Ten guys, five spots: the A's outfield predicament

Ohhh, how times change so quickly in Green and Gold land. This time last season Travis Buck and Mark Kotsay had been shut down for the remainder of the year and we were all wondering who the heck would be healthy enough to man the A's outfield in 2008. This season, it's almost the complete opposite predicament: who isn't going to spend some time in the A's outfield in 2008, let alone 2009? The A's 40-man roster is absolutely packed to the brim with outfielders - 11 roster players are strictly outfielders while another (Eric Patterson) has seen some time out there so far this season.  This diverse of collection of talent is certainly going to result in an intriguing combination of outfield rotations over the last few weeks of this season (especially when the RiverCats' season ends), but will certainly necessitate sweeping roster maneuvering over the winter time.

So, on the off-day today, let's discuss the A's current outfield cluster-f***, examine the strength/weaknesses of each player and see if there is any type of consensus here on AN about what do with the outfield for the foreseeable future. By my count, there are 10 guys currently on the 40-man that are under team control next season and are likely to be in the 2009 OF mix:

Jack Cust: Even in my most stat-headed of Staturdays, Cust is a very frustrating player for me to really get excited about. His inability to make consistent contact has been discussed ad naseum on this site. However, we all know what he's good at: taking walks and hitting homers, and he does both well enough to lead the A's and the entire AL in one category (walks) and crack the top-ten in the league in the other (10th in homers). He's a streaky hitter, but he's actually a good enough hitter during his good streaks that he can carry an offense (see last night for evidence). He's still a liability with a glove on his hand and ideally he'd be the team's primary DH next season, however, with Chavez possibly needing to see most of his time at DH for the next few seasons, Cust has to be considered an outfielder. He'll be arby-eligible for the first time this winter and should get a million dollars or so. He's the closest thing to a "sure-thing" going into next season...

Rajai Davis: In many ways the polar opposite of Cust, Davis has seen his playing time increase recently due to his hot hitting. He seems like a good defensive centerfielder. He's a total burner on the basepaths but still doesn't seem like a good enough hitter to get on-base enough to really be an asset everyday (especially since he doesn't walk much). Part of me thinks that picking up Davis this season was just a one-year experiment by Beane to see how speed could be utilized within the current corps of players and by the current coaching staff. Davis is out of options, so he'll need to stay on the active roster all winter lest be exposed to waivers.

 

Aaron Cunningham: I've been excited about Cunningham ever since he was acquired in the Haren deal, and he's off to a pretty good start in the majors. It's clear he's an aggressive swinger (2 BBs vs. 7 K's) but he's always hit for a high average in the minors and has done so in a small sample size so far for Oakland. He seems like a decent bet to be a well-rounded regular at the outfield corners for several years into the future.

Ryan Sweeney: Overall, Sweeney's had a pretty good full rookie season. The "Will he ever hit for enough power?" question will undoubtedly continue to follow him until he belts 15+ homers in consecutive seasons, however, I like his inside-out swing and ability to collect multi-hit games and RBIs. Seems like an ideal-enough leadoff hitter, who runs well and he's a very good defensive player in the outfield corners.

Carlos Gonzalez: Cargon's got more upside than anyone else on this list, but he looked really bad in August for the big club and hasn't really impressed with the RiverCats so far in their playoff run. I'm cautiously optimistic about the kid and at least at this point we know that he can handle centerfield everyday at the major league level, but his bat is still unrefined. He'll most assuredly be back with the big club after the PCL playoffs, but if he continues to struggle with his swing when he's back up with the big club, then I wouldn't be surprised if he started next season back at AAA.

Travis Buck: Buck seems to finally be emerging from his season-long slump and was a key contributor to the RiverCats' PCL 1st round playoff series win this past week. If he can get some major league at-bats this month and regain the form that he showed at the major league level last season (.850 OPS) he would likely get first crack at re-taking one of the starting corner jobs next season, since his trade value is likely at an all-time low and A's brass has continued to express confidence in him throughout his rollercoaster season.

Chris Denorfia: Denorfia, like Buck, was injured most of the season and spent most the year at AAA Sacramento. Recently, he's been red-hot for the Cats and that hot stick has stayed hot through the 1st round of the playoffs. Chris can play all three outfield position fairly well and hit for a high-average and run the bases relatively well. Ideally, he'd be a 4th or 5th outfielder, but with this depth he might not even get a crack at those spots. Not sure about his option status, but another turn in the minors to start next season might be in order for Chris if the current crop of outfielders isn't cut down at the major-league level.

Matt Murton: Murton was another guy I'd liked for awhile and was happy to get in the Harden deal. He's had some previous success in the major leagues, but never really got a chance with the A's this past season. He's also done a great job in the minors of controlling the strikezone (near 42/40 BB/K ratio in the minors this season) and has hit for a high average. Unfortunately, Murton has seen a HUGE drop-off in his power numbers over the past season. From 2005-2007 Murton hit 28 homers during various stints with the Cubs' at the major league level. This season, Matt only hit 2 homers total at two different minor league clubs and at the major league level. That type of power drop-off is concerning, especially considering that Matt is in his theoretical power prime (soon to be 27 years old) and has such a solid track record. Perhaps he's hiding an injury? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that Murton may have one more option year. If that is the case, I could see the team bring him up later this month, see if he can get his power stroke back and then send him to the minors to start next season with the intent of using him for depth, since he could be a decent righty bench bat for a couple years.

Javy Herrera: The oft-injured former 5-tooler Javy finally got back on the field for the second half of the Midland Rockhounds season. He had a decent few months with the Double-A team, hitting .267 with a .769 OPS, 9 homers, 36 RBIs and 8 stolen bases in about 60 games. Javy used to be the "big right-handed hope" of the A's system, but I think at this time, he certainly can't be counted on to be a consistent contributor at the higher levels of the system. He's a definite candidate to be traded and/or removed from the 40-man this winter.

Richie Robnett: Robnett, who has always considered "raw" ever since being drafted out of Fresno State in 2004, had a rough 2008 year. He struggled at AAA after getting over 200 at-bats at that level and was demoted to Double-A Midland late in the season. Richie, who's entire frame is built for power, hasn't really been able to harness that power consistently and only hit 4 homers total in the minors this past season. For a soon-to-be 25-year old, that's not a very good sign. Robnett seems like another trade/DFA candidate over the winter.

*******

Conclusion: It's certainty going to be very interesting finding out what the A's intend to do with all these guys in the coming months. I would say that a trade or two could help alleviate the logjam heading into next season, but with health concerns and poor performance affecting the value of guys like Buck, Denorfia and Murton, I don't really see how they could be moved for anything of value. On top of that, besides Cust, none of these guys have shown the ability to really hit like an everyday major league outfielder, at least at any point during this past season. Cunningham and Cargon are largely unproven, Sweeney hasn't hit for much power, Buck is a total wildcard, Rajai is mostly-all slap and slash, Denorfia never hit for a lot of power in years past and Murton has seemed to have lost his power stroke entirely.

To me, it's a precarious situation: the A's have a definite surplus of outfielders with various strengths and weaknesses, but most are not really proven enough to know what you're going to get from them next season, and those with experience have major flaws (Cust - defense/K's, Buck - lost 2008 season, Murton - no power) and are virtually untradeable. There is no way that all of these guys can crack the major league roster next season, so what is to be done with this motley crew heading into 2009?

1. Go defense-first: With a young pitching staff and a defense-oriented club, the A's could go with a defense-first outfield rotation next season. They could hold onto Rajai, play him full-time in center next season and use Cargon in right and Sweeney in left. That outfield might be the best defensive outfield in the majors...

2. Go offense-first: The A's, desperate for offense, could rather elect an-offense first mentality for the outfield rotation and play Cust full-time in left, Cargon in center and Buck (if healthy) in right. That rotation would at least give the team a chance at fielding three average or above-average hitters at their respective positions, while opening up the DH spot for Chavez or any other hitter to give the lineup an added punch while Cust plays the field.

3. Find a Happy Medium: Ideally, a happy medium could be reached with this diverse group of players. Cargon (CF) and Cunningham (LF) offer enough skills and upside to deserve to play everyday, while Buck/Sweeney could form a nice offense/defense right-field quasi platoon. Cust can play the field occasionally, DH most of the time and Rajai can be the 4th outfielder. But in this "solution", where does the team put Chavez/Barton, if in fact Eric can no longer play 3rd base everyday?

4. Trade/sign another outfielder: Without a really clear-cut solution, the A's could elect to even clear room on the active roster for a free agent or trade candidate to man the outfield. Burrell, Man-ram and Dunn are free agent targets and Holliday could be a trade target.

What's the consensus, guys and gals?

 

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