Oakland A's Spring Training Battles: OFs

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 outfield battle.

A Look Back At 2007

Milton Bradley was cut soon after his rehab stint with Triple-A Sacramento.
The 2007 season was an injury-riddled campaign for Oakland A's outfielders. The team went into the 2007 spring expecting Milton Bradley, Mark Kotsay and Nick Swisher to see the majority of the playing time in the outfield, with Shannon Stewart coming off of the bench. Kotsay was shelved early in the spring with a back injury that required surgery and cost the veteran centerfielder the first two months of the season. He struggled when he returned from the surgery and hit only .214 with a 575 OPS in 56 games for the A's. Kotsay was then shelved for good in mid-August. Bradley joined Kotsay on the DL in mid-April with a bum hamstring. He struggled with leg and rib injuries before being designated for assignment by the A's in a controversial move on June 21 and wound-up appearing in only 19 games for the A's. Bobby Kielty, who was expected to get the majority of the A's starts in left-field against left-handed pitchers, was injured during Spring Training and appeared in only 13 games for the A's before being released.

Shannon Stewart was surprisingly durable for the A's.
Swisher played in 150 games for the A's, posting an 836 OPS. However, Swisher, who had made the majority of his starts with the A's as a corner outfielder or as a first baseman before the 2007 season, was forced to play in 59 games as a centerfielder due to injuries to Kotsay and Bradley. Rookie Travis Buck, who was expected to spend much of the season in Triple-A, was given a shot at a major league job when injuries opened a spot on the A's roster during the spring. He responded with an 851 OPS, but he appeared in only 82 games after suffering from his own injury problems. Stewart, expected to be more of a fourth outfielder for the A's, appeared in 146 games in 2007, batting .290 with a .345 OBP.

Injuries forced the A's to use a number of other players in the outfield, including utilityman Marco Scutaro, , designated hitter Jack Cust, rookie Danny Putnam (who made the leap to the majors directly from Double-A), former New York Yankees prospect Kevin Thompson, former Seattle Mariners prospect Chris Snelling, journeymen Jeff DaVanon, Dee Brown and Hiram Bocachica, former Atlanta Braves outfielder Ryan Langerhans, infielder J.J. Furmaniak and even catcher Jason Kendall. Stewart was the only A's outfielder to appear in more than 100 games at any one outfield position.

Good-Bye And Hello

Fan favorite Nick Swisher was dealt in January.
All of the A's expected 2007 starting outfield is now gone. Bradley was dealt during the season, while Swisher and Kotsay were both traded in January. In addition, Kielty was cut during the season. Shannon Stewart is still an unsigned free agent, but he isn't expected to return to the team. Only Buck remains from the group of outfielders that saw significant time with the A's in 2007. In addition, DH Jack Cust, who occasionally plays in the outfield, will be returning to the team after a breakthrough 2007 season with the club after being acquired from San Diego early in the year.

In the place of Swisher, Kotsay and Bradley are Chris Denorfia, Ryan Sweeney and Emil Brown. Denorfia was acquired from Cincinnati in a trade last April, but he missed all of last season with an elbow injury. Sweeney was part of the Swisher trade and the veteran Brown signed as a free agent. In addition, the A's added two young outfielders who could be future starters for the team in the Dan Haren trade – Carlos Gonzalez and Aaron Cunningham. The team also claimed prospect Jeff Fiorentino off of waivers and signed former San Francisco Giants prospect Todd Linden to a minor league contract.

Outfielders Invited To Camp

Emil Brown*
Travis Buck*
Aaron Cunningham
Jack Cust*
Chris Denorfia*
Jeff Fiorentino*
Carlos Gonzalez*
Javier Herrera*
Todd Linden
Danny Putnam
Richie Robnett*
Ryan Sweeney*

*Denotes member of the 40-man roster

Number Of INFs Likely On Roster – 5 or 6, including the designated hitter position.

