With Johnson in Triple-A or on the bench, Nick Swisher saw more time at first base than he had during his rookie 2005 season. Swisher had a solid sophomore season at the plate, posting an 865 OPS and finishing second on the team in homeruns with 35. He also walked 97 times and drove-in 95 runs, although he did whiff a prodigious 152 times in 157 games. Mark Kotsay also saw some time at first while Johnson was in Sacramento.
The A's designated hitter spot was a question-mark coming into the season, as it had been two seasons since Frank Thomas had put together a healthy and productive season. He came to Oakland with a chip on his shoulder and he proved emphatically that he was still a Hall-of-Fame caliber hitter by blasting 39 homers and carrying the A's offense for much of the summer (especially in August and September). Thomas starred in the A's Divisional Series win over Minnesota by homering twice in the first game of the series. Thomas played in 137 games – way more than was expected of him at the start of the season. Switch-hitters Bobby Kielty and Adam Melhuse got the bulk of the DH at-bats when Thomas was resting.
Good-Bye And Hello
Unfortunately for Oakland, the most productive piece of their 1B/3B/DH trifecta has moved on to greener pastures. Thomas signed a lucrative contract that guaranteed him two-years with Toronto this off-season, leaving the A's a huge hole in their line-up.
In addition, Oakland signed free agent Erubiel Durazo, who was the A's DH in 2003-2005, to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Durazo underwent Tommy John surgery in 2005 while with the A's and was never quite healthy in 2006. He spent the year in Triple-A as part of the Rangers, Yankees and Twins organizations. Durazo has been red-hot this winter in Mexico and appears to be back to 100 percent, health-wise.
The A's also acquired a trio of middle infielders who can play third base if needed, Donnie Murphy, J.J. Furmaniak and Lou Merloni. They will battle incumbent utility infielder Antonio Perez for a spot on the A's roster this spring.
Third Basemen/First Basemen/Designated Hitters Invited to Camp
Number Of 1B/3B/DHs Likely On Roster – 4 or 5, including Swisher but not including the two middle infielders the A's will likely carry who can also play some third base (i.e. Scutaro).
Locks To Make The Team
Eric Chavez: Chavez has been a bit snake-bit since signing his long-term extension with the A's in the spring of 2004. That year, he broke his hand after being hit by a pitch and missed the most significant chunk of time of his career. Since then, he has battled arm and leg injuries and has performed below expectations at the plate. Chavez has still been a solid presence down at third base, where he won his sixth Gold Glove in 2006. However, the A's aren't paying him the big bucks to be a defensive specialist. For Oakland to succeed, Chavez will likely have to get back to his pre-2005 form and post an OPS of at least 850.
Mike Piazza: The A's don't need Piazza to replace Thomas' production by himself, but the A's do need Piazza to be at least as effective as he was with San Diego in 2006. The 38-year-old doesn't have the injury concerns that Thomas did, but Piazza is switching leagues and is having to adjust to being a DH for the first time in his career. He also had two down years offensively before reviving in 2006. There is the potential for an Eric Karros-like blow-out with Piazza, but the A's are crossing their fingers that that doesn't happen. He will likely start the season as the A's clean-up hitter.
Favorite For The Final Spot
Dan Johnson: If the A's don't acquire another OF or 1B before the start of the season, Johnson will be the strong favorite to start at first for the A's. Although he had a very disappointing second major league season, Johnson has probably earned one more long look by the A's before they give up on him completely. Oakland clearly doesn't know how much to trust Johnson at this point in the off-season, as they have flirted with a couple of free agent first basemen. As it stands now, however, Johnson remains the only true first baseman on the A's roster.
There is some reason to believe that Johnson will recover some of his 2005 form this year. He has an impeccable minor league track record as a guy who hit for power, average and got on-base. Despite his struggles last season, Johnson still managed to post a good K:BB ratio (45:40). In addition, he hit well during his mid-season stint in Sacramento. However, he was brutal against left-handed pitchers and hit very poorly on the road in the major leagues.
Johnson is only an average fielding first baseman, so his glove alone won't earn him a spot on the roster. A good spring at the plate will all-but-guarantee him a spot on the A's 25-man roster and a starting nod. However, even with a good spring, Johnson could be on a short leash all season with Daric Barton nipping on his heels from Triple-A.
Battling For The Final Spot
Note: we featured Furmaniak, Murphy, Perez and Scutaro in the 2B/SS battle piece so we won't repeat the information here. Whoever wins the middle infield back-up spots will see time at third base this season.
Erubiel Durazo: Durazo's signing was a bit of a surprise, especially since it came after the A's had already locked-up Piazza to be their everyday DH. Durazo signed only a minor league contract, however, so having him around as insurance in case Piazza is injured or fails to adjust to the AL can't hurt. There is a small chance that the A's will carry Durazo along with Piazza and Johnson, but that will only happen if Durazo proves that he can handle first base defensively enough to justify the roster spot.
Lou Merloni: The A's signed Merloni after we had already written the middle infield battle article, so we will include him here. Like Murphy, Furmaniak, Perez and Scutaro, Merloni is primarily a middle infielder who can play third in a pinch.
Merloni doesn't offer as much upside as Murphy or Furmaniak, but he does have major league veteran experience going for him. He is known as a "good clubhouse guy," so, at the very least, he should be a good mentor for the A's younger infielders. He doesn't figure to see much time in Oakland this season, although if he is playing well at Triple-A, he could see some time in September or as an injury replacement.
Here For The Future
Daric Barton: At the start of the 2006 season, it appeared that Barton was only a year away from challenging for the A's first base job. He got off to a hot start at Triple-A Sacramento. However, he struggled in May and then was lost for the season when he broke his left elbow in a collison with Tony Womack at first base. Barton did get some playing time this winter in the Dominican Republic, but he probably needs at least a half season more Triple-A seasoning before he makes his debut.
As a hitter, there isn't much that Barton has to work on. He still doesn't hit for that much homerun power, but he still has plenty of time to grow into a homerun hitter (he's only 21 still). Barton already has a major league approach at the plate and a solid swing that sprays balls to all fields. Once he does make the big leagues, he should be the A's starting first baseman or DH for the next several years.
Storyline To Watch
How Dan Johnson performs during spring training will go a long way in determining what the A's Opening Day roster looks like. He can make the A's decision-making process easy with a strong spring. However, if he struggles, the A's will likely be forced to move Swisher to first full-time, which could have a ripple-effect on the entire roster.