One week into the season, Billy Beane and Bob Melvin already have quite the roster situation on their hands. Sam Fuld is hitting the ball well — the contact he's making should be good for better than a .222 batting average — and he's legged out two triples in his first 18 at-bats.
He's also playing stellar defense, doing things like this, this, and this. In short, Fuld is doing everything he can to secure his longer-term spot on the 25-man roster, showing that he can at least play defense on par with Josh Reddick's even if his slugging upside isn't nearly as high. He's out of options, and given the highlight reel he produced in his first week with the team, it's hard to see Oakland's front office exposing him to waivers. The A's have made it clear, too, that a player's option situation can and will play a role in roster decisions, and Fuld's lack of options is as big a factor as any other in terms of his status on the 25-man roster.
If Craig Gentry weren't on the verge of returning from a minor-league rehab assignment, the roster crunch wouldn't exist. But he is, and even after two brief scares with minor wrist and heel injuries, Oakland's remaining outfielders — Coco Crisp and Yoenis Cespedes — don't need the DL. Gentry is coming up, and somebody needs to go down.
The candidates, with Fuld out of the mix, are much-maligned first baseman Daric Barton and, in a development that makes perfect sense but is somehow still surprising, Reddick. Neither has done much to impress in the season's opening week.
Reddick is 3-for-24 with nine strikeouts, two walks, and no extra-base hits. Josh Donaldson has been similarly awful through the season's first week, but nobody's clamoring for him to be sent to Sacramento — it's about putting the performance in context. For Reddick, the context is pretty ugly — in a nutshell, he hasn't been very productive since mid-2012. His 2.7 WAR in 2013 is actually impressive given that he was fighting off a wrist injury throughout the campaign, lost nearly all the power he displayed the year before, and managed a wRC+ of just 92.
My feeling is this: wanting Reddick to be sent to Sacramento isn't unreasonable. What is unreasonable, though, is that opinion being influenced by Reddick's first two dozen at-bats of the year, regardless of how terribly unproductive they were. 24 at-bats should never be the difference, even if they're the only 24 of the season.
Reddick being sent down would allow for a perfect platoon in right field, with Fuld playing against right-handed pitching and Gentry playing against lefties. Reddick and Fuld, as left-handed hitters who play excellent defense in the outfield, are essentially interchangeable in that role, so the same would be true between Gentry and Reddick if it's Fuld who gets the axe. But Reddick simply isn't producing, serving only to strengthen Fuld's case.
Barton's situation, incredibly, is even more complex. Since his legendary 4.8-WAR season in 2010, the lefty hasn't done much of anything; in the last year, he's best known for making a defensive error in Game 1 of last year's ALDS that could have cost the A's the game, and by extension, the series. Baseball is a cruel game, as Barton is quite possibly the best defensive player on the team. It's clear that Barton remains a pet project of the A's front office — given his phenomenal eye at the plate, propensity for working counts, his excellent defense and the simple fact that he's now Oakland's longest-tenured player seem to indicate that he'll be her for a while. His upside will always be there, and there's always the chance that exposing him to waivers, at long last, could end his stint in the East Bay.
If it's Barton who ends up in Sacramento, the A's outfield suddenly becomes very crowded. Five outfielders is typical, but when you have an everyday left fielder and an every day center fielder, your right fields candidates get packed in like sardines. In that situation, Brandon Moss would play a lot more first base, which puts Oakland at a slight defensive disadvantage, and Reddick, Fuld, and Gentry would essentially all compete for playing time in right field with Cespedes and Crisp playing every day in left and center, respectively. It seems that there simply isn't room for five outfielders on the roster, especially since within that trio, there's no candidate to fill the role of DH regularly, given their offensive struggles and high-caliber abilities.
I think the most likely candidate for the chopping block is Reddick. He's been given every opportunity to turn things around offensively, and now that Fuld seems to be capable of replacing him in right field defensively, his utility is diminished even further. There's also the fact that sending out Barton would require Moss to play 1B much more often. And all of this is ignoring the simple reality that having Fuld, Gentry, and Reddick all jockeying for playing time is simply a waste of roster space.
If Reddick does go down, it probably won't be for long — the Oakland outfield has already suffered one injury (Gentry's) and the odds of Cespedes and Crisp getting through even the first half of 2014 without a stint on the DL are slim. If he's sent down, he'll have a prime opportunity to excel against weaker opposition and earn his way back onto the roster. Until then, the combination of Barton, Fuld, and Gentry for the last three spots on the roster seem like the best option Beane and Melvin have available to them.