An awful lot of time and energy has gone into debating what to do about the shortstop postion. But I would argue that, of the position players, the question of first base - and in particular, Daric Barton - is far more critical to the team.
First, the A's are not going to have a good shortstop next season, and likely not anytime soon. Bobby Crosby will play out his contract, or Petit will man the position, or Beane will sign a less-desirable free agent. Whatever. It's hard for me to get excited about any of those options. But it doesn't have to be the end of the world. Lots of teams can contend with a mediocre shortstop, as long as he can field.
But teams rarely contend with a black hole at first base. Daric Barton was the touted prospect in the Mulder deal, a young "pure" hitter who already had plate discipline. He lacked power, but plenty of first basemen have done just fine in the major leagues if they do everything else well.
So we waited for his arrival. And in 2007, we got a promising taste of what could be during his September callup.
And then 2008 happened.
I have been skeptical for a while about Barton, primarily because I like my first basemen to hit home runs more often than he is ever likely to do. He was a pleasant surprise on defense, but that's really more of a bonus in a first baseman. Otherwise, he was a disaster.
The question is what to do when a touted, and still young, prospect comes up to the major leagues and bombs. My natural inclination is to be patient. A lot of very good players have struggled early in their careers as pitchers adjust to them. Miguel Tejada played a more demanding position, but didn't do much in his first year either. Other stat-minded folks have posted more comprehensive lists.
The other problem with signing a free agent is that it effectively blocks Barton from playing his only logical position for at least a year and maybe longer. What if Barton is shredding AAA pitching in April and May? What do you do then?
I can think of a lot of things wrong with the other options frequently mentioned. Jason Giambi is old, has been erratic in recent years, and isn't the steroid-fueled all fields hitter he was in 2001. He's turned himself into a Yankee Stadium pulling machine. Now, I'll concede that Giambi has always hit well in the Coliseum, and retain something of a soft spot for the guy. But how many resouces do the A's really want to devote to trying to a past-his-prime player whose only definite plus as a hitter is his excellent eye. The other options, like Adam Dunn, would be even more expensive.
I'm torn about this because, frankly, I'm not sold that Barton will ever be a productive major league first baseman. If I am right about that, then the A's have as big a hole at first base as they do at shortstop. And the Holliday trade almost demands that the team do something about first base, because there is no particular reason to think that Barton is going to suddenly become really good.
This is where talent evaluation becomes important. We can stare at Barton's numbers, and compare them to other players' stats, for weeks. What matters is whether the team believes in this guy, and thinks he is likely to get his act together this year - as opposed to some theoretical future year. It would be nice not to waste money on a first baseman, and devote those resources to other needs. But if the team isn't sold on Barton, then Beane needs to take action and improve his offense at first base.