Oakland A's Spring Training Battles: IF/C

The Oakland A's started spring with a crowded major league camp, with 63 players on-hand, the most since Billy Martin brought 80 players to camp in 1982. While only 25 of those players will break camp with the team, there are more who are likely to be key cogs for the A's over the next few years. We are taking a look at the position battles in camp this spring, continuing with the IFs and Cs.

A Look Back At 2008

Barton struggled.
The Oakland A's infield was one of the least productive in baseball in 2007, and things didn't get much better in 2008. The infield was once again devastated by injuries and the unexpected struggles of some younger players. As a unit, the A's infield managed only a 661 OPS.

The A's began the spring hopeful that Eric Chavez would be able to compete on a daily basis once again. However, the toll of the multiple surgeries Chavez had leading up to the 2008 season were too much for him and he appeared in only 23 games for the A's and managed only two homeruns. Jack Hannahan got the bulk of Chavez's time at third base and while he fielded his position well, he struggled badly at the plate. In 143 games, Hannahan managed only nine homeruns and an anemic .218 average. Donnie Murphy also saw some time at third, in addition to shortstop, early in the season. He struggled, as well, batting .184 in 103 at-bats, and was eventually designated for assignment.

At shortstop, the A's got some unexpected good health from Bobby Crosby after years of watching him miss significant portions of the schedule with various injuries. Health didn't translate into numbers for Crosby, however, as he scuffled to the tune of a .237 average and a 645 OPS. Rookies Cliff Pennington and Gregorio Petit both saw some limited action at shortstop for the A's, while also playing some second and third base. Pennington hit .242 with a 632 OPS in 99 major league at-bats, while Petit hit .348 with an 835 OPS in 23 at-bats.

Mark Ellis got the bulk of the time at second base, but a sore shoulder landed him on the DL for the last six weeks of the season. He would wind-up having surgery on that shoulder. Although it didn't seem to affect Ellis defensively, the shoulder definitely affected him offensively and he posted the second-worst numbers of his career (.233 average and a 694 OPS in 117 games). In addition to Petit and Pennington, Eric Patterson (who was acquired mid-season from the Cubs) filled in for Ellis at second base. Patterson also struggled to hit, batting only .174 in 92 at-bats.

Daric Barton entered the 2008 season as the A's new first baseman and a top pre-season candidate for the AL's Rookie of the Year award. After a decent April, Barton managed only a 466 OPS in May and scuffled the rest of the season until a late September surge that saw him post a 919 OPS for that month. Even with the good September, Barton still only managed a .226 average and a 675 OPS with only nine homeruns in 446 at-bats. The only positive aspects of his season were that he walked 65 times and that he played well defensively. Despite Barton's struggles, he was never supplanted by another first baseman, as the A's didn't have any obvious back-ups.

Mike Sweeney saw some time at first base early in the season, but his knees gave out only a few weeks into the campaign and he missed much of the year. Wes Bankston was given a truncated audition at first base, but he managed only a .203 average and a 543 OPS in 59 at-bats. Jeff Baisley, normally a third baseman, also saw some time at first, as well as third. He hit .256 with a 598 OPS in 43 September at-bats. Hannahan would occasionally slide across the diamond to first, as well.

Behind the plate, the A's were much more stable. They used only two catchers the entire season. Kurt Suzuki played the bulk of the games, appearing in 148 contests. He led the team with a .279 average and hit seven homeruns in 530 at-bats. He was also the team leader in hits with 148. Rob Bowen served as Suzuki's back-up. He appeared in 37 games, hitting .176 with one homer in 91 at-bats.

Good-Bye And Hello

Heee's Baack.
At the start of the off-season, it appeared that the A's were going to be bidding adieu to their longtime second baseman, Mark Ellis. However, a late season shoulder injury made Ellis' free agent price tag more affordable and the A's brought him back on a two-year deal. Coming into camp, the A's have all of the infielders and catchers that they ended the 2008 season with, with the exception of first baseman Wes Bankston and infielders Donnie Murphy and Brooks Conrad who were all allowed to leave the team via minor league free agency.

