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Athletics offseason: Turning first base from a weakness into a strength

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Yes, even without Brandon Moss.

The A's might finally use a first baseman who has played first base before this season.
The A's might finally use a first baseman who has played first base before this season.
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland Athletics got a collective .684 OPS from their first basemen in 2014, which ranked 26th in the league. To put that into context, Oakland shortstops, whom we have complained about to no end due largely to their offensive ineptitude, posted a .666 OPS last year -- the A's got the production of a below-average shortstop at a position that is supposed to be synonymous with offense. Billy Beane let the virus of bad hitting fester in the middle infield for too long and it spread to the right corner, with Callaspo-shaped pathogens invading and eating up precious at-bats. But there's good news! Even with Brandon Moss out of the picture, there is every reason to expect a big improvement from this spot in the lineup.

First base is traditionally thought of as an easy position to fill. Just take a guy who can hit and plug him in there, and even if he's unathletic or unskilled at other positions he can probably hold his own on the colder corner. Unfortunately, it's not always that simple, and the A's found that out the hard way in 2014. They tried a mix-and-match approach at first base, almost treating it like a second DH spot, and the result was basically the same as Jed Lowrie's off-year but at a corner position. We've all been screaming for new middle infielders, but first base was every bit the weakness that shortstop was last season and wasn't much better than second base.

So, who were the culprits in this team-wide failure? (OPS marks reflect splits* while player was actually playing first base; number of games adds up to more than 162 because of mid-game replacements.)

Name Games OPS
Brandon Moss 60 .737
Stephen Vogt 45 .736
Nate Freiman 28 .726
Daric Barton 22 .410
Alberto Callaspo 19 .382
Kyle Blanks 14 .972

* Note that this isn't just cherry-picking bad positional splits. These players combined to hit .239/.315/.384 (.699 OPS) overall last year in 1,531 total plate appearances, regardless of position -- not far off from their .684 split at first base.

That group combined to hit 22 home runs while playing first base, which is a decent if unremarkable total, and they somehow got a positive defensive rating overall. But the overall offensive performance wasn't there.

It would be easy to blame a lot of last year's shortcomings on Moss and his second-half slump, but he actually played most of his first base in the first half of the season when he was still healthy; he only made 15 appearances there after the All-Star Break. Overall he hit better than the other guys who played there, but only just barely, and I think he would have been playing a lot of outfield if he'd remained in Oakland for 2015. He was out of the picture at first base either way, whether he'd been traded or not, but he left only average-sized shoes to fill in this case.

A substantial amount of the time went to Stephen Vogt, Nate Freiman and Kyle Blanks. Vogt held his own in extended emergency duty, but while we all enjoyed his hot summer, he was every bit as cold in the second half as he was hot in the first half. Freiman didn't hit much, outside of one big series in Atlanta. Blanks, whose injury is rarely mentioned among the game-changers for Oakland's season, may have been a big loss after all; he wouldn't have continued flirting with a 1.000 OPS like he was when he went down, but he was the only bright spot at first base this year and losing him put a big dent in that corner of the diamond.

On the other hand, around a quarter of the season was blown on Barton and Callaspo. Barton at least made a little bit of sense, regardless of how much you might dislike him, because he's an experienced first baseman with a good glove. Callaspo I will never understand. When the team announced in the spring that he'd play some first base, I thought it sounded like a terrible idea. When he was actually playing there during the season, it looked like a terrible idea. And now, looking at the numbers in retrospect, it was indeed a terrible idea. He had a useless bat, and on top of that he was shoehorned into an offense-first position that he'd never played before and wasn't really physically built to excel at given his 5'9 frame. That move will baffle me for the rest of my days. On the bright side, Callaspo is as good as gone and Barton has already been exported to Canada, so right here we have a case of addition by subtraction.

The range of performances at first base last year essentially went from "meh" to "bleh." The left-handers (Moss, Vogt) were inconsistent and the right-handers (Freiman, Callaspo) failed to crush lefties. Barton hit an all-time low, finding a black-hole-level of awfulness from which, at long last, no arguments in his favor could escape the gravitational pull. You may have thought that first base was fine, with a mental construct of "Moss and a bit of Freiman with Vogt filling in." Turns out that combo wasn't so hot, and got dragged down even further by a poor supporting cast. Granted, if the same players (less Callaspo and Barton) gave it another go next year they may do better, but for the purposes of this exercise all that matters is what they did last year and what we can expect the new roster to do in 2015.

Most of last year's group is gone now. Only Vogt and Freiman remain, and I'd bet that Freiman will start 2015 in Triple-A as things currently lie and that Vogt will be be playing more catcher than anything else. That means we have to put together an entirely new group for 162 games of first base. Let's see who Billy Beane has brought in. Remember, they only have to beat a .684 OPS.

