Oakland A's Spring Training Battles: IFs

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 move, most of these scenarios will still hold true. We continue our series with a look at the infield battle.

A Look Back At 2007

Dan Johnson's year began with a hip injury.
The Oakland A's infield was littered with injuries in 2007. It began in Spring Training when starting first baseman Dan Johnson injured his hip and was forced to miss the start of the season. Third baseman Eric Chavez struggled with injuries throughout the season and was eventually shut-down to have shoulder surgery in late July. Shortstop Bobby Crosby missed the final two months of the season with a broken hand incurred when he was hit with a pitch. Super-sub Marco Scutaro appeared in more than 100 games for the A's for the fourth consecutive season.

Those injuries hurt the team's on-field production, but it did allow the A's to try a few young players at the major league level. Donnie Murphy and Jack Hannahan saw significant time with Oakland and Kevin Melillo and J.J. Furmaniak also received cameo appearances with the A's. Top prospect Daric Barton made his major-league debut in September and it was an impressive showing.

Good-Bye And Hello

Marco Scutaro's home run off of Mariano Rivera was a memorable blast.
The A's said good-bye to one of their most popular players this off-season, infielder Marco Scutaro. The utilityman developed a reputation for being a clutch and valuable player during his four seasons with the A's. He never posted an OPS higher than 747 in any of his four seasons with the A's, but he delivered a number of dramatic, game-winning hits both in the regular season and in the 2006 post-season. He filled-in for the A's at second, third and shortstop (as well as in the outfield on occasion) during his tenure with Oakland. Scutaro was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays this off-season for two minor league pitching prospects, Graham Godfrey and Kristian Bell.

The A's also said good-bye to infielder J.J. Furmaniak. Furmaniak signed a minor-league contract with the A's last off-season and appeared in 16 games for Oakland. He hit .292 with an 823 OPS for Triple-A Sacramento in 2007 and inked a deal to play in Japan in 2008.

Late in the off-season, the A's added first baseman Mike Sweeney, who signed a non-guaranteed, minor-league deal. The former Kansas City Royals star has appeared on five American League All-Star teams, his last appearance coming in 2005. He has struggled with back problems for a number of years, including the past two, during which he has appeared in less than 80 games in each season. The A's also signed two minor league free agent infielders this off-season: Brooks Conrad and Casey Rogowski.

Infielders Invited To Camp

Daric Barton*
Eric Chavez*
Bobby Crosby*
Mark Ellis*
Jack Hannahan*
Dan Johnson*
Kevin Melillo*
Donnie Murphy*
Gregorio Petit*
Jeff Baisley
Brooks Conrad
Casey Rogowski
Mike Sweeney

*Denotes member of the 40-man roster

Number Of INFs Likely On Roster – 6 or 7, depending on how many relievers the A's decide to carry, Oakland may have room for an extra pinch-hitter/DH type.

Locks To Make The Team

Daric Barton:
Daric Barton had a strong season for Sacramento.
Barton's long-awaited debut in the major leagues finally came to fruition last September. And he didn't disappoint. After a solid full season with Triple-A Sacramento where he posted an 827 OPS, Barton started 18 games for the A's in September and was nothing short of spectacular. He reached base in all 18 contests and hit .347 with four homers, nine doubles, 10 walks and a 1068 OPS.

It was a nice bounce-back season for Barton, who missed much of the 2006 campaign with a broken elbow and hamstring problems. He was healthy for the entire 2007 season and more than held his own as a 21-one-year-old (he turned 22 in mid-August) against much older competition. Barton has proved all he can in the minor leagues and demonstrated last September that he is ready for a full-time role with Oakland in 2008. It would likely take an injury for Barton to lose his spot as the A's starting first baseman.

Eric Chavez:
Eric Chavez will be recovering from injury this spring.
Chavez is one of the A's biggest question-marks heading into camp. When healthy, the 30-year-old is one of the A's best all-around players. However, he hasn't been healthy in nearly three seasons and his production has nose-dived during that time. In 2007, he managed to play in only 90 games, a career-low, and he hit only .240 with a 752 OPS. Chavez played his final game last season in late July and wound-up having three surgeries starting in September to fix his ailing back and both shoulders.

Chavez is reportedly feeling good, but it still isn't clear if he will be back to 100 percent by the start of the season. Even if he is held back a few weeks, the A's are hopeful that he will be on the field for the majority of the year and back to his productive self. He still has three years and roughly $33 million on his contract, which makes him the highest paid player on the A's by a lot. He could be moved mid-season if he proves that he is back to his healthy and productive self, but the A's don't have a lot of depth in the minor leagues at third base, so the team may elect to hold onto Chavez and try to build their line-up around him over the next three seasons.

