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Athletics trade target: Bring Cliff Pennington home from the Diamondbacks!

A penny for your thoughts on this trade target?
A penny for your thoughts on this trade target?
Ralph Freso/Getty Images

There are 28 days until Oakland Athletics pitchers and catchers report to spring training, which means that there's still a whole month left for Billy Beane to keep reshaping his roster. That's enough time for at least three more All-Star trades, possibly for a backup quarterback or a new point guard.

In reality, the major moves are probably done, unless Billy has already soured on any of the guys he's gotten in the last two months. However, there is still room for some minor moves to tie up the last loose ends on the roster, like another strong hitter, or depth at catcher or shortstop. Colby Rasmus signed with the Houston Astros, removing one potential target for extra power in the outfield, and we haven't heard Jay Bruce's name on the rumor mill for a while. Mark Trumbo and Dayan Viciedo are ... just, no. The remaining market for sluggers is thin, so that ship has probably already sailed.

Of course, there's another way to get a good bat in left field while also shoring up the infield. All you have to do is find a middle infielder valuable enough to push Ben Zobrist to left. The current in-house options for the utilityman job are Eric Sogard, who can't really play shortstop; Andy Parrino, who isn't on the 40-man roster and just cleared waivers after every single team in MLB passed him up; and Tyler Ladendorf, who is yet to make his MLB debut. The bar is set low. Can anyone clear it?

Indeed, there may be one man who can: Cliff Pennington, formerly of the Oakland A's and now a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Acquiring Penny would satisfy two running themes right off the bat -- re-acquiring former A's, and swapping players with Arizona as many times as possible. It would also give the A's a reliable defensive shortstop, specifically one who can handle himself from both sides of the plate.

The utilityman should be someone who can slip into a wide array of situations, like Zobrist himself. Sogard can competently fill in at second base against right-handers, but not much else. Ladendorf will probably only hit against lefties. Parrino can fill in anywhere but can only hit against automated pitching machines. Penny, on the other hand, can plug three positions while batting at a minimally acceptable level against any type of pitcher. The D'Backs have expressed interest in keeping him, but in October Josh Donaldson was generally deemed untouchable so take such proclamations for what they're worth.


Let's begin with a quick look at Penny's recent history. In his two years in Arizona, his hitting bounced back from the career-low 66 OPS+ he posted in Oakland in 2012, up to 72 in '13 and 93 last year. His defense remained above-average, if not excellent, at both middle infield positions. He missed two months with a sprained thumb last summer, but he returned to post a .719 OPS over the final two months -- even better than he was hitting before the injury. He's about what we remember, a weak-but-not-useless hitter with a slick glove.

Pennington, 2013: 96 games, .242/.310/.309, 1 HR, +12 DRS, 1.7 bWAR, 0.8 fWAR
Pennington, 2014: 68 games, .254/.340/.350, 2 HR, +4 DRS*, 1.8 bWAR, 1.5 fWAR

* His shortstop defense slipped down to neutral in 2014, but it was only 180 innings so it's a virtually useless sample compared with his strong career track record. His excellence at second base is unwavering.

Even using Fangraphs' more conservative WAR value, he's still graded out as at least a 1-win player per half-season worth of playing time. Is that an upgrade over the current crew? That's a tough call. Sogard can be a two-win player in just the right situation, but he's coming off of a down year, he's not versatile, and he can still be sent to Triple-A if a new player is brought in. Frankly, I think his ability to hide behind his minor league option is too valuable of a trait to overlook; it lets the A's stash MLB-quality depth outside of their 25-man roster, like with Eric O'Flaherty and his pre-planned midseason return to the bullpen from injury last year. A lack of depth in the middle infield was one of the things that sank the 2014 team, when Jed Lowrie and Nick Punto went down at the same time with naught but Alberto Callaspo and Parrino to replace them.

