Expected Starters: Ryan Sweeney (RF), Coco Crisp (CF), Rajai Davis (LF), Jack Cust (DH)
At the end of the 2009 season, one of the biggest logjams in the A's organization was at the outfield/DH position, and although the A's changed some of the pieces at those positions, the team is still faced with having more players who can potentially start in the outfield or at DH than they have spots on the roster.
During the off-season, the A's traded away two of their 40-man roster outfielders: Scott Hairston and Aaron Cunningham. They also released outfielder Chris Denorfia, non-tendered DH Jack Cust and designated outfielder Matt Carson for assignment. However, the A's wound-up re-signing both Cust and Carson (Carson to a minor league deal), signing free agent outfielders Coco Crisp and Gabe Gross and trading for outfielder/infielder/DH Jake Fox. Consequently, the outfield position battle has been one of the more spirited battles in A's camp thus far.
The battle over who will start in the A's outfield is all but decided, however. Incumbent starters Sweeney and Davis are expected to flank newcomer Crisp in the A's Opening Day outfield. That plan might only change if one or more of those outfielders are on the disabled list to start the year. Crisp has missed a significant amount of camp with a hamstring problem, although he returned to game action on Monday. He has yet to play in the outfield this spring and is returning from two shoulder surgeries, but he is expected to be ready by Opening Day to play centerfield. If healthy, Crisp is expected to bat near the top of the A's line-up. He is considered only an average hitter at this stage of his career, but Crisp does have good speed, having averaged 27 stolen bases a season during his career, and he is a standout defensive player.
Davis, too, has battled an injury this spring. The speedster has missed several games with an abdominal strain. Like Crisp, Davis is expected to be ready on Opening Day, but until he returns to game action, there is still some question as to his availability at the start of the season. Davis had a breakthrough campaign in 2009 for the A's, batting .305 with 41 stolen bases in 125 games. He has been working closely with Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson on improving his base-running this spring and Davis has talked openly about challenging the 70 stolen base mark. The A's aren't expected to have a lot of power in their line-up this season and are concentrating on being a top base-running team. Crisp and Davis are expected to be key aspects of the new "Runnin' A's" line-up.
Sweeney won't steal nearly as many bases as Davis or Crisp, but he should hit for a solid average and play above-average defense, if his last two seasons with Oakland are any indication. Since being acquired from the White Sox, Sweeney has hit .288 and shined with the glove in right while also playing a solid centerfield when asked to do so. Like Davis and Crisp, Sweeney doesn't hit for much power, as he has hit only 11 homeruns over the past two seasons. The A's like what Sweeney brings to the team in terms of hitting for average and playing defense, but should Oakland look to add more power to the line-up, his spot in right field could come into play. Sweeney has also had trouble staying healthy at times the past two seasons, and if he runs into injury problems again this season, it could open up an opportunity for another outfielder such as Gabe Gross, Travis Buck or Michael Taylor.
Power hasn't been a problem for Cust since joining the A's, as the DH has led the team in homers in each of the past three seasons. However, Cust's power numbers were down in 2009 and the left-handed hitter will need to see his OPS rebound to above 800 to keep his DH position for the entire season. Cust has been asked to play a lot in the field the past two years, but that shouldn't be the case this season, unless Oakland is looking for a way to get Eric Chavez into the line-up on a regular basis. One good sign for Cust and the A's is that his OPS was nearly 100 points higher (825 versus 732) after the All-Star break last season.
Candidates for Fourth Outfielder: Gabe Gross, Travis Buck, Jake Fox, Eric Patterson
As settled as the three starting outfield spots and the DH position appear to be, the A's back-up outfielder spots appear to be up-in-the-air. There are a number of players with major league experience as outfielders vying for a place on the A's Opening Day roster, with Gross, Buck, Fox and Patterson leading the field for that final spot (or spots). Of the four, only Buck has minor league options left.
After a very solid rookie season as the A's right fielder in 2007, Buck has struggled with injuries and has split his time between the major leagues and Triple-A in 2008 and 2009. Buck was once considered the future for the A's in right field, but while the A's front office has continued to insist that they still believe that Buck has a future with the team, they haven't given him a clear path to a starting job the past two seasons. Buck, for his part, hasn't exactly forced the A's to give him a starting job either. He has played decently for Sacramento the past two seasons, but not spectacularly, and he has continued to struggle with a myriad of injures. This spring, Buck has shown good power (two homers and a .536 SLG), but he is batting only .214. Buck has played some center in the past, but he is going to be considered only for corner outfield jobs.
Gross may have the upper-hand in the fourth outfielder battle at the moment. The former Ray and Brewers outfielder is having an outstanding spring. He can play all three outfield positions and has major league experience coming off of the bench. Gross has decent speed and some power; he hit 13 homers in 143 games in 2008. He is batting .361 thus far this spring.
