Oakland A's Spring Training Battles: 3B/1B/DH

The weather outside might still be frightful, but spring is just around the corner and that means only one thing: baseball! Every year, we preview the spring training roster battles that will take place during major league camp. While these battles may change based on a late off-season move, most of these scenarios will still hold true. We continue our series with a look at the 3B/1B/DH battle.

A Look Back At 2006

At the start of the season, the Oakland A's were counting on third baseman Eric Chavez, first baseman Dan Johnson and designated hitter Frank Thomas to be a big part of the middle of their line-up. While the A's got more out of Thomas than they ever could have hoped for, the production they received from Chavez and Johnson was disappointing, to say the least. Chavez got off to an uncharacteristically good start to the season, hitting nine homers with a .301 batting average in April. However, he injured a hamstring that month and struggled through a myriad of injuries in May through August, never posting an OPS above 763 in any of those four months. He recovered with a solid September (920 OPS), but finished the season with only 22 homers and 72 RBIs in 137 games. His batting average was a career-low .241.

Johnson's season was even worse. He began the year in a horrible zero for the first two weeks of the season slump that he never really recovered from. After jump-starting the A's offense during his 2005 debut season, Johnson was an anchor at the bottom of the line-up for much of the year. He hit only .234 and saw his OBP drop from .355 in his rookie season to .323. Things got so bad for Johnson that he was sent down to Triple-A Sacramento in July and didn't return until just before the rosters expanded in late August.

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.

The A's have attempted to fill that hole with another future Hall-of-Famer, Mike Piazza. Piazza is coming off of a solid season with the San Diego Padres, where he hit .283 with 22 homers, while catching everyday. He will be a DH in Oakland, a first-time position for the 13-year veteran. It will also be Piazza's first time in the American League, so he will have a lot of adjustments to make when he gets to Oakland.

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

Daric Barton
Eric Chavez
Erubiel Durazo
J.J. Furmaniak
Dan Johnson
Lou Merloni
Donnie Murphy
Antonio Perez
Mike Piazza
Marco Scutaro
Nick Swisher

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.

Nick Swisher: It remains to be seen how much playing time Swisher will see at first base (as opposed to left-field), but he will most certainly be in the center of the A's offense. Swisher had a strong second major league season, and he proved to the world that he is a legitimate power hitter at a corner position. He also drew walks at a high rate, something that he had done throughout his minor league career. Swisher would be an ideal number two hitter for the A's because of his batting-eye, but he will need to cut down on his strikeouts before the A's move him to the top-third of the order. If he can cut down on the Ks and be a bit more consistent throughout the season (his production dipped in June and July, in part due to illness), he could become a premium offensive player in 2007.

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.

If healthy, there is no question that Durazo can still hit at the major league level. His Mexican Winter League numbers are Babe Ruthian and, while that isn't an indication of how he would do at the major league level, it is an indication that his arm is fully healed. Durazo was the A's top hitter in 2004, when he hit .321. He will never be a strong enough defensive first baseman to play there everyday, but if he proves himself to be at least passable at first and he is raking at the plate this spring, he could force the offense-starved A's to let go of Johnson and have Durazo and Swisher share the bulk of the playing time at first. Otherwise, he will likely provide huge numbers for the River Cats until if/when the A's need him in Oakland.

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.
He has spent parts of nine major league seasons with Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles of Anaheim and San Diego, all as a back-up utility infielder. The A's had some interest in him last season before he signed with Cleveland, where he appeared in only nine major league games.

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.

The big focus for Barton this spring will be on his defense. His glove and his health have been the only negatives shadowing his prospect status during his young career. He has been moved around from first base to third base to catcher during his high school and minor league days, so his development as a first baseman is still in the beginning stages. Barton was just getting used to the speed of the Triple-A game when he was injured last May. He will need to make himself a consistent fielding first baseman to get the A's job.

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.

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