Spring Training Battles: Infielders

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 fifth in our series, we look at the three infielders (and a pair of exciting prospects) in the A's camp who will be hoping to find their way onto the crowded A's 25-man roster.

It has become a disturbing annual event for the Oakland A's. Each of the past two springs, the A's entered spring training with their infield depth chart set and began the season with that depth severely altered. In 2004, the A's began the spring with Bobby Crosby and Mark Ellis as the starting second baseman and shortstop and Frank Menechino as the team's back-up. However, injuries to both Menechino and Ellis forced the team to promote Marco Scutaro and Esteban German unexpectedly. German would eventually be replaced by Mark McLemore, but Scutaro took advantage of Ellis' injury to grab a permanent roster spot and a starting role with the 2004 squad.

In 2005, the A's began spring training uncertain of Ellis' status as he recovered from a serious shoulder injury. To hedge their bets, the A's traded for second baseman Keith Ginter, who was expected to join Crosby as a starting middle infielder for the A's. However, when Ellis showed up to spring training healthy, the A's all-but set their middle infield as Crosby, Ginter and Ellis. Then injury struck once again. In the last week of camp, Crosby was hit by a pitch twice, once in the ribs and once on the wrist. While the wrist injury initially appeared more serious, the rib shot ended up costing the A's shortstop the first six weeks of the season. His roster spot was taken by Scutaro, who benefited from an injury for the second-straight season. Ginter, who was expected to play a big role on the A's in 2005, never got his bat going and ended up spending the season on the bench or in AAA. He was dropped from the 40-man roster in the off-season.

This off-season, the A's once again traded for a heavy-hitting middle infielder to give the team some additional depth. Antonio Perez was part of the Milton Bradley trade and he should join Scutaro as the primary back-ups for Crosby, Ellis and third baseman Eric Chavez. Perez hit .295 for the LA Dodgers last season and is hard at work to improve his defense with A's infield guru Ron Washington. Perez should be Chavez's primary back-up at third and will likely see some time at second and short, as well.

In addition to all of the shuffling in the middle of the A's infield last season, the A's saw some movement in their first base slot. Last spring, Dan Johnson was one of the final cuts out of camp and appeared destined to spending another year in the minor leagues despite being the defending MVP of the PCL. He was stuck behind Scott Hatteberg and Erubiel Durazo, each of whom had been big parts of the A's offense in 2004. However, Hatteberg struggled much of the year and Durazo went down with a season-ending elbow injury in late May. Johnson took advantage with a strong year at the big league level, and with Hatteberg and Durazo both gone this off-season, Johnson is guaranteed a roster spot and many game appearances this season. Nick Swisher will back-up Johnson at first and Johnson will likely share some DH duties with Frank Thomas.

So, in the tradition of the last two A's springs, it seems that Oakland has their infield slots set on the 25-man roster. However, Crosby's early-camp sore shoulder reminds all A's fans that what appears set in the infield could change during the course of the spring. We take a look at the three players who could step up and take advantage of an injury, if one were to occur yet again this spring. We also preview two infield prospects who should be making a splash with the A's in the next few seasons who are in camp as non-roster invitees.

Mike Rouse, 2B/SS

You can forgive Mike Rouse if he is a little bit frustrated at this point in his career. The talented middle infielder looked to be on the fast track to the big leagues in 2003 when he hit .300 for AA-Midland. Rouse almost got the spot that Scutaro won during the 2004 spring training battle, but a late-camp ankle injury sidelined Rouse for the first few weeks of the year. He wasn't given a September call-up despite hitting .276 with a .379 OBP and watched as the A's traded for Ginter to block him further in the off-season before the 2005 season. Rouse didn't play as well in 2005, as his OBP slipped to .358 and his normally reliable defense slipped. He had to suffer another disappointing off-season, as the A's once again acquired another middle infielder who will stand in Rouse's way.