Fox is being considered for a number of positions in the infield, behind the plate and in the outfield. He isn't a great fielder at any position, but the A's are looking for him to be merely competent with the glove. It is his bat that they are most interested in. Fox hit 28 homers last season between Triple-A and the major leagues, and, as a right-handed bat, he would provide some balance at first base, DH and in the corner outfield spots where the A's have left-handed hitters. With a strong spring, Fox could have possibly pushed for a starting spot with the A's, but he is in the middle of a huge slump, having only collected two hits in 32 spring at-bats. The A's gave up a lot to get Fox and it seems unlikely that he would clear waivers, so he still has a strong chance of making the A's Opening Day roster, but the spring slump is making it a much more difficult decision for the A's.
Patterson is also making the A's decision-making more difficult, but in the opposite way. Normally a second baseman, Patterson has been used in the outfield with increasing frequency by the A's over the past few seasons. This spring, he has seen most of his playing time in center or left field, with only a handful of appearances at second. Patterson, like Fox, is out of options and he would appeal to a lot of teams thanks to his strong minor league track record and ability to bring speed and versatility off of the bench. Before the start of spring training, Patterson was a bit of a long shot to make the A's Opening Day roster, as Gross and Fox were thought to have a lead on him for the fourth outfielder spot and Adam Rosales was thought to be ahead of Patterson for the back-up infielder role. Patterson may be forcing the A's to re-think his position in both of those roster battles, however. He has played very well this spring, especially lately, and has a .289/.365/.422 line through 45 at-bats (the most at-bats of any A's player this spring). Most importantly, Patterson has played well defensively both in the outfield and at second base. If he doesn't land a spot on the A's Opening Day roster, Patterson is likely to be traded.
Other DHs: Jake Fox, Landon Powell, Eric Chavez
Cust has had remarkably good health since joining the A's, but should he be injured or struggle this season, the A's could use the DH spot to rotate in a number of players, including Chavez, Fox and back-up catcher Landon Powell. If Cust is out for an extended period, top prospect Chris Carter might get a long look at the DH spot.
The A's are going to have to make a decision about what to do with Chavez in the next week or two. The former Gold Glove third baseman has been healthy this spring, but he has yet to appear anywhere defensively but first base and he hasn't hit that well. In 26 at-bats, he has a .192 average and two homeruns (both of which came in the same game). Should Chavez be on the A's roster, it is likely that he will start a number of games at DH when there are pitching match-ups hat have been historically favorable for Chavez.
If he is on the roster, Fox will likely see the majority of his DH starts against left-handed pitchers since Cust is a left-handed hitter and Fox swings from the right side. Fox's presence on the A's roster may also free up Powell to start some games at DH, as Fox can serve as the emergency catcher. Powell hit significantly better last season as a left-handed hitter, so he could get a few starts at DH versus right-handed starters when Cust needs a day off.
The Future (or Maybe the Present): Michael Taylor, Chris Carter
The top two prospects in the A's organization should factor into the OF/DH situation by the end of the season, if not sooner. Taylor is the A's top outfield prospect and it is only a matter of time before he is the A's everyday right or left fielder. Carter is naturally a first baseman, but he has seen time in right field and can certainly start at DH if the A's want to get his bat into the line-up alongside first baseman Daric Barton. Both Taylor and Carter are still fighting for spots on the A's Opening Day roster in major league camp, but they are likely to start the season in Triple-A. However, they figure to play a role with the A's by the end of the season and could be the middle of the team's order as soon as 2011.
Upper Level Minor League Depth: Corey Brown, Sean Doolittle, Matt Carson, Matt Sulentic, Shane Peterson, Corey Wimberly, Archie Gilbert
If the A's lose Patterson or Fox (or both) to trades or waivers, the team will be relatively thin in outfield depth on the 40-man roster. However, the A's have a number of non-roster options they can turn to should injuries strike even if Patterson and Fox are no longer in the organization. At Triple-A, the A's will likely have Taylor and Carter and could have Buck. In addition, top prospects Corey Brown and Sean Doolittle should be with Sacramento (health-permitting, especially for Doolittle), as well as Matt Carson, who made a strong impression on the A's brass last season by hitting for power and playing outstanding defense in centerfield for Sacramento. Brown played well in his first big league camp this season and Doolittle starred in big league camp last year. Both are coming off of knee injuries. Brown is 100 percent healthy, while Doolittle is still working his way back to full strength.
Matt Sulentic, who had a solid season at Double-A last season, could also be in Triple-A, especially if Doolittle isn't ready to go at the start of the season. Archie Gilbert, a speedster who stole 29 bases and had a .384 OBP for Double-A Midland last season, and Corey Wimberly, who stole 21 bases in 70 games for Midland in 2009, are also candidates to be in Triple-A this season. Wimberly can play in the infield and the outfield. Shane Peterson was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals last season. He can play first base, as well as the outfield. Peterson reached Double-A last season at only 21 years of age and he acquitted himself well at that level. He is likely to spend more time at Double-A to start the year, but he could be a factor for the River Cats by mid-season.
Oakland A's Depth Chart: OF/DH
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