Brooks Conrad's career has, in many ways, mirrored that of current Oakland A's infielder Jack Hannahan. Before the A's acquired Hannahan late last season, he was in danger of watching his career fade away without a legitimate shot in the big leagues thanks to being in an organization that was well-stocked at the major-league level at the positions he played. The A's finally broke Hannahan free from that career wasteland last season, acquiring him to fill-in for Eric Chavez at the tail-end of last season. Hannahan demonstrated that he could handle the major leagues during his 144 at-bats with the A's last season and is now likely to get at least a few more shots at a long major league career.
Conrad is hoping for a similar turn of events in his career. The switch-hitting infielder was with the Houston Astros organization from 2001-2007, but he never had a chance to play in the major leagues despite blasting more than 20 homers in three different seasons. For years, Conrad has been something of a folk hero to many fans who study the statistical-side of the game. For instance, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections for Conrad at the major-league level before the 2007 season would have made him the fourth most valuable second baseman in the National League at 29.2 VORP. SABR fans have been rooting for years for Conrad to get his chance at the major-league level. Going into the 2007 season, Conrad had a career OPS of 829, but he was blocked by Craig Biggio, Chris Burke, Eric Bruntlett and, later, Mark Loretta at second base with Houston and never got a shot in the big leagues in seven minor-league seasons.
Conrad was selected originally by Houston in the eighth round of the 2001 draft out of Arizona State University. He began his pro career with Pittsfield of the short-season NY-Penn League, where he won the team MVP award after hitting .280 with an 819 OPS. He was sent to the Low-A Midwest League in 2002, where he continued to find success at the plate. Conrad posted double-digit totals for doubles, triples and homeruns, scored and drove-in 94 runs, stole 18 bases and posted an 847 OPS in 2002.
Despite those outstanding numbers, the Astros kept Conrad in Low-A to start the 2003 season. He struggled with Low-A Lexington for the first six weeks of the season, but the Astros finally gave him the promotion he had earned the previous season and promoted him to High-A in late May even though he hit only .186 with a 602 OPS in 140 at-bats with Lexington. Conrad took well to the promotion, and he posted an 836 OPS in 99 games with High-A Salem.
Conrad was sent to Double-A Round Rock in 2004, where he earned Texas League All-Star honors by hitting .290 with an 840 OPS for the Express. This would be the beginning of a three-year relationship for Conrad and the Round Rock Express. In 2005, the Astros made Round Rock their Triple-A affiliate. Ironically, Conrad did not return to the now-Triple-A-level Round Rock at the start of the 2005 season despite his success in Double-A in 2004. Once again, the Astros had Conrad repeat a level where he had previously had success. Like in 2003 at Low-A, Conrad did not fare as well during his second turn through Double-A, posting only a 788 OPS in 77 at-bats. Despite the dip in production, the Astros promoted Conrad to Triple-A after a month.
Back with Round Rock (but this time in Triple-A), Conrad found his 2004 stroke. He had an 828 OPS in 113 games with the Express and broke the 20-homer barrier for the first time in his career. Despite Conrad's big numbers in 2004 and 2005, he was not added to the 40-man roster after either of those seasons. There was buzz that he would be selected in the Rule 5 draft in each of those years, but he went unselected.
In 2006, Conrad returned to Triple-A Round Rock, where he put together the best season of his career. In 138 games, Conrad hit 40 doubles, 15 triples and 24 homers – all career highs. His strike-out total climbed to 135, but he still managed a career-best 868 OPS. Conrad also added some versatility to his resume by playing third base in addition to his natural second base. That off-season, Conrad was sent to the Arizona Fall League as a replacement for Hunter Pence and Conrad hit well at the AFL. His off-season ended on an even better note, as Conrad was finally added to the 40-man roster.
Being added to the 40-man roster did not translate into a legitimate shot for Conrad at the major-league level, however. Veteran second baseman Biggio returned to Houston to chase 3,000 hits, and the Astros signed Loretta and failed to deal Burke, effectively creating an impenetrable road-block for Conrad to the major leagues. Like he did in 2003 and 2005 when he had to repeat a level after a strong season the year before, Conrad struggled in 2007. This time, there was no early season promotion despite the struggles and there was no mid-season up-tick in Conrad's production. He still posted good power numbers – collecting 36 doubles, three triples and 22 homers – but his strike-out total climbed to 144 and his OPS dipped to a career-low 725. When September rolled around, the Astros chose not to give Conrad a call-up and, instead, designated him for assignment.
Conrad filed for free agency at the end of the 2007 season and he became one of the most sought-after minor league free agents. He signed a minor-league deal with Oakland in December and was invited to the A's big league camp.
Thus far, Conrad is making the most of his opportunities in the A's camp. With starting third baseman Eric Chavez sidelined with back problems and top second-base prospect Kevin Melillo shelved with wrist and ankle problems, Conrad has seen a lot of playing time early in camp. In six games through Tuesday, Conrad is fourth among all players in total bases with 14. He is batting .500 with three doubles, one triple, one homer and five RBIs.
Given the early injuries the A's are enduring in their infield in camp, Conrad may finally have a legitimate opportunity to see some major league time this season. So what kind of player is Conrad?
Conrad has above-average power for a second baseman. He has always struck-out at a relatively high pace (in all of his six full seasons, Conrad has struck-out at least 85 times), but he has also drawn his fair share of walks and has done a good job seeing a lot of pitches. Defensively, Conrad is sure-handed at second base, but he has only average range and an average arm. At third, his arm strength is tested even more, although he handled the position better than scouts anticipated he would when he started playing there in 2006. He has only average foot-speed, but he is a smart base-runner and has stolen 98 bases in 130 chances during his minor league career. Throughout his career, Conrad has been labeled as a "grinder." He has consistently played above the level expected of him by scouts since his collegiate days at ASU.
In the A's camp, he is competing with Donnie Murphy, Hannahan, Melillo and Gregorio Petit for a chance to be the A's back-up infielder this season. Conrad doesn't have the defensive versatility of Murphy, who can play second, third, short and in the outfield, isn't as strong with the glove as Hannahan, and doesn't have the youth of Melillo or Petit. However, unlike Murphy and Petit, who are right-handed, and Hannahan and Melillo, who are left-handed hitters, Conrad is a switch-hitter. He also arguably has more power than all of them.
Unless both Chavez and Bobby Crosby start the season on the disabled list or Mark Ellis is traded, Conrad faces an uphill battle to start the season on the A's roster, even if he has a stand-out spring. However, given the A's front office's proclivity for stats, it is bound to interest them to see how Conrad would perform at the major-league level after years of strong PECOTA projections. Like Hannahan, Conrad could find that the grass really is greener in Oakland.
Oakland A's Spring Profile: Brooks Conrad, IF
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