Things aren't going so well for the Oakland A's. The once-hot lineup is starting to cool off, the starting pitching is a mess, the middle relievers aren't getting the job done, and injuries are starting to take their toll. The April adrenaline rush has subsided, and the familiar early-season swoon has taken hold in Oakland. Before the team digs too deep of a hole for itself in the standings, it would appear to be an ideal time for Billy Beane to start shaking up the roster and pressing some new buttons. The question is simply which buttons to press.
We'll begin with a piece of good news: Chris Young is set to come off of the DL on Wednesday. My best guess is that Michael Taylor will be sent packing to make room, since Young replaces him as a right-handed hitting outfielder. Coco Crisp could follow shortly thereafter, and I would think that his return would push Brandon Moss back to full-time duty at 1st base and send Daric Barton back to AAA to play every day (unless Barton hits like crazy this week and forces the issue). Getting Coco and Young back should go a long way toward giving the lineup a kick-start.
However, there is room for improvement beyond just these two moves. Here are a few players who I believe are ready for a one-way ticket out of town, followed by the guys who I think should take their places.
Out: Chris Resop
Resop made the bullpen out of Spring Training in part because he was out of options and was unlikely to clear waivers if demoted. I was curious about him entering the season, but it's time to pull the plug on him and dip into the organization's bullpen depth in order to find better quality innings. It's not just that Resop's ERA and walk rate are bloated; there are also red flags in his peripherals.
Last year, Resop changed his pitching style. In 2010-11, he had been a hard-throwing strikeout artist who gave up too many walks and line drives to be truly effective. In 2012, he converted himself to a pitch-to-contact groundball specialist, cutting his strikeout rate in half but inducing a 50.4% groundball rate and slicing a significant chunk out of his walk rate. His new style transformed him into a league-average reliever.
This year, Resop has combined the worst parts of both of his two pitching styles. The strikeouts are still gone (6.35 K/9), but the walks (5.29 BB/9) and line drives (27.6 LD%) are back and his groundball rate is back down to 43.1%. Small sample alert? Perhaps. But when you consider that his percentage of pitches in the strike zone is a career-low 41.3%, down from 51.5% last year and 50.7% for his career, the inflated walk rate doesn't seem like such an accident. Furthermore, here is something which could explain the lack of strikeouts and the abundance of solid contact:
|Year||Avg Fastball Velocity|
Danger, Will Robinson! Resop has been losing velocity for a couple of years now, and this has helped turn his fastball from an average-to-above-average pitch to a decidedly negative one (4.8 runs below average). It's also caused him to rely more heavily on his change-up, as he's throwing that pitch 18.9% of the time compared with a previous career high of 5.5% (to his credit, that change-up has been a solidly above-average pitch). A pitcher who has thrown his fastball three-quarters of the time throughout his career needs that pitch to be working in order to be effective, and Resop's fastball is not working this year. I don't see any reason to sit around and pray that his velocity returns when the team has such a dire need for quality innings right now.
I could have picked Pat Neshek here instead of Resop. Neshek is also walking a ton of hitters (5.14 BB/9) and has lost a couple of miles off his slider, which is his main pitch. However, he is also hitting the zone more than he has since 2008 (50.2%), he's inducing slightly more swinging strikes than he did last year (12.7%, up from 12.4%), and he's maintained his normal batted ball profile (including a career-low line drive percentage of 14.0%). Given that Neshek is also out of options and was quite effective for Oakland last year, I'm willing to give him some more time to right his ship. It's time for Resop to move on.
In: Hideki Okajima
Okajima has the same out-clause that Brandon Moss had last year - if he isn't promoted by June 1st, then he can request his release so that he can sign elsewhere. Therefore, it is almost a foregone conclusion that he will get a chance sometime in the month of May, especially given his current stats in AAA (2.16 ERA, 16.2 innings, 18 K's, 2 walks).
Okajima is a lefty and Oakland already has Sean Doolittle and Jerry Blevins in the pen, but the team carried as many as four lefties at a time last year (with Norberto and Blackley) and it never seemed to cause a problem. Okajima's platoon splits over his career are notable but not severe, as he's allowed a .720 OPS to righties and a .600 to lefties while maintaining almost identical batted ball profiles on each side; he can handle pitching a full inning at a time rather than being strictly a LOOGY. It's time to bring up the 37-year-old former All-Star and see what he can still do.
Out: Evan Scribner
Oakland's mop-up tag team is not getting the job done like Jim Miller did last year. Scribner and Jesse Chavez essentially share a roster spot, as one absorbs a handful of innings before returning to Sacramento to rest while the other replaces him. This seems like a good strategy, and I expect Oakland to keep swapping out it's mop-up men periodically throughout the season in order to keep a fresh arm in the pen at all times.
The problem is the current personnel. Scribner (5.30 ERA) isn't striking anyone out this year, which could be due in part to a drop in velocity on all of his pitches, and Chavez is...wait, Chavez actually isn't pitching that badly so far. He's only thrown 6.1 innings, so this could all be totally meaningless, but he's hitting the strike zone, he's getting hitters to swing and miss at his pitches in the zone, he's getting strikeouts, and he's only issued two walks. He could still revert back to Crapzilla, Lord of Earned Runs, or he could be succeeding due to the fact that he's almost completely scrapped his awful fastball and replaced it with a totally decent cutter. Time will tell.