Locks To Make The Team

Emil Brown:
Emil Brown signed a one-year contract with the A's.
Brown was signed by the A's to a one-year, free agent contract this off-season. He is returning to his original organization, as he was a sixth-round pick of the A's in 1994. Brown was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Rule 5 draft before the 1997 season and has made a few stops around the league since that time. He spent time in the Pirates, Padres, Rays, Reds, Astros and Cardinals organizations from 1997 to 2004 before landing with the Kansas City Royals in 2005. He found his first sustained success at the big league level with Kansas City, hitting 17 homeruns and driving-in 86 runs for the Royals in 2005 and following that up with a 15-homer, 81-RBI performance in 2006. Brown slumped during the first half of the 2007 season and appeared in only 113 games for Kansas City. He wound-up hitting six homers and driving-in 62 runs last season. The Royals declined to offer Brown arbitration during the off-season, and he signed with the A's in January.

The A's will look to the right-handed hitting Brown to be a balance for their heavily left-handed middle of the order. Over the past three seasons with Kansas City, Brown has posted an 841 OPS against left-handed pitching, more than 100 points higher than his efforts against right-handers. He is versatile defensively, and can handle both corner positions well and could be used in center in a pinch. He stole a career-high 12 bases last season and still has decent speed despite being 33 years old. In a perfect world for the A's, Brown will be a fourth outfielder, platoon-player for some of the team's young outfield talent. However, if the A's have any injuries or if their young outfield talent needs more time in the minor leagues, Brown could see as much time as Shannon Stewart did for Oakland last season.

Travis Buck:
Travis Buck is looking for a healthy 2008 season.
Buck surprised everyone when he made the A's Opening Day roster last season. The 2005 first round draft choice jumped from Double-A in 2006 directly to the big leagues in 2007, and he didn't miss a beat. He began the season in the lower part of the A's batting order, but he was quickly promoted to the lead-off spot, where he spent the majority of the season. He took well to being the number one hitter, batting .304 with a .383 OBP as a lead-off batter. On the season, he hit .288 with seven homeruns and an 851 OPS in 285 at-bats.

The biggest criticism of Buck's work in 2007 was that he didn't get to work enough. Buck missed almost half of the season with a variety of ailments. He had off-season surgery on his right elbow and should be 100 percent for the start of the season, but he has had a number of injuries during his short professional career, so the A's will monitor his health closely. When healthy, Buck is one of the A's best all-around players. He hits for average, can get on-base, has good extra-base power and can steal the occasional base. Buck also demonstrated last season that he can play above-average defense in the corner positions and can play center if the team needs him to. If Buck is healthy enough to give the A's 140 games in 2008. the team should be much improved offensively.

Jack Cust:
Jack Cust was a feel-good story in 2007.
Cust was the biggest story of the A's 2007 season and was the biggest story in baseball for a time. The slugger was toiling away in the San Diego organization when the A's acquired him to fill Mike Piazza's spot when Piazza went on the DL with a separated shoulder. It was meant to be a temporary role, but Cust won a permanent spot with an outstanding performance in Piazza's place. He hit .256 with 26 homers and 82 RBI in only 395 at-bats with Oakland. He also walked 105 times and struck out a hefty 164 times. Between his time with Oakland and with Triple-A Portland, Cust hit 35 homers, drove-in 102 runs, walked 124 times and struck out 193 times in 149 games in 2007.

The A's will be counting on Cust for similar production in 2008. Although he may sit against the occasional lefty, Cust will more than likely be in the line-up on an everyday basis. Oakland demonstrated that they weren't afraid to play Cust in the field at times last season, although the A's shouldn't have to play him out there very often.

Chris Denorfia:
Chris Denorfia is coming off of elbow surgery.
Denorfia was acquired by the A's in late April 2007, but he has yet to make his Oakland debut. He missed the entire 2007 season after injuring his elbow during spring training and undergoing Tommy John surgery. In 2006, Denorfia had his first extended look at the major league level. In 49 games for the Reds, he hit .283 with a .356 OBP and a 724 OPS. That season, he appeared in 83 games for Triple-A Louisville and hit .349 with a .409 OBP and an 893 OPS.

