What's A Contender's Outfield?

Right now, outfield is the least of the A's problems as they trot out different versions of Suck & Sucker on the left side of the infield. But an innocent, and reasonable, comment in a recent fanpost struck me (I'm fine, just a little swelling), from Bleed Green. He/She/It says a starting OF of Hairston, Davis, and Sweeney "projects to be a decent starting OF for seasons to come." And this makes me wonder if watching the A's play for three lousy years has lowered our standards for what an OF looks like on a good team.

First of all, let me make an initial case that you could do a lot worse for an OF. Defensively, that's a very good OF if you assume, as I do, that Hairston is a much better LFer than he has looked like so far in an A's uniform (one can assume the quad injury is affecting him a lot more than anyone is letting on). Davis may be prone to clusters of bizarre episodes of running down fly balls only to clank them, bobbling balls for no apparent reason, and so on, but with his speed and the jumps he gets on balls deep in both alleys, he's going to help you a lot more than he's going to hurt you in CF. And Sweeney, who got some very poor reads in CF and whose strides are longer than they are actually quick, has looked like a future -- if not present -- gold glove caliber RFer, getting good reads, taking charge, and covering a lot of ground. It's a solid defensive OF. Can it hit?

Here's where I look around and see OFs with actual hitters -- 25 HR guys, .300 hitters, .400 OBP men, batters who belong in the "middle of the order." Here's what I see from the trio of Hairston-Davis-Sweeney:

Hairston: He already has a history of not getting on the field, 100% healthy, so it's unwise to project him over a full season. But if you do, I believe Hairston can be a 20HR guy. 25HRs, though, is a stretch. Trouble is, Hairston is really a platoon player and it's the wrong half: A hitter who handles LHP but can't hit RHP is only a real threat 1/4 of the time, whereas a hitter who handles RHP but can't hit LHP is in his element 3/4 of the time.

Hairston has a career OBP of .288 against RHP. That tells you a lot right there. He has also HRed every 19 ABs against LHP but only every 26.5 ABs against RHP. When a RHP is on the mound, you don't want that batting in the middle of your order and with "ok power" you're looking at Kevin Kouzmanoff and Rod Barajas no matter where you bat it. Hairston is a good platoon player, but that's it.

Davis: Heck if anyone of us truly knows what Rajai Davis will do, as a hitter, if he plays every day in 2010. Be suitably humble, folks. You don't know, I don't know, Beane and Geren don't know, and if Skaaaaaaaaaalan knows he isn't saying. What we can probably assume is that it won't be as good as it is this year and it won't be as bad as it was last year with the Giants. So he should hit somewhere between .056 and .300. If he plays every day to give you the benefit of his defense, let's say he might settle in somewhere in the range of .250/.330/.380, which is around his career line, with a rip-snorting 30 SBs. That's fine. It's better when your corner OFers are mashing, but it's good. He'd be doing his part.

Sweeney: He's hitting well right now, even showing a little more propensity to drive the ball (and saying, "I don't know why I didn't do this all year," which is like Zito saying, "I probably should have been more FITZ the last 12 starts"). Trouble is, his numbers against LHP aren't just bad, they're horrific (.234/.307/.299, for a .606 OPS), but Sweeney has a consistent history, majors and minors, of scuffling against southpaws. So even if he starts hitting for a little more power -- and let's not get carried away; if he doubles his power overnight he'll still only be a 12 HR guy -- he is a platoon player.

Two problems here. One is that the A's don't have a single really good hitter in the OF, where the Angels currently have three in Abreu (.400 OBP), Hunter (.919 OPS), and Rivera (.500 slugging pct.), and most teams that win more games than they lose have at least one. The other problem, not unrelated, is that two of the A's three OFers are "fourth OFers," or platoon players: Hairston and Sweeney.

Now put Hairston and Sweeney together and make them one Roenicke-Lowenstein monster, and you might have a really good hitter who can give you good defense (basically Juan Rivera's bat with Hairston and Sweeney's glove). That platoon, going on current career numbers and allowing for a slight bump for Sweeney's power, could give you a line of .289/.341/.460 with very good defense.

Conclusion: Whenever the A's plan to actually compete, they need to relegate Hairston and Sweeney to share a spot in the OF, flanked by a legitimate impact hitter at one of the corners. The outfield is not set, not yet, because around the league there are too many Grady Sizemores, Nelson Cruzes, Jason Bays, Jermaine Dyes, and Nick Markaki setting the standard of an OFer you might actually want to see at the plate even when the pitcher has the nerve to throw with the wrong hand.

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