Bobby Crosby:
Bobby Crosby missed two months with a broken hand last season.
Around the same time that the A's lost Chavez last season, they also lost Crosby for the year with a broken hand. Up until that point, Crosby had been enjoying his healthiest campaign since his rookie season in 2004. Unfortunately for the former AL Rookie of the Year, his production was still down despite his good health. Crosby managed only a .226 batting average and eight homers in 93 games. His .278 OBP and his 619 OPS were both career-lows.

The A's insist that Crosby is still a big part of their future publicly, but privately, their patience may be wearing a bit thin. Crosby has now played in 435 games at the major-league level and his 701 career OPS is nowhere near where the A's thought it would be when they allowed Miguel Tejada to leave as a free agent after the 2003 season. The A's don't have an obvious replacement for Crosby in the minor leagues, but Donnie Murphy showed some flashes of good offensive production last season and he could step-in and play a larger role this season if Crosby continues to struggle at the plate.

Mark Ellis:
Mark Ellis had a career-high 19 home runs.
Ellis was the MVP of the A's infield and arguably the team last season. The smooth-fielding second baseman had his usual outstanding season in the field and put together a solid offensive season, as well. He hit .276 with a career-high 19 homers and 76 RBIs. Ellis also appeared in 150 games, his highest total since 2003, when he played in 154 games.

Ellis is in the final year of his contract, which has led to some talk that the A's might deal him at some point this season. However, the team loves what Ellis brings to the table, especially in the field, where they believe is one of the most valuable defensive players in all of baseball. With the A's featuring a young pitching staff in 2008, the team may look to hold onto their veteran second baseman as a way to help the younger pitchers gain the confidence that pitching with a good defense behind them brings.

Favorites For The Final Spots
Donnie Murphy:
Donnie Murphy has good defensive versatility.
When the A's dealt Marco Scutaro this off-season, the front office stated that the trade was made with the idea that Murphy would take-on Scutaro's role as the A's back-up infielder. Murphy appeared in 42 games for the A's in 2007. He hit only .220, but he showed impressive power, hitting six homers and posting a .441 SLG. Murphy appeared in 45 games for Triple-A Sacramento, and he hit .326 with an 896 OPS. Murphy missed time while with Sacramento and Oakland with muscle strains.

Murphy demonstrated a lot of defensive versatility in 2007, appearing at second, short, third and even in the outfield. His natural position is shortstop and although he made a few errors at short in the major leagues, he also showed off a cannon right arm. At the plate, Murphy dominated left-handed pitching both at the major- and minor-league levels in 2007, and he could serve as a nice platoon for Chavez at third. Murphy will have the inside track on the back-up infielder spot for the A's going into the spring.

Jack Hannahan:
Jack Hannahan filled in for Eric Chavez at third in 2007.
Hannahan was toiling away in the Detroit Tigers chain when he was acquired by the A's for Jason Perry in late July. The Minnesota native took Chavez's spot as the A's everyday third baseman. He was very solid for the A's during his 41 games in 2007. The lefty hit .278 with three homers and a 793 OPS in 144 at-bats. He also did a good job drawing walks (21), although he struck out a lot (39).

Hannahan only appeared at third base for the A's last season. During his minor league career, he has seen a lot of time at second base, in addition to third. The A's were also considering trying him in the outfield this spring to give him a little more versatility. He has an excellent chance of making the A's Opening Day roster if the A's carry two back-up infielders, but if he doesn't, Hannahan should be a first option for the A's should any of the team's injury-plagued infielders go down with injury.

Mike Sweeney or Dan Johnson:
The veteran Mike Sweeney will battle Dan Johnson for a roster spot.
One of the A's last moves before the start of Spring Training was to add the veteran Sweeney to their non-roster invitee list. His addition to the team appears to be a direct challenge to Johnson's spot on the A's Opening Day roster. Johnson hit 18 homers for the A's last season, but batted only .236 with a 767 OPS. He lost his hold on the A's first base job to Barton and the DH spot to Jack Cust. Sweeney, the long-time Kansas City Royals star, hit only .260 with seven homers and a 719 OPS in an injury-plagued 2007 season.