The A's spent much of the off-season looking to add a new shortstop, bidding first on Rafael Furcal and then engaging in talks with Orlando Cabrera. That journey finally ended last week when the A's inked Cabrera to a one-year deal at a discounted rate of $4 million. The A's also added former perennial AL All-Star Nomar Garciaparra to a one-year free agent deal to serve as a back-up corner infielder and right-handed DH. The biggest big league free agent acquisition that the A's made this off-season, however, came at first base, with the signing of 2000 AL MVP Jason Giambi, who returns to the club after a seven-year absence.

In addition to Giambi, the A's added infielders Yung-Chi Chen and Joe Dillon through waiver claims, acquired utilityman Corey Wimberly in a trade and signed first baseman Tagg Bozied to a minor league contract with an invitation to big league camp. The A's also acquired catcher Joel Galarraga out of the Mexican League.

IFs and Cs Invited To Camp

Jeff Baisley*
Daric Barton*
Rob Bowen*
Tagg Bozied
Orlando Cabrera*
Adrian Cardenas
Chris Carter
Eric Chavez*
Yung-Chi Chen
Bobby Crosby*
Joe Dillon
Josh Donaldson
Sean Doolittle
Mark Ellis*
Joel Galarraga
Nomar Garciaparra*
Jason Giambi*
Jack Hannahan*
Eric Patterson*
Cliff Pennington*
Gregorio Petit*
Landon Powell*
Kurt Suzuki*
Jemile Weeks
Corey Wimberly

* Denotes a member of the 40-man roster

Number of IF/C Likely On Roster – 8

Locks To Make The Team

Chavez spent time in Sacramento last season on a rehab assignment.
If the A's are going to make a run at the playoffs in 2009, they are going to have to get some better health and production from their infield group that is suddenly a veteran group of players. There are injury questions with virtually every member of the projected A's infield, but there is also the potential for the infield to be the most productive it has been since 2003.

Orlando Cabrera: Cabrera represents the biggest change in the A's infield. For the first time since 2003, the A's will be entering a season with the intention of running someone else other than Bobby Crosby out at shortstop. Cabrera began the off-season hoping for a big, long-term contract, but the 34-year-old (like so many other veterans) found the free agent market to be quiet this off-season. He signed at a bargain rate of $4 million, a big cut from what he made with the Chicago White Sox in 2008. Cabrera has been a pretty consistent performer over the past three seasons. He has played at least 153 games in each of those seasons and has hit at least .281 in all three. He won't hit for much power with the A's and he doesn't walk a lot, but he is likely to hit for average and steal 15-20 bases, two areas that were lacking for the A's last season. He drove-in 86 runs for the Angels in 2007 when he hit mostly second in their line-up. The A's may place him in that spot again in 2009, although batting him lead-off or down at the bottom of the order is also a possibility. Cabrera is a solid defensive shortstop and he should fit into the team's defense-first philosophy quite well. His attitude has been questioned at times, but assuming he remains a happy camper, the A's should get what they expect out of him this season.

Jason Giambi: Giambi continues the A's recent tradition of bringing in aging, but still effective sluggers into the fold on one-year contracts. That practice paid off for the A's with Frank Thomas in 2006, but Mike Piazza, Mike Sweeney and Thomas again in 2008 wound-up as disappointments. Still, the A's are banking much of their playoff hopes on the fact that Giambi still has a lot left in his tank. The former A's star returns to the Bay after a tumultuous seven seasons with the New York Yankees, during which he reached only one World Series, never won a title and suffered the humiliation of having to admit to his steroid use. He also endured a series of injuries that limited him to less than 90 games in two separate seasons. He was healthy in 2008, however, appearing in 145 games for the Yankees as a first-baseman and DH. He hit only .247, but he connected for 32 homers and drove-in 96 runs. He also walked 76 times. Given the A's lack of power and poor success rate with runners in scoring position over the past few years, the team would be thrilled to get similar numbers from Giambi this season. He was a high-average hitter with the A's, but since leaving the team, he has mostly struggled to hit above .250. It will be interesting to see if getting away from the Yankee Stadium porch in right-field will free him to use more of the whole field. Giambi was never a great defensive player even in his prime, and he isn't a good one now, but it appears that the A's are willing to run him out there at first in order to get both him and Jack Cust into the line-up on a regular basis. Giambi most certainly will see significant time at DH, as well.

Mark Ellis: As was detailed earlier, it is somewhat of a surprise that Ellis is still with the team. Oakland rarely re-signs its own free agents, but when questions about his shoulder lowered his perceived value to other teams, Ellis became a bargain for the A's on a two-year deal. He is still making his way back slowly from shoulder surgery on his throwing arm. He has yet to appear in a game in the field (DHing instead), but he is fielding and throwing in practice and should be on the field by March 25th, which would give him enough time to get ready for Opening Day. Ellis is one of the elite defensive second baseman in all of baseball and the A's will be counting on him to be his normal, steady self in the field, especially if Giambi is anchoring first base. Anything he does offensively is somewhat of a bonus, although the team would love his numbers to return to his 2007 levels, when he hit .276 with 19 homers and 76 RBIs. He has alternated good and bad offensive seasons during his career, so 2009 could be a good one for Ellis if the pattern holds.

Garciaparra was a late addition to the team.
Eric Chavez: Chavez is also continuing his rehab from off-season shoulder surgery. The A's third baseman hasn't had a healthy season since 2005 and he has appeared in only 113 games over the past two seasons combined. The A's offense relies heavily on Chavez and he will need to be in the line-up regularly for Oakland to have a shot at the playoffs. When healthy, Chavez was generally good for a .270+ average and 25-30 homeruns. Those are the numbers the A's will be looking for Chavez to provide in 2009. Defensively, Chavez has always been one of the top third basemen in the league, but it remains to be seen what kind of toll the shoulder and back surgeries have had on his glove work. With Giambi, Cust and Garciaparra on the team, there won't be many at-bats available for Chavez at DH, so he'll need to be able to play in the field.

Nomar Garciaparra: Garciaparra's signing was somewhat of a surprise, as the A's hadn't really been linked to the veteran infielder until just before he was signed. Garciaparra reportedly weighed retirement before signing with the A's. The 35-year-old is no longer an elite shortstop, but he does provide some right-handed power in a reserve role as a back-up corner infielder. Over the past few years, he has played at second, third and first base. He isn't likely to see time at second with the A's, but he should see time at first and third, especially against left-handed pitchers. In addition, Garciaparra is likely to get some at-bats at DH against southpaws and will be one of the A's primary pinch-hitters. He hit 20 homers for the Dodgers as recently as 2006, but he managed to play in only 55 games for LA last season because of injuries. Over the past three years, he has posted an 870 OPS against left-handed pitchers.

Kurt Suzuki: In many ways, Suzuki was the A's MVP last season. He appeared in a team-high 148 games and was a consistent performer both offensively and defensively. Suzuki finished his first full major league season with a .279 average with seven homeruns and 42 RBIs. He hit all over the A's line-up, including at times in the lead-off spot. Suzuki has earned a lot of praise for his work with the A's young pitching staff over the past year-and-a-half, and the team will be relying on him heavily again in 2009, as the A's are likely to debut a number of promising young pitchers.

