throw a simulated game on Friday and should see game action soon. If healthy, he may have the advantage in this battle, as he is the most familiar pitcher to the A's coaching staff. Saarloos was with Oakland for six weeks last season, when he filled in as a starter while Tim Hudson was on the DL. Saarloos impressed the coaching staff with his tenacity and his ability to keep the ball on the ground, so he could have the upper-hand in taking groundball specialist Bradford's place if he has a strong spring.

Serrano was very impressive in his one outing so far this spring. He limited the Brewers to only a walk in two innings of work and struck out three batters over that frame. Serrano was a starter for Kansas City last season, but he was a career minor league reliever before that, so the role wouldn't be foreign to him. Reames has also pitched shut-out baseball thus far, making two successful one-inning appearances. The former Cardinal and Expo was with the A's during spring training last year and spent the 2004 campaign with the Sacramento River Cats. Like Saarloos, Reames may benefit from the coaching staff's familiarity with him.

Harikkala is coming off of a full season at the major league level with the Colorado Rockies, during which he was a main component of the Rockies bullpen. Until a late season fade, Harikkala was one of the most effective middle relievers in the National League and finished the season with an impressive .235 BAA despite playing his home games in Coors Field. Harikkala has appeared in two games this spring. Although he hasn't allowed an earned run in his four innings of work, he did allow three inherited runners to score in the game on Sunday. He is strong against right-handed hitters (.628 OPS against last season) and that, combined with his strong 2004 campaign, will keep him in the running for Bradford's spot all spring.

The rookies, for the most part, have met with success so far this spring. With the glaring exception of Chris Mabeus, none of them have given up a run this spring. The aforementioned Mabeus had a disastrous outing on Sunday versus the Angels. He failed to record an out, allowing four hits and a walk before departing with three runs across and the bases still loaded. His performance was likely very damaging to his chances to make the A's bullpen, as the margin of error for all of the rookies will be very thin this spring.

Garcia and Johnson have had similar results thus far. Both have pitched shut-outs but both have struggled a bit with their control. Garcia has appeared in two one-inning stints and has allowed one hit and three walks over that span. He has also struck out two and allowed no runs. Garcia has looked fabulous at times this spring, especially when using his breaking ball, but he'll need to prove to the A's coaching staff that he can keep the ball in the strike zone if the A's are going to bring him to Oakland in April. Johnson has a similar mission, although he is more likely to receive some leeway due to his Rule V status. The lefty has appeared in one inning and allowed only a walk. He has shown good stuff so far this spring, but -- as with Garcia -- command has been an issue at times. Johnson will have to be offered back to the Cardinals if he doesn't make the A's roster out of spring training and the A's like his arm, so it is thought that they would prefer to keep him. If Oakland decides to carry 12 pitchers, Johnson will likely be one of them, unless he has a horrible spring. If the A's go with 11 pitchers, however, he will have to show great command for the coaching staff to keep him all year in a bullpen that is expected to get a lot of work from top to bottom.

The final player in this mix is Huston Street. Street has done nothing but turn heads since he signed with Oakland last summer and his spring training performance has been more of the same. He impressed the A's coaches during the early practices and then had a solid outing on Friday versus Milwaukee, throwing a 1-2-3 inning. The A's like that Street is around the plate and that he keeps the ball down. Although Oakland would prefer that he see more time in the minor leagues, they may be forced to keep him on the big league roster if he continues to shine.

Second Base

The battle for the second base starting position has gotten off to a rousing beginning, especially at the plate. Both Mark Ellis and Keith Ginter have looked strong in the batter's box in the early going. Ellis in particular has looked good, spraying balls all over the field and showing no ill effects from his missed 2004 season. Marco Scutaro has not had similar success at the plate, failing to get a hit in his first six at-bats. He is also the only one of the three not to get a start at second. Scutaro is being looked at more for a utility infielder role, and on that front, he has impressed, looking good out in the field at both short and third. He may be a long shot to make the A's roster out of camp if Oakland chooses to carry 12 pitchers, however. If Oakland carries 11 pitchers, Scutaro's main competition for a roster spot will likely come from Hiram Bocachica, Bobby Smith or Jermaine Clark. Clark has looked the best of the three so far this spring, picking up two hits in six at-bats and the team's only stolen base.

The battle between Ginter and Ellis may come down to their play in the field. Ellis has been a defensive wiz throughout his career in Oakland, but the A's were concerned that his shoulder injury would hamper his ability to throw. So far, Ellis has handled every chance flawlessly and even threw a runner out at home on a failed double-steal attempt by the Chicago Cubs on Thursday. Ginter has not looked as good in the field. He made a crucial error in the second inning of the Sunday game and it opened the floodgates for the Angels' scoring. Although both men are likely to get a lot of playing time in 2005, who gets the most may be determined by the coaching staff's comfort level with the player's defense.


The outfield battle is more for playing time than roster spots, as the A's have all but guaranteed that (barring a trade) Mark Kotsay, Bobby Kielty, Charles Thomas, Eric Byrnes and Nick Swisher will begin the season on the 25-man roster. The off-season trade speculation surrounding Eric Byrnes has followed him into camp and even more trade buzz was created when he made two weekend starts in right field. Some media outlets speculated that the A's were showcasing Byrnes to teams looking for a rightfielder. However, Oakland has yet to decide on a rightfielder themselves, so it is just as likely that Byrnes was being showcased for the A's rightfield job than anyone else's. Byrnes has the A's only homerun so far this spring.

Kielty has been sidelined by a calf injury that he incurred during the first few days of camp. The injury is almost healed and he should be making his spring debut soon. Thomas and Swisher have received a lot of playing time and have each picked up a couple of hits in three games. Thomas, who is renowned for his defense, has made a couple of nice plays in the outfield already.

Matt Watson may not have much of a chance to make the A's roster unless one of the outfielders is traded or is injured, but he is making the most of his opportunities so far. Watson has collected two hits in six at-bats, both of them doubles. One of his doubles came with two-outs and sparked a five-run, two-out Oakland rally on Friday.

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