Denorfia is a versatile outfielder who can play all three positions, including centerfield. The A's are likely to use Denorfia primarily in centerfield in 2008. Although Denorfia will turn 28 during the 2008 season, he is still an inexperienced major league player, as he has only 67 major league games under his belt. Denorfia will also be coming off of a year layoff, and it is always a guess as to how much that layoff will affect a player's timing at the start of the season. Although he will have the first crack at being the A's full-time centerfielder in 2008, Denorfia will have to perform well to keep the job. Ryan Sweeney and Jeff Fiorentino both have major league experience and can handle centerfield and either could challenge Denorfia for his spot during the season if he struggles. In addition, if Carlos Gonzalez gets off to a fast start at Triple-A and Denorfia struggles, the A's could move Buck to centerfield and promote Gonzalez to play right (or have Gonzalez play center). If Denorfia plays well, however, he should get the majority of the playing time in center this season.

Favorite For A Final Spot

Ryan Sweeney:
Ryan Sweeney had wrist problems in 2007.
Sweeney was one of three prospects acquired by the A's from the Chicago White Sox for Nick Swisher this off-season. One of the White Sox's top prospects for the past three years, Sweeney had fallen somewhat out of favor with the Chicago brass after a down 2007 season at Triple-A Charlotte. In 105 games, Sweeney had a 746 OPS after posting an 802 OPS at the same level the year before. He struggled with a wrist injury during the season that cut down on his effectiveness at the plate. Sweeney, who turns 23 next week, has 33 games of major-league experience. He hasn't had much success during the brief amount of time that he has spent in the majors, posting a 598 OPS in 80 at-bats spread over the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

Scouts have always loved Sweeney, who has a long, athletic frame that scouts can project greatness on. However, those same scouts have become frustrated with Sweeney's lack of development in the power area. He looks like a power hitter, but for much of his career, he has been more of a singles hitter. Sweeney is an above-average defensive outfielder in the corners and he has handled centerfield when he has been asked to. He has already spent two full seasons at Triple-A, so he doesn't likely have a lot more to learn at that level. However, he will need to demonstrate that he can bring value with the bat and the glove to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster.

Battling For The Final Spot

Jeff Fiorentino:
Jeff Fiorentino has gotten off to a slow start in each of the past two years.
The A's claimed Fiorentino off of waivers in January when he was released off of the Cincinnati Reds' 40-man roster. It was the second time during the off-season that Fiorentino had been released off of a 40-man roster. He had been dropped by the Baltimore Orioles, the team that he had spent his entire career with until now, earlier in the off-season. As a minor leaguer, Fiorentino has never progressed higher than Double-A. However, he has spent time in the major leagues, appearing in 32 games with the Orioles in 2005 and 2006. Fiorentino has been stuck at Double-A each of the past two seasons in large part because he has gotten off to slow starts that have left his OPSs under 800 in both 2006 and 2007.

Fiorentino has spent much of his career play centerfield and he can handle the position well. He has good power for a centerfielder, good bat control and a patient approach at the plate. Fiorentino has an unusual set-up at that plate, where he puts his upper half of his body over the plate. He has traditionally done well against right-handed pitching and struggled versus lefties. If he out-plays Ryan Sweeney this spring, he could win a spot as a platoon partner for Chris Denorfia in center. If not, he will almost certainly get his first taste of Triple-A.