Favorites For the Final Spots

Crosby is no longer the starting shortstop.
Bobby Crosby: Crosby doesn't like it, but unless the A's are able to work out some sort of a trade, he will be a utility player for the A's in 2009. Crosby has very vocally objected to his change in status from starter to back-up and has only reluctantly begun working at other positions with A's infield coach Mike Gallego. Crosby has never played any other position than shortstop, so there will be some learning curve there. In a normal situation, the A's might just cut their losses with Crosby and release him. However, the A's have $5 million committed to him for 2009 and given the health issues of many of the A's infielders, it seems likely that Crosby will see significant playing time in 2009, even if it isn't at shortstop. He is a free agent at the end of the year, and he will need to show something offensively to generate any interest in the open market next winter. He has already passed through waivers unclaimed, an indication of how he is viewed by the rest of the league. Crosby hasn't had an OPS above 645 since 2005 and only twice during his five-year career with the A's has he played in more than 100 games.

Rob Bowen: Bowen hasn't had much of an opportunity to play since being acquired by the A's from the Cubs in 2007. Last season, he managed only 91 at-bats despite being on the active roster for the entire year. Not surprisingly, that inactivity hurt his offense, as he managed only a .176 average and a 505 OPS. Bowen has never been a great offensive player, however, so much more isn't really expected of him. Teams generally prefer veteran types as their back-up catchers, and he has that working in his advantage, as he is the only other catcher besides Suzuki with major league experience in A's camp. But if Landon Powell shows a lot offensively and plays well behind the plate, the A's could go in that direction instead.

Battling For A Spot

Hannahan may be the odd-man out.
Daric Barton: Before the signing of Garciaparra, it was assumed that Barton would be acting in somewhat of a "platoon" with Travis Buck, with one of them playing in the field when either Jack Cust or Jason Giambi was at DH. However, the Garciaparra signing complicates that plan quite a bit. Barton had a very disappointing rookie season, but he is still only 23, and chances are that the A's aren't going to want him to get Rob Bowen-like playing time in Oakland. Therefore, it is a strong possibility that he will at least open the season in Triple-A. It doesn't help that Barton has been struggling with injuries this spring. He came into camp still recovering from off-season hip surgery and he has been sidelined the past few days with a minor quad strain. Some minor league time might be very beneficial to Barton, who is still a talented hitter who could perhaps use some confidence-building time in Sacramento. Given the fragile nature of the health of both Giambi and Garciaparra, it is likely that Barton will get a lot of playing time in the major leagues, even if he starts the year in the minors.

Jack Hannahan: Hannahan is in much the same position that Barton is in. Hannahan, like Barton, is coming off of a poor year offensively and a good year with the glove. Hannahan plays the positions that Garciaparra does, making Jack's chances of opening the season on the A's roster entirely dependent on injuries befalling other players, most notably Eric Chavez. Unlike Barton, Hannahan isn't young. He just turned 29, so he isn't a big part of the long-term future of the team. He does have options, however, and the A's figure to use one this season when they have a fully healthy roster.

Cliff Pennington: The A's top pick in 2005 made his major league debut at the end of the 2008 season, appearing in 36 games at third, second and short with Oakland. He hit only .242, but he walked 13 times for a .339 OBP and stole four bases. He finished the year strong, hitting .279 with a .390 OBP in September. In the minor leagues, he hit .280 with 31 stolen bases and a .404 OBP in 115 games last season. Pennington isn't likely to develop into the everyday shortstop that the A's envisioned he would when he was drafted, but he profiles as a pretty useful utility infielder. He has a good glove and a strong arm and can play second, third and short. He also runs well and switch-hits, making him a versatile player. If the A's feel confident enough in the health of Cabrera and Ellis, they may let Crosby go and leave the back-up middle infield position to a younger player. Pennington isn't off to a great start in making an impression with the A's, however, as he has only one hit in 15 at-bats thus far this spring.