Despite poor 2007 numbers and injury concerns, Sweeney likely has an advantage over Johnson in the battle for the back-up first baseman/DH role going into the spring by virtue of the fact that Sweeney is right-handed. Both starters at DH and first base for the A's are left-handed, making Sweeney a more attractive platoon partner for Barton and Cust than the left-handed hitting Johnson. However, Johnson is younger than Sweeney and more reliably healthy. The A's may let the competition between the two players go for much of the spring, but barring a spring injury to Cust or Barton, only one of these players will make the Opening Day roster and the "loser" of the competition will likely be traded.

Battling For The Final Spot

Kevin Melillo:
Kevin Melillo's sore right wrist needed surgery in the off-season.
Melillo spent the majority of the 2007 season with Triple-A Sacramento, his first season at that level. He got off to a fast start for the River Cats, posting an 822 OPS before the All-Star break. Melillo slumped to a 719 OPS after the All-Star break as he struggled with a sore right wrist that cost him most of the month of July. He eventually had surgery on his wrist in November on what turned out to be a torn tendon.

When healthy, Melillo projects to be an above-average offensive second baseman. He has good power and a patient approach at the plate. He used to rate as below-average with the glove, but he has worked hard to make himself an average defensive second baseman. Melillo has also spent time at third base and has done well at that spot. He offers a similar skill-set to Hannahan and will have to out-play Hannahan to win his spot on the A's roster. Melillo, who walked in his only major league at-bat in 2007, is likely to see some time at the big-league level in 2008 even if he doesn't make the Opening Day roster.

Gregorio Petit:
Gregorio Petit is a master with the glove.
The slick-fielding Petit began the 2007 season at Double-A Midland, where he quickly attracted attention by batting .306 with four homers during the first half of the season. He was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento at that point and, after a slow start at the plate, Petit put together a solid first showing in Triple-A, batting .277 with two homers. He was rewarded for his strong season in the off-season when he was added to the 40-man roster.

Petit's main asset as a player is with his glove. He has an above-average arm, soft hands and quick feet. His natural position is at shortstop, but he has also seen a lot of time at second base during his career and has done well there, as well. Offensively, he is capable of putting up decent batting averages, but he could use some improvement with his pitch selection. Petit only turned 23 in December, so he is still young. He could use some additional seasoning in Triple-A to improve his approach at the plate, but if the A's need a defensive specialist at any point during the season, they may call on Petit.

Looking To Make An Impression

Brooks Conrad: Conrad was signed to a minor league contract this off-season after spending seven seasons in the Houston Astros minor league chain. He was a solid prospect for the Astros for some time, but he never had a chance to play at the major-league level. In 2007, he hit 22 homers (his third straight season with more than 20 homers) for Triple-A Round Rock, but he slumped to a .218 average and a 725 OPS after posting a .267 average and an 868 OPS in 2006.

Conrad can play both at second and third and he has good power. He has always been a high strikeout guy. The switch-hitter turned 28 in January. He will be looking to show the A's coaching staff that his struggles in 2007 were an aberration. Conrad will be hoping to parlay his time in camp into a few chances at the major league level during the season.

Casey Rogowski: Rogowski signed a minor league deal with the A's this off-season after spending his entire nine-year minor league career in the Chicago White Sox chain. The left-handed hitting first baseman has spent the past two seasons in Triple-A, posting a 787 OPS in 2006 and a 740 OPS in 2007. Rogowski's best season in the minor leagues came in 2004 with High-A Winston-Salem, when he had a .401 OBP and he hit 18 homers and drove-in 90 runs.

Rogowski may have a tough time getting at-bats early this spring, especially if first baseman Wes Bankston (who was waived last week when the A's signed Keith Foulke) clears waivers and rejoins the A's as a non-roster player, as he will have to compete with Barton, Johnson, Sweeney and possibly Bankston for reps at first base.

Here For The Future

Jeff Baisley:
Jeff Baisley struggled with a knee injury in 2007.
After winning the Midwest League MVP award in 2006, Baisley was jumped past High-A directly to Double-A in 2007. He got off to a good start with Midland, posting a .288 average, hitting nine homeruns and achieving an 823 OPS before the All-Star break. He hurt his knee mid-season and managed only 144 at-bats after the All-Star break. Baisley was mostly ineffective while trying to play through the knee injury, as he had only a 520 OPS after the break. Baisley was sent to the Arizona Fall League, where managed only a .203 average with three homers in 79 at-bats.

Despite his late-season struggles, Baisley is still well thought of by the A's brass. The right-handed hitter has good power and the ability to hit for high average. He is also a strong defensive third baseman with soft hands, a good throwing arm and good footwork. Depending on who makes the A's Opening Day roster, Baisley will either start the season at Double-A or Triple-A. Even if he starts the year in Double-A, he is likely to spend time at Triple-A by season's end.

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