Rouse has always been a strong spring performer (a career .333 hitter in A's camp) and Ron Washington has repeatedly praised Rouse's defensive abilities. He can play every infield position but first base. Rouse has a reputation as a patient hitter who makes consistent contact, but his strikeouts were way up last season (a career-high 115). He needs to get back to what made him a strong prospect this spring and show that he is a tough out and a good defensive player. If he does that, he could position himself for a roster spot if someone gets hurt because he and utilityman Freddie Bynum are the only players on the 40-man roster who can play the middle infield positions and who aren't guaranteed a 25-man roster spot this spring.

Keith Ginter, 2B/3B

If Rouse has reason to be frustrated, Keith Ginter has equal rights to be upset this spring. Ginter came into camp last spring coming off of his best season as a major leaguer, posting an 812 OPS for the Milwaukee Brewers. He was expected to take over the A's second base spot, but he got off to a slow start at the plate and never recovered. Ellis stepped up with a big season and Scutaro continued to provide a solid presence off of the bench, essentially pushing Ginter off of the depth chart. He spent some time in AAA-Sacramento and only received 157 at-bats at the major league level. The A's moved him off of the 40-man roster this spring, but Ginter elected to stay with the organization so that he could collect his $1.4 million salary for the 2006 season.

Ginter could be this season's Bobby Kielty. As many people remember, Kielty was acquired by the A's in the off-season before the 2004 campaign and he was expected to play a big role in the A's offense. Instead, Kielty struggled and finished the year firmly on the bench. Kielty recovered in 2005 to have a decent season that was accentuated with two-game winning homeruns during the A's pennant chase. Ginter is a good candidate to have a Kielty-type recovery in 2006, but he may not get a chance to show it with the A's. When Oakland acquired Perez this off-season, they essentially blocked Ginter from winning a spot out-right this spring. He could position himself for a spot if someone gets hurt if he has a big spring, but he is at a distinct disadvantage in that he isn't on the 40-man roster. Perhaps the best scenario for both the A's and Ginter would be for Ginter to play well enough this spring to attract some attention from another team.

Scott McClain, 3B/1B

Scott McClain signed a minor league free agent contract with Oakland this off-season. The 14-year minor league veteran has had a long career in professional baseball, a career that has seen him make 14 appearances with the Cubs in 2005, nine appearances with the Devil Rays in 1998 and two stints in the Japanese Professional League. McClain made headlines in 2004 when he nearly forced the Cubs to give him a roster spot by posting a 1237 OPS in Cactus League play. He spent the 2004 season in Japan and then returned to the Cubs organization in 2005, where he was a fan favorite in AAA-Iowa. A 935 OPS earned McClain a September call-up to Chicago, but he was cut by the Cubs in the off-season.

McClain doesn't have much chance to earn a spot with the A's because Oakland is deep at the third and first base positions. However, he does have impressive power (30 homers last season), so he'll be someone to watch at AAA-Sacramento. He will likely fill the role that Bobby Smith held for Sacramento last season.

Prospects To Watch:

The A's have two infield prospects in camp this spring and they are two of the A's most exciting prospects. We preview them below:

Daric Barton, 1B/C

Daric Barton returns to camp for the second straight year and hopefully he will find better health in camp this spring. Barton arrived last spring with a sore elbow and then missed time with appendicitis. He recovered in time to collect three hits in seven spring at-bats. He then went on to have an outstanding 2005 season split between high-A Stockton and AA-Midland, where he hit a combined .317 with a 904 OPS. Barton will likely begin the year in AAA-Sacramento, but he is very close to the big leagues. This should be the last spring training that Barton enters without a strong shot of making the big league squad.

Cliff Pennington, SS

Cliff Pennington is in camp this season after being the A's top draft choice in 2005. After signing with the A's, Pennington spent his first professional season in low-A Kane County, where he turned heads for his outstanding range at shortstop and his toughness at the top of the order. Pennington swiped 25 bags in only 69 games and hit .276. He should start the year in high-A Stockton and he could give the A's a difficult decision to make about their future at shortstop in 2008 with strong seasons in 2006 and 2007.

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