Spring Training Battles: Outfielders

Although the Oakland A's currently appear to have their 25-man roster set, injuries or trades could open up a spot before Opening Day. We continue our pre-season look at the players battling for a spot on the 25-man roster. In the fourth of our series, we look at the three outfielders (and a pair of prospects) in the A's camp who will be hoping to find their way onto the crowded A's 25-man roster.

As is the case virtually everywhere on the A's roster this year, Oakland begins spring training with incredible depth in the outfield. The team is essentially carrying five starting outfielders with Nick Swisher, Mark Kotsay, Milton Bradley, Jay Payton and Bobby Kielty all having been starters at various points last season. The A's AAA roster is equally as deep in the outfield, as Oakland is expected to carry two outfielders who spent time on the A's 25-man roster in 2005 (Charles Thomas and Matt Watson), as well as two utilitymen who were with the A's at different points last year (Hiram Bocachica and Freddie Bynum).

The five outfielders in camp who are not either Swisher, Kotsay, Payton, Bradley or Kielty all know that their chances of making the 25-man roster this spring are slim. However, as Watson and Thomas discovered in different ways last season, those players who seem out of the team's plans at the outset of the year can work their way into the team's plans by mid-season and those players who seem to be in the team's plans can just as quickly fall out of them. We take a look at the outfielders in camp this spring:

Charles Thomas

When last spring began, the biggest question surrounding Thomas was whether he or fan favorite Eric Byrnes would be the team's starting left-fielder. Thomas had arrived in Oakland during the off-season as part of the Tim Hudson trade. He was coming off of an outstanding 2004 season that saw him post an 813 OPS for the Braves as a rookie and a 951 OPS over 61 games for the Braves' AAA-Richmond squad. Thomas was expected to bring the A's a good glove, speed and some gap power to the bottom of their line-up. Instead, Thomas' play took a nose-dive in 2005.

The year began with Thomas playing roughly every other day. However, he couldn't get himself on-track, and he quickly found himself out of the A's normal playing rotation. He didn't collect his first hit of the season until April 27. Thomas was sent down to AAA on June 9 having collected only five hits in 46 at-bats. He was expected to return to Oakland once his stroke got back on-track, but it never did. Thomas struggled with the River Cats, posting a 680 OPS in 75 games in Sacramento. The normally bubbly Thomas appeared at times to be despondent to be back in the minor leagues and it appeared to affect his play.

In a lot of ways, Thomas' first season in Oakland was akin to Bobby Kielty's A's debut in 2004, which saw the red-head struggle to hit over .200 for much of the season. Kielty was given another chance to prove himself in 2005, and he recovered to have a much better season. Unfortunately for Thomas, he may not be given the same chance because the A's have a lot more talent in the outfield in 2006 then they did in 2005. Nonetheless, Thomas is still a talented player who could make an excellent back-up outfielder for the A's in 2006 or 2007 if they were to trade Payton or Kielty. However, he'll have to prove during this spring that last season was an aberration and that he can bring the A's what he brought to Atlanta in 2004. If he has a hot camp at the plate, he could find himself on the short-list for call-ups during the season.

Matt Watson

Watson was in the opposite position from Thomas last spring. Despite an excellent 2004 campaign for the River Cats, Watson was something of a forgotten man in the A's 2005 camp. Despite collecting seven hits in 19 spring at-bats, Watson was one of the first cuts last spring and he appeared far out of the A's plans. However, a hot start to his season in AAA changed all of that. Watson was one of the few River Cats who was hitting well in May when a rash of injuries struck the A's. He got the call on May 14 against the New York Yankees. Two days later, Watson went 2-4 in a start versus the Boston Red Sox and collected the game-winning RBI in a rare May victory for Oakland. Watson would stay with the team until May 25 and then he returned to Oakland for stints in August and September.

While in AAA, Watson was arguably the River Cats' best hitter in 2005. He was a AAA All-Star and he homered during the All-Star game, which was held at the River Cats' home ballpark, Raley Field. On the year, Watson hit .315 with a .404 on-base percentage and 81 RBI in 113 games for the River Cats. Although he didn't post outstanding numbers with Oakland during his limited plate appearances, he did collect three hits on the season's final day to end his year on a positive note. Watson, like Thomas, will be playing to position himself as the go-to guy if the A's need to call-up an outfielder during the season. Unlike last year, Watson shouldn't be a forgotten man at camp this spring.

Doug Clark

The only new face among the "veteran" outfielders battling for a roster spot this season is Doug Clark, who was signed as a minor league free agent during the off-season. Clark had spent his entire career in the San Francisco Giants' organization before inking with the A's. He is coming off of the best year of his career, as he hit .316 with 13 homers for the Giants' AAA-Fresno squad. He also made his major league debut last year, appearing in eight games in September for the Giants. Clark had a very solid Winter League season in Mexico, where he was amongst the league leaders in virtually every offensive category.

Clark will be playing in front of the A's coaching staff for the first time this spring, so he'll be looking to make an impression. At 30 years of age, Clark knows that he won't have too many more times to make an impression on a major league coaching staff. He isn't likely to earn a call-up to Oakland this season since he isn't on the 40-man roster, but he could force the team to give him a late season call-up if he plays well at AAA. Clark is a similar player to 2005 Sacramento outfielder Shawn Garrett. Clark, like Garrett, runs pretty well, plays all three outfield positions and can hit with power on occasion. He doesn't have great plate discipline (his .367 on-base percentage last year was his highest since he was in A-ball in 1999), so it will be interesting to see how he fits into the A's organizational philosophy. At the very least, Clark should fill the same role Garrett did for Sacramento last season.

Prospect Watch:

There will be two additional outfielders in A's camp, although neither has a shot of breaking camp with the team. Nonetheless, both players could be a big part of the A's future and their progress this spring will be worth monitoring.

Javier Herrera

Herrera is one of the A's top prospects and arguably is the team's most talented minor league player. He has yet to face much advanced pitching, however, so it will be interesting to see how he matches up with the major league pitching he'll see in camp this spring. Herrera will be 21 in April and he is coming off of a season that began poorly with a steroid suspension, but was overall a positive campaign. He brings with him lightening speed and good range in the outfield, as well as burgeoning power.

Herrera spent his winter playing for the eventual Caribbean Series champion Caracas Leones, and he held his own against the AAA/AAAA level of competition. Perhaps most impressive was his work in the Caribbean Series itself, where he hit better than .300 when he was thrust into a starting role due to injury. Herrera is expected to begin the season in A-Stockton and is probably at least two seasons away from the big leagues, but A's fans will get a sneak preview of what they might see in Oakland in 2008 this spring while watching Herrera.

Danny Putnam

Without much fanfare, Putnam has made himself one of the better A's outfield prospects. The 2004 draft choice isn't blessed with a ton of athleticism, but he knows how to hit. Putnam was the only A's minor leaguer to reach the 100 RBI plateau last season, which was spent primarily in A-Stockton. He is slated to join the AA-Midland Rockhounds in 2006, a team he helped lead to a Texas League Championship when he joined the Rockhounds for the playoffs.

Putnam projects to be a Scott Hatteberg/Sean Casey kind of hitter; a player who is a tough out. His biggest drawback right now is that he doesn't hit for enough power to be an everyday corner outfielder or a first baseman. In his first camp with the big league squad, he will likely be working with A's new hitting coach Gerald Perry to see if he can generate more homerun loft on his swing to turn some of his 37 doubles into homeruns. If he can add more homerun power this season, Putnam could see his stock rise as quickly as Andre Ethier's did last year.


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