Gregorio Petit: Should the A's move Crosby, Petit figures to battle with Pennington and Eric Patterson for that infield spot. Petit had an unusual 2008 season, as he was shuttled back-and-forth from the A's to Sacramento early in the season, but was not given a September call-up despite hitting .348 in 23 big-league at-bats. The disappointment of not being in the big leagues seemed to wear on Petit a little bit towards the end of the 2008 season, and he saw his average fall from above .300 to .269 with the River Cats. Still, he was an integral part of the River Cats' PCL championship team. The Venezuelan played very well during his country's winter league season, hitting .315 with an 800 OPS in 58 games for Caracas. Petit is a wizard with the glove and he can play second, third and short with ease. He doesn't run as well as Pennington, however, and isn't a switch-hitter, so those factors could work against him in a head-to-head battle. Petit is off to a solid start this spring at the plate, with six hits, including two doubles, in 16 at-bats.

Petit has performed well in limited opportunities.
Eric Patterson: Patterson was acquired mid-season by the A's from the Chicago Cubs in the Rich Harden deal. The infielder dominated after the trade in Triple-A, batting .330 with a 931 OPS in 25 games with Sacramento. The A's gave him an extended look at second base when Ellis went down with the shoulder injury, but Patterson was unable to replicate his Triple-A numbers in the big leagues. He hit only .193 with a 530 OPS in 43 games before being sidelined for the season with an injury in mid-September. The only bright spot for Patterson in the big leagues last season was that he stole 10 bases in only 11 chances. Patterson has always been an above-average offensive player in the minor leagues. He has hit for average, decent power and has stolen bundles of bases in the minors. However, he has struggled in his brief opportunities in the big leagues with Oakland and Chicago. Patterson isn't a great defensive player and he can't play short, so he is at a disadvantage in relation to Petit and Pennington in that regard. Patterson is also left-handed, and the A's roster already leans that direction. On the other hand, Patterson does have some experience playing in the outfield and he could earn a spot on the A's roster as a 25th man if the A's are looking for a player who can handle both the infield and the outfield. He is also the best runner of the Pennington-Petit-Patterson group. Like Pennington, Patterson has struggled in the early going this spring, collecting only two hits (including a triple) in 15 at-bats.

Jeff Baisley: Baisley made his major league debut last September after a strong, if injury-marred, campaign with Triple-A Sacramento. The third baseman hit .256 with five RBIs in 43 at-bats with the A's during the final month of the season. He saw time at his natural position at third base, as well as some time at first base, and he handled both spots well defensively. For Sacramento, Baisley hit .298 with an 852 OPS in 81 games. He missed significant time with a stress fracture in his foot and has missed time in each of the past two seasons with leg injuries. Baisley is in pretty much the same boat as Hannahan in terms of his chances of making the team. He isn't as strong of a defensive player as Hannahan (although he can handle the hot corner just fine), but he profiles as a better option offensively and he is right-handed, which might help balance the A's line-up some. That being said, an injury will have to occur to either Chavez or Garciaparra for Baisley to have any real shot of making the roster out of spring training.

Landon Powell: Powell, the A's first pick in 2004, is in camp trying to prove to the A's that he can stay healthy enough to act as the team's back-up catcher behind Suzuki. Powell has missed parts of each of the last two seasons with knee problems that resulted in surgeries. He has had his ACL operated on twice already in his career. Like Bowen, Powell is a big bodied catcher who switch hits and hits for some power. He has a lot more offensive potential than does Bowen, both in terms of power production and in terms of getting on-base. However, Powell is at the disadvantage of not being a major league veteran and of being an injury risk. Chances are, the A's will start the year with Bowen as the back-up, but Powell could force the A's hand if he puts together a good start to his Triple-A season. He has two hits in 13 at-bats, including a homer.

Looking To Make An Impression

Chen hit well before being sent down.
Yung-Chi Chen: Chen began camp as a member of the A's 40-man roster, but he was outrighted to Triple-A last week when the team signed Garciaparra. He was then sent to minor league camp today. Chen's demotions came at no fault of his own, as he put together an impressive showing in limited at-bats this spring. He had four hits in 11 at-bats, including two doubles and a ringing triple. Unless the A's make a move, he could be fighting in minor league camp for a spot at Triple-A, as Oakland could potentially have Petit, Pennington, Patterson, Baisley, Dillon and Hannahan all vying for time at Triple-A.