Carlos Gonzalez:
Carlos Gonzalez was the top prospect in the package the A's received for Dan Haren.
Gonzalez was the centerpiece of the Dan Haren trade. The five-tool talent has been one of the top prospects in baseball since he posted an 860 OPS for South Bend of the Midwest League in 2005. After a slow start, Gonzalez posted solidified his status as a top prospect with a strong 2007 season spent mostly in Double-A. In 120 games with Double-A Mobile, Gonzalez hit .286 with 16 homers and an 806 OPS. He was promoted to Triple-A late in the season and hit well for Tucson, batting .310 with an 896 OPS in 10 games.

Gonzalez has all of the tools to be a star in the major leagues, and the A's are hoping that he will be the centerpiece of the team's offense for years to come. He has the ability to hit for average and power. He also has a cannon throwing arm and above-average speed. Gonzalez is best suited for right-field, but he can handle centerfield, as well. Gonzalez's main weakness as a player is his plate patience. He walked only 38 times in 500 at-bats last season. He is also only 22 years old and is still maturing as a player. The A's won't hold Gonzalez back if he looks like he is ready for the major leagues this spring. However, it probably wouldn't hurt Gonzalez to start the season in Triple-A, where he can work with A's coaches to improve his approach at the plate. He should see some time in the major leagues this season regardless.

Todd Linden:
Todd Linden travels across the Bay.
Linden signed a minor league free agent deal with the A's this off-season. The switch-hitting outfielder is a known commodity in the Bay Area, after spending five-and-a-half seasons as a top prospect in the San Francisco Giants' chain. The former University of Washington star spent parts of five seasons on the Giants' major league roster, but he never won a permanent spot with the Giants. He was given a longer look in 2007, but he managed only a .182 BA in 55 at-bats for San Francisco. Linden was released by the Giants mid-season and was picked up by the Florida Marlins. He played better for Florida, batting .271 with a 711 OPS in 129 at-bats.

Linden has yo-yoed between Triple-A and the major leagues since 2003. In 556 career minor league games, Linden has a career .289 average and an 878 OPS. In 270 major league games, he has a career .231 average and a 638 OPS. His best season in the minors came in 2005 when he hit 30 homers and posted a 1119 OPS in only 95 games for Triple-A Fresno. In the minor leagues, Linden has been a player with above-average power from both sides of the plate and good plate patience. In the majors, Linden's patience has generally disappeared and he hasn't shown much power. He is an average defensive outfielder, but he is limited to the corners. Linden won't turn 28 until June, and he still could be capable of that breakthrough in the major leagues that the Giants were looking for over the past few seasons. Linden will be at a disadvantage in the battle for the final outfield spot because he isn't a strong option in centerfield. However, if he looks like the player he has been in the minor leagues this spring, Linden could be given a chance with the A's at the start of the season. If he doesn't make the team out of Spring Training, he will be one of the veterans on the Sacramento River Cats' roster and should be a top option for the A's during the season if any of their starting outfielders go down with injuries.

Looking To Make An Impression

Javier Herrera:
Injuries have robbed Javier Herrera of much of the last two seasons.
In a perfect world, Herrera would be a top prospect ready to graduate to the A's starting line-up this spring. That was the plan for Herrera when he was added to the 40-man roster before the 2006 season. Since that time, however, the plan has gone awry for Herrera. He injured his elbow during the spring of 2006 and missed the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Herrera began the 2007 season in High-A Stockton, where he got off to a slow start as he tried to shake-off the rust from missing an entire season. Herrera also struggled with hamstring problems. He eventually got hot for the Ports and was promoted to Double-A Midland after hitting .274 with a 785 OPS in 62 games. Herrera lasted only 20 games for the Rockhounds, however, before his hamstring problems sidelined him for the season. He was expected to play winter ball in his native Venezuela during the off-season, but he injured his hamstring again and missed the winter season.

Despite having been in major league camp during the 2006 and 2007 springs, Herrera still has a lot to prove to the A's coaching staff. He has to show that he is healthy and that he is on the verge of being ready for the major leagues. Herrera will be in his third option year in 2008, so the A's will need to make a decision about his future with the team next season. He has all of the tools to be the A's future centerfielder, but he needs to show that he can stay healthy for an extended period of time before he is given a shot in the major leagues.

