Brandon Moss has been an outfielder for most of his professional career. Prior to his arrival in Oakland, he'd played exactly 13 innings at first base (and four more games as a DH) and the rest came in either left or right field. Go back to his time in the minor leagues (including Sacramento in 2012), and around 50 of his 1,000 games on the farm (roughly 5 percent) came at first base. Brandon Moss as an infielder is a relatively new concept. What's more, he's not a bad defender out on the grass; Fangraphs rates his entire MLB outfield career (around 2,000 innings) as marginally above-average, with a Defensive Runs Saved mark of plus-1 and a UZR of 9.0 (or a 5.8 UZR/150g).
When Moss was promoted to Oakland in June 2012, the A's had an outfield including rookie sensation Yoenis Cespedes, center field whiz Coco Crisp, and unexpected two-way star Josh Reddick. The outfield was set, and the only way to get Moss's bat in the lineup was to put him at first. As time has gone on, Moss has been used as a fill-in for those guys when injuries or game situations demand. Things are going well:
Moss has racked up four outfield assists already this season, which puts him in the top 25 of all MLB outfielders (note: Yoenis Cespedes leads with eight). Furthermore, only Michael Cuddyer and Oswaldo Arcia have accrued their four assists in fewer than Moss's 203 innings of play. Granted, Moss likely has more runners challenging him than a guy like Jose Bautista or Yasiel Puig would have, since opponents are still testing him to see what he's got. But at the end of the day, you can't argue with the results -- Moss is earning a reputation as a defender whose arm you don't mess with.
Let's irresponsibly use some small-sample defensive metrics to take this even further. He's already rated at plus-five DRS, though three of those runs are credited to his arm (which may not be a sustainable source of value if opponents stop running on him). His UZR value is also positive. These don't mean much in just over 200 innings, but hey, I've got nothing else to go with than the in-game eyeball test and that video of him throwing out Orioles and Angels.
Alright, so Moss is good in right field. At the very least, he's serviceable, and at best he could actually provide positive value. Conversation over, right? If you can move a guy from first base to right field (a tougher position) and make him a better defender there, then that's a no-brainer. But one reason he's been starting in the outfield for each of his last seven games is that Josh Reddick is on the disabled list. What happens when Reddick comes back?
Look, I'm a huge Reddick fan. I'm one of the people who defends him when others want to bench him or send him down or cut him outright. His defense in right is absolutely game-changing, and he doesn't even have to be an average hitter to provide significant positive value. But with each passing day and each frustrating performance, it becomes more and more clear that Reddick is never going to hit 32 homers again and that he will be a defense-first player who provides occasional power and whose offensive contributions will be seen as a bonus. He's sort of the outfield version of Brendan Ryan, with some extra pop. He might still rebound a bit and work his way back to average, but I'm losing faith that he'll ever develop into a consistently positive force at the plate.
No, Reddick is in the lineup most days because of his glove and his arm. The presence of Craig Gentry already marginalized his place on the team a bit and turned him into something of a part-time player; Gentry can match him on defense and provides a right-handed complement for Bob Melvin's platoon system. But there was still a clear reason to keep Moss at first so that Reddick could play right. I'm not so sure that's the case anymore.
Reddick has spent about two full season's worth of games as an Athletics outfielder. In that time, he has a DRS rating of plus-26. What if Moss could post his current mark of plus-5 over a full season, resulting in a two-year total of plus-10? These numbers are all made up, of course, but the defensive downgrade from Reddick to Moss might only be around one win per year, give or take. Now you only have to find a first baseman who can out-hit Reddick by a one win or two -- say, Kyle Blanks or Nate Freiman -- and you have a better lineup. Heck, the new first baseman doesn't even have to hit better than Reddick if he just fields better than Moss at first. And that shouldn't be tough given that Moss has been worth negative-17 runs at the cold corner in just over one season's worth of games. Add Reddick and Moss-the-1B together, and you had about 5.0 bWAR last year. Move Moss to right with neutral defense and he could have approached 5.0 bWAR on his own last year.
No, wait, forget that whole paragraph. That math isn't even good enough to grace the back of a napkin. Let's do this a bit more subjectively:
RF: Reddick (bad O, great D)
1B: Moss (great O, avg-to-bad D)
Total: two greats, one avg-to-bad, one bad
RF: Moss (great O, avg-to-good D)
1B: Blanks (? O, avg D)
Total: one great, one avg-to-good, one avg, one ?
Hmm, not as cut-and-dried as I expected it would be. Removing Reddick means you have fewer elite skills in the lineup, but if Blanks can be even average at the plate then you've also removed a major weakness from the team (that is, Reddick's poor offense). Considering that this team is built on depth and balance rather than being top-heavy in its talent distribution, part of me wants to lean toward moving Moss to right. Of course, that brings with it a pair of gambles -- that Moss can continue to provide defensive value out there, and that Blanks can be even a decent hitter (his career OPS+ is 105, so that's not a stretch). If you believe that both of those things can come true, then this is an easy move. You're downgrading one "great" to an "avg-to-good," but you're replacing an "avg-to-bad" and a "bad" with two "avg" skills.
However, if you fear that Moss' run of outfield assists might just be a fluke of novelty, or that Blanks will tank, then you should be in favor of keeping the known quantity of Reddick's Gold Glove defense in the equation. You also don't need to get rid of Reddick to make this happen; he could still be a fantastic fourth or fifth outfielder and pinch-runner, and Coco and Cespedes will always get banged up now and then and need replacements. Reddick's not prohibitively expensive, though he's not cheap either ($2.7 million this year in his first arby year, and doesn't figure to substantially build on that since the arbitration process doesn't care much about defense).
This debate is over tiny, marginal gains. It's possible that re-organizing things could yield a bit more value, and it's possible that it could backfire by moving everyone out of their comfort zones. There is definitely not a right answer here. I'm a big fan of Reddick as both a player and a person, so I have no interest in idly casting him aside on the off-chance that the grass may be greener and golder somewhere else. But now that Moss has emerged as a legitimate defender in right, it's time to start seriously asking if there is still a place for our beloved Shreddick in the everyday lineup.
Wait, Moss played 31 games at second base as an 18-year-old minor leaguer in 2002 and made only two errors. What if ... nah.