Tagg Bozied: Like Chen, Bozied was one of the first cuts of spring. The first baseman signed with the A's as a minor league free agent during the off-season and was likely hoping to see extended action in big league camp. However, the A's acquisition of Garciaparra cut into those opportunities significantly. He hit .306 with 26 homers for Triple-A Albuquerque and posted an 807 OPS in 20 games in the Dominican Winter League in 2008. Bozied is likely to play a similar role in Sacramento that Casey Rogowski played for the River Cats in 2008.

Joe Dillon: Dillon, a veteran utiltyman, was claimed off of waivers by the A's during the off-season, but he lost his roster spot before the start of the spring. He cleared waivers that time and has reported to A's camp as a non-roster player. The 33-year-old spilt last season between Triple-A Nashville and Milwaukee, hitting .263 with a 783 OPS for the Sounds and .213 with a 630 OPS for the Brewers. Dillon is a jack-of-all-trades, as he can play all over the infield and in the outfield. The right-hander has appeared in the big leagues in parts of three seasons. In 2007, he was brilliant for Milwaukee in a brief stint, hitting .342 with an 890 OPS in 39 games. He will likely be the Lou Merloni-Brooks Conrad of the River Cats' roster in 2009 and could be a mid-season option for the A's if they lose a player temporarily with an injury. He has two hits in 13 at-bats this spring.

Corey Wimberly: Wimberly was a late off-season acquisition for the A's, coming over in a trade with Colorado just before the start of spring training. The speedy Wimberly has already opened some eyes in camp for his new team, collecting six hits in 18 at-bats, swiping two bases and scoring five runs. Wimberly is an infielder by trade, but, like Dillon, he can play all over the field. His best tool is his speed, as he led the Texas League in stolen bases in 2008 with 59. He is also a hitter who generally hits for average and gets on-base, although he doesn't hit for power. Wimberly, 25, has been hampered by a variety of injuries during his professional career. After the season that he had in 2008 with Double-A Tulsa and his strong showing thus far in spring training, Wimberly deserves a chance to compete at the Triple-A level in 2009. However, thanks to the log-jam mentioned earlier, Wimberly may be forced back to the Texas League at the start of the season. Still, if he continues to hit like he has thus far this spring, he will make it difficult for the A's to keep him at Double-A for long.

Joel Galarraga: Galarraga was acquired by the A's from a Mexican League team this off-season. The Cuban-born catcher hit better than .300 in each of his two seasons in the Mexican Summer League, which is generally considered to be equivalent to Triple-A baseball in the United States. He is in camp as a non-roster player and has been busy acclimating to his new team and to the United States. Galarraga has had limited at-bats thus far, but he is hitting well, with three hits and two RBIs in five at-bats.

Here For The Future

Doolittle's looking to build off of an impressive first full season.
The A's sent many of their top infield and catching prospects back to minor league camp on Monday, including Adrian Cardenas, Chris Carter, Jemile Weeks and Josh Donaldson. All four of those players were in their first big league camps and all four had bright moments with the team. Cardenas, Carter and Donaldson figure to start the year in Double-A Midland, while Weeks, the A's top pick in 2008, will be in either Low-A Kane County or High-A Stockton. Sean Doolittle, the A's second pick in 2007, remains the A's only true infield/catching prospect left in big league camp. The first-baseman/outfielder hit .286 with 22 homers and 91 RBIs for High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland last season, his first full professional campaign. He hit .293 with eight homers in 32 Arizona Fall League games and has five hits, including three doubles, in 10 at-bats this spring. Doolittle also figures to start the year in Double-A Midland.

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