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The Outfield Defense: Tick…Tick…

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Be careful what you wish for…When the A’s were struggling to score last year, I could certainly relate to baseballgirl’s plea for some 9-7 games, even though Texas has been lining the cellar with those games for years. But once we all conceded that we couldn’t really get by without pitching, many of us thought that what we needed to give up was defense – go ahead and put Cust in the OF and we’ll deal with it, we decided, if that’s what it takes to get some bats in the lineup. Pick your poison, though, because the reality is that hitting without pitching, and hitting without defense: these are just different recipes for disaster. Suddenly, we’re just desperate for the team to make all the plays in the field, and we feel it with the same urgency that we were ready to give up pitching or defense just to score a darn run once in a while.

For the most part, so far the A’s have gotten away with a poor defensive outfield, with only Ryan Sweeney’s failure to catch Jason Kubel’s flare showing up directly as a costly outcome in the final result. Yet if the A’s keep trotting Cust out there to clank fly balls, Sweeney to get poor jumps in CF, and Emil Brown to mistake that guy in row 5 for the cutoff man, the A’s are going to pay a steep price – as they very nearly did again on Sunday, when Cust’s and Sweeney’s misadventure gave Felix Hernandez a 1-0 lead that was insurmountable for much of the afternoon. If the A’s want to be proactive, i.e., smart, they need to make some lineup adjustments now before their deficiencies are exposed in a big way. My thoughts on the various outfielders and what their roles need to be going forward:

Axiom #1: Every day, either Chris Denorfia or Rajai Davis needs to start in CF. The corner OF defense just isn’t strong enough to carry a CFer who isn’t a true CFer. Unfortunately, Denorfia and Davis are not a platoon combination, which means probably the “most days” job should go to Denorfia, whose on-base skills appear stronger. I’m puzzled as to why Denorfia hasn’t been playing more regularly, but now – especially with the addition of Frank Thomas – the A’s can better afford to carry a low slugging, plus-defender in CF. And they can’t afford not to.

Axiom #2: Jack Cust, Emil Brown, and Rajai Davis need to combine to be one super-platoon player. Cust and Brown are too weak defensively, and neither exceptional enough against “same handed” pitching, to be out there together. They should platoon, and when Cust starts he should always be removed after his first three ABs in favor of Davis’ defense for the final 1/3 of the game. Now you’re looking at an offensive player that is 75% Cust and 25% Brown, each with platoon advantage, and a defensive player that is only 6 innings of Cust when he starts. That’s ultimately going to be just the right amount of playing time for Brown, who is this year’s John Mabry: A guy who can help the team win for a short time, but will help the team lose if he plays every day for very long. (Note: For as long as Brown is on an RBI tear and Cust struggles, it’s fine for Emil to get a few extra starts against RHP, but only at Cust’s expense so that at least we are actually improving our OF defense by choosing to play Brown.)

Axiom #3: Ryan Sweeney needs to be “odd man out”. Not because he’s “so awful” (although this is a problem), but because there are three things he does not do well enough to play any of the OF positions. He does not hit for enough power (he has 3 XBHs all season) or OBP (he has drawn 3 BBs all season) to be a corner OFer, and he does not play strong enough defense in CF. Since he has options left, it would make perfect sense to send Sweeney to AAA until he makes strides in least one of those three areas: Learn more patience at the plate, develop more XBH power, or develop into a plus-CFer. Until then, it makes no sense to take ABs, and CF fly balls, away from Denorfia and Davis – who can at least solidify the defense at the OF’s most important defensive position.

Now when Buck returns your OF, against LHP, looks like Buck, Denorfia (or Davis), and Brown, with Cust on the bench as a pinch-hitting weapon and Davis (or Denorfia) on the bench as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. Against RHP, your OF looks like Buck, Denorfia, Cust-Davis, with Brown on the bench as a pinch-hitting weapon against Mr. LOOGY. That alignment can work, but the current one is poised to backfire over time – and much sooner rather than later.