Ike Davis

Davis seems likely to get the bulk of the playing time at first next year. His name often carries with it a stigma of underachievement, but that's because he's miscast as an everyday player. His platoon splits are about as wild as anyone's:

OPS vs. RHP, career: .813 (.577 vs. LHP)
OPS vs. RHP, 2012: .868 (.560 vs. LHP)
OPS vs. RHP, 2013: .727 (.406 vs. LHP)
OPS vs. RHP, 2014: .765 (.265 vs. LHP)

That .765 OPS doesn't look amazing, but it's better than what Moss and Vogt contributed last year while playing first. His 2012 season featured 32 homers, a higher total than Moss ever reached (or Donaldson or Cespedes, for that matter). Granted, he hasn't repeated that power display, but he still has decent thump and is a good bet for at least a double-digit homer total. His strong plate discipline took a step even higher last year as well. He cut down on his swings-and-misses, resulting in a drop in strikeouts and a career-high contact rate.

Davis isn't a star and he probably peaked in 2012, but he's only 28 next season and he went from a disastrous '13 to a solid '14 -- Billy Beane is always looking to buy low on players who are improving. Davis is a solid hitter against righties with a good eye, decent power, and upside for more. The metrics suggest that his defense is average at best these days, but he's shown proficiency there in the past. He's the perfect platoon first baseman, the guy the A's didn't have last year when Moss shifted to the outfield.

And then, when the A's face a left-handed starter ...

Billy Butler

Beane has already said that Butler will play first base against lefties. Country Breakfast has even tastier splits than Ike's:

OPS vs. LHP, career: .912 (.771 vs. RHP)
OPS vs. LHP, 2012: 1.036 (.827 vs. RHP)
OPS vs. LHP, 2013: .797 (.783 vs. RHP)
OPS vs. LHP, 2014: .847 (.653 vs. RHP)

Butler has always wrecked southpaws, and even in his off-year of '14 his split still outpaced Oakland's motley crew by a wide margin. Depending on what other uses Bob Melvin finds for the DH spot, and/or if Davis fails to perform, Butler could also find time at first against right-handers, in which case he'd still likely provide an upgrade over all options past and present.

Mark Canha

Here's a wild card. Canha was effectively acquired as a Rule 5 pick, meaning that in order for the A's to keep him he has to stay on the 25-man roster all year, like Nate Freiman in 2013. Thing is, Canha might be better than Freiman, and he's certainly more MLB-ready than Nate was two years ago.

Canha is a right-hander who plays primarily first base and left field but also saw time at third last year. On a personal note, he was born in San Jose, went to school at Cal, and shares my birthday, so that's neat. The reason we're talking about him comes from Susan Slusser:

Assistant general manager David Forst said that Canha is a nice pickup for the A's - he's a right-handed hitter who can play first base and left field, and left was an area where Oakland wanted some depth.

"He'll have every opportunity to make our team," Forst said. "He's a very good fit for us right now."

...

The A's figured that Canha would be gone by the time their slot came up in Thursday's Rule 5 draft, so they made arrangements to ensure they had a better shot at him.

If you give up assets to move up and get a guy in the Rule 5 draft, it's because you really think that guy can stick on your team. The things they're saying about Canha seem like the kinds of things they say about guys who eventually make the roster.

Canha has hit well at pretty much every level of the minors, with a 25-homer season in 2011 and 20 dingers and an .889 OPS last year as a 25-year-old in Triple-A. He doesn't have particularly convincing platoon splits, so he might not be bound by the hand of the opposing pitcher. His presence pretty much guarantees that Freiman starts in Triple-A, especially given that Canha is a good bet to at least match Freiman's production.

***

There is wiggle room around the expected Ike/Butler platoon. Vogt could find his way into some at-bats at first, or John Jaso could earn a lot of smiles on AN by taking some reps there. Freiman could be back if someone gets hurt or if Canha stinks. But it's not crazy to expect a .730 OPS against righties and an .800 OPS against lefties; if you weight the vs. RHP splits twice as heavily to account for there being twice as many righty pitchers as lefties, you get around a .750 OPS out of first base. That's a huge improvement over last year, and it moves Oakland up from the bottom of the league to the middle of the pack. And if Davis or Butler rediscover past peaks, it could get even better.

Major league rosters are more than just a couple of stars. Losing a big name like Josh Donaldson or Jeff Samardzija decreases the overall value because their replacements will likely be inferior, but that lost value can be made up in other areas. In this case, even without Moss, first base is one weakness that has quietly been addressed and possibly even turned into a strength.