Surprisingly, Chavez is earning his keep as a mop-up man so far. Scribner isn't. There is nothing to be lost by letting Scribner figure things out in AAA and turning to someone new the next time Chavez needs a rest break in Sacramento.
In: Dan Otero
I've been keeping an eye on Otero all year, and have made frequent mentions about him on this site over the last six weeks*. He's a pitcher who absolutely never walks anyone ever, and I am a sucker for low walk rates. He's been at his best in Sacramento this year, posting an 0.54 ERA in 16.2 innings with 14 strikeouts and just one walk while serving as the team's closer. He's only thrown 12 innings in the Majors (all last year, for the Giants), and as far as I know he still has options left. Otero should be the next man to cycle through the mop-up role when Chavez gets taxed by a long outing or stops throwing strikes.
Out: Nate Freiman
Look, I get it. The idea was to hide Freiman at the end of the bench all year in an attempt to secure a promising power bat with six years of club control. The problem is that Freiman isn't good enough right now to contribute to this team, and the A's need to get better at-bats than the ones he is providing. At 26, he is not young enough to justify going to lengths to keep him for the future, and, with a .626 OPS and little power output or defensive value, he isn't producing enough to justify keeping him on a roster which is trying to contend for the division.
Furthermore, the emergence of Luke Montz has made Freiman completely superfluous. Montz already has four extra-base hits in 20 plate appearances, while Freiman has only managed three in his 50 PA's. Montz has a much larger body of professional experience, he spent 2012 smashing homers in AAA, and he provides more versatility on defense with his ability to back up Moss at 1st while also serving as a third catcher. He's a better, more experienced hitter, and a more valuable defender. If it's a choice between Montz and Freiman, then I want Montz as the right-handed power bat off the bench and the DH against lefties.
If Beane was going to swing a trade to keep Freiman so that he could be stashed in AAA, then it would have happened already. It's past time to end this experiment and replace Freiman with a more useful and productive player. He's taking up a roster spot on a team which is supposed to be completely focused on winning this year.
In: Shane Peterson
First, let's get one thing out of the way: It's not yet time to bring up Michael Choice. He's doing perfectly well in his first taste of AAA, but he's not destroying the league. He's hitting for power and drawing walks, his OPS is .893, and he's keeping the strikeouts to a reasonable rate, but there's no reason to rush him. I'd love to see him play the full year at AAA, and I'd only promote him this year if he went nuts and carried a 4-digit OPS into the 2nd half of the season.
In my opinion. this decision should come down to Peterson or Grant Green. Again, Barton could make things complicated if he starts hitting enough to keep his current roster spot, but so far he's 2-for-11 with four strikeouts and he becomes less useful of a piece when Moss is no longer needed for regular outfield service. I prefer Peterson over Green at this moment for a couple of reasons.
First off, I'm more interested in a left-handed hitter. With Coco and Cespedes locked into everyday outfield spots, the lineup against lefties is pretty well set with Young in the outfield, Moss at 1st, and Montz DH'ing. The lineup against righties, however, features Smith in the outfield, Moss at 1st, and either a catcher DH'ing (either Norris or Jaso) or Young playing against the platoon. Peterson fits into this lineup as a left-hander who can play either the outfield or 1st base.
Second, Peterson is having a better year. Both he and Green are hitting around .300 with high BABIP's, both have isolated power numbers around .150 with a few homers and a handful of doubles, and both can steal a base now and then (five for Peterson and three for Green, with neither having been caught yet). However, Peterson holds a huge edge in plate discipline. Both hitters have struck out exactly 26 times, but Peterson has offset that with 28 walks whereas Green has only drawn 11 free passes. I put a high premium on plate discipline and K:BB ratio, and in this case all other things are literally equal. According to the numbers, Peterson is Green with more than twice the walks.
You could make an argument for Green to replace Eric Sogard, but I think that Melvin prefers Sogard's superior defense and left-handed "bat" to offset the red-hot, right-handed Adam Rosales. I'm not going to comment on that one way or the other, because I think it is simply the reality of the situation regardless of how you or I feel about it. The bottom line is that, between Barton, Peterson, and Green, I prefer Peterson for this particular roster spot based on his stats, the position(s) he plays, and his left-handed bat. Free Peterson!
There are other River Cats to keep an eye on, including veteran multi-positional player Scott Moore (.829 OPS) and right-handed reliever Mike Ekstrom (21 K's and six walks in 18.2 innings), but neither of them is the right fit at this time. Cutting Resop, Scribner, and Freiman in favor of Okajima, Otero, and Peterson would be a great way to shake things up on a roster that has grown stale, while simultaneously improving production on the margins. Losing Resop and Freiman would be a small blow to the depth that Beane has built up, but there's no point in having depth if you're not going to use it and those two players seem highly expendable.
It's time to make some changes. Will Billy press the right buttons?
* three fortnights