Richie Robnett:
Richie Robnett has a powerful left-handed swing.
Robnett was in major league camp with the A's in 2005, a season after he was a first-round pick for the team. Since that time, he has slowly moved up the A's chain. Robnett was forced to repeat at both High-A and Double-A, in large part because the A's were looking for Robnett to improve his approach at the plate. He has shown prodigious power during his minor league career, but that power hasn't translated to consistently big numbers because he hasn't been able to make contact consistently. He has struck out 420 times in 367 career games, while walking only 161 times. In 2007, Robnett still struggled with strikeouts, but he had a solid season with Double-A Midland. In 120 games, he hit .267 with 18 homers and 74 RBIs. He was promoted to Triple-A for the final few weeks of the season, but hit only .152 in 33 at-bats. He was added to the A's 40-man roster in the off-season.

Robnett is still a work-in-progress and will almost certainly start the season in Triple-A, where he will be working with manager Todd Steverson for a third consecutive season. He has a strong throwing arm and can play all three outfield positions. Robnett is one of the top power prospects in the A's system. If he can improve his pitch recognition in 2008, he could post huge numbers in the hitter-friendly PCL, which could lead to a September call-up.

Danny Putnam:
Danny Putnam missed a lot of last season with a broken hand.
Like Robnett, Putnam was a 2004 first-round pick for the A's. And, like Robnett, Putnam will be looking to prove to the A's major league coaching staff that he has improved on his 2007 performance. The former Stanford star began the 2007 season in Double-A Midland, where he got off to such a hot start that he was promoted to the major leagues in late April when injuries gutted the A's outfield corps. Putnam only received 28 at-bats during his major league stint, batting .214 with a homer. He was sent to Triple-A Sacramento at that point, where unfortunately, he broke his hand only a week into his time with Sacramento after being hit by a pitch. He missed more than seven weeks with the injury and never got back on-track after he returned. Putnam batted only .216 in 171 at-bats for the River Cats and he hit only one homerun. He played better during the post-season, hitting two homeruns in one playoff game to help Sacramento win the PCL title. However, he was designated for assignment in January to make room for Jeff Fiorentino and went unclaimed, allowing him to rejoin the A's as a non-roster player.

While much of Putnam's season was a disappointment thanks to the injury, one positive came out of his 2007 efforts: he demonstrated that he could play some centerfield. Even though he is best suited for a corner, Putnam showed that he could play center if needed, making him a much more versatile player and a better candidate to land on a major league roster as a fourth outfielder in the future. Given that the A's chose to designate him for assignment in January, Putnam isn't a leading candidate to make the team out of Spring Training. However, if he can show some consistent success at the Triple-A level this season, Putnam could work his way back into the A's plans once again.

Here For The Future

Aaron Cunningham:
Aaron Cunningham was a Carolina League All-Star in 2007.
Cunningham was another prospect acquired this off-season, arriving as part of the Dan Haren trade. It was the second time that Cunningham was traded in 2007. The first time came during the 2007 regular season, when he was traded from the Chicago White Sox to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Cunningham hit .308 with 16 homers, 77 RBIs and 28 stolen bases in 127 games split between three minor league clubs and two levels (High-A and Double-A). He later appeared in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .267 with two homers and 15 RBIs in 24 games.

Cunningham has drawn comparisons to former A's outfielder Eric Byrnes. He plays with a similar all-out style and does everything pretty well without having one stand-out tool. Cunningham isn't as fast as Byrnes, but he still has above-average speed. Cunningham does a good job getting on-base, and he can play all three outfield positions. The A's think Cunningham will develop into a valuable outfielder at the major league level. He is at least one season from being ready for the major leagues, but he won't turn 22 until late April, so he has time if his development takes more than a year. He should start the season in Double-A, although the A's could push him to Triple-A if he has a standout spring.

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