I think Penny would be a great fit here, and I know I'm not the only person on Athletics Nation who thinks so. He'd immediately be the best defensive shortstop on the roster and the best-hitting backup infielder available, and the A's wouldn't have to cut any of the Sogrinodorf trio to make room for him -- they can all bide their time in Nashville. Even if you don't think Penny is a pure upgrade over, say, Sogard, he still improves the depth chart by pushing everyone else back. As we learned last year, you can run through your whole depth chart pretty quickly. He could also push Marcus Semien to second base, where the relatively untested newcomer is more likely to be an adequate fielder.


What about the logistics? Is Penny a realistic target? He's in his last season of arbitration and will be eligible for free agency after 2015, with a $3.275 million salary coming his way. The Diamondbacks lost 98 games last year, worst in all of MLB, and now they have to look upward at the World Champion Giants, the $200 million Dodgers, and the revamped Padres. Sure, they signed Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas to a big contract this winter, but most reports suggest that the 24-year-old will need some time to adjust and develop and so he should be viewed for now as a long-term asset, not a win-now player. He'll be around for six years, with Paul Goldschmidt signed for five and a few rookies on board who had strong debuts last season. This is probably the time for Arizona to maximize future assets and free up playing time for young players so that they can start making a serious push in 2016.

And speaking of young players, there just happen to be a couple around who are ready to step in, even after the trade of Didi Gregorius to New York. The D'Backs have top prospect Chris Owings ready to take over shortstop, and he already got off to a great start in 91 games last year. Veteran Aaron Hill remains at second, and though he was awful in 2014 he's still making $24 million over the next two seasons and is a reasonable bounce-back candidate; he seems sure to be on the roster and likely to get playing time somewhere. And then, after them, there is Nick Ahmed, who got a cup of coffee in the bigs last year after hitting .312 in Triple-A.

It's tough to say where Ahmed fits into Arizona's plans. He seemed to be blocked completely before Gregorius was dealt, but the depth chart is thinner now. A brief stroll around the Internet suggests that his defense is his calling card, so in that sense he could fill the team's utility role in a world without Penny. And he'll be 25 in March, with six years of team control, so if the D'Backs have to choose between him and Penny in what is likely to be a fourth-place season at best then the decision is obvious. Dump the vet and his salary and go with the kid.

Pennington's salary is also a small factor. John Hickey reported that the A's had $5 million to work with before their Yunel-for-Clippard swap, and that move added around $3 million to the payroll ($5M out, ~$8M in). That would suggest that Penny might not fit into the budget, but it's close enough that we don't need to end our January baseball discussion because of it. The deal could be expanded to include Ryan Cook, or Arizona could kick in some cash in return for a better prospect. There are ways around a $1 million payroll discrepancy.

On the other side of the aisle, Arizona probably wouldn't mind a bit of salary relief if the A's can take on the whole contract. The team reportedly set a $90 million budget early in the winter, and by my calculations they are awfully close to it -- nearly $72 in current commitments, plus at least $9 million more coming in arbitration (for Trumbo and Addison Reed), plus at least nine more players at the minimum salary ($500K) to fill the 25-man roster, has the D'Backs creeping up on $86 million already. Shedding a couple mill to make a bench downgrade on a non-contending team while creating at-bats for a youngster seems like an utter no-brainer to me.


What would it take to get Pennington from the D'Backs? I want to guess, but I really have no idea. I wouldn't be shocked if he fetched anything from "cash considerations" to a cheap starting pitcher (a la Milone-for-Fuld, the desperate trade to fill a need). Perhaps Ladendorf himself would be a logical return, thus dealing six years of a potentially viable utilityman for one year of an established one. That would make some sense for both teams. Or maybe that's a gross underpay or overpay. I've lost complete sense of what things are worth on the trade market these days, so I really have no idea.

What say you? Would Penny be a good add for Oakland, or would he be Nick Punto Part Deux? What would you part with to get him, or would you only take him as a salary dump for a no-name prospect?

I'll leave you with the grittiest picture of Pennington I could find in our photo database.

cliff pennington grit
Sergeant Pennington saw his man lying wounded, and he crawled over to protect him. He spent his final grenade to buy some cover. Hopefully, help was on the way. -- Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports