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Oakland A's prospects positioned well to graduate in 2016

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Will we see Chad Pinder in Oakland in 2016?
Will we see Chad Pinder in Oakland in 2016?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Let's begin with a few quotes about the Oakland A's current offseason plans:

Aug. 5: "What we probably won't do is use prospects for acquisitions. ... That's not to say we won't make trades." - Billy Beane, via Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle

Nov. 20: "[General manager David] Forst says payroll not an issue right now and [A's] are pursing [free agent] relievers with their top priority to rebuild bullpen." - Susan Slusser, S.F. Chronicle

Nov. 20: "We've got room to spend, we've just gotta find the right guys." - Forst, via Joe Stiglich of CSN

Dec. 2: "Arms are still a priority for us." - Forst, via Jane Lee of MLB.com

Dec. 6: "Part of [A's] logic in signing [reliever Ryan] Madson is that they can't afford big [free agent] hitter. Spend money where they can. Looking at starters too." - Ken Rosenthal, FOX Sports

The A's entered the winter with a lot of holes in the roster, a lot of money to spend, and a lot of quality prospects in their farm. There's more than one way to turn that set of resources into a competitive roster, but their stated plan is clear and their actions so far back it up: Spend liberally on free agent pitching, and find another way to fill out the lineup. It seems to me that the obvious way to achieve the latter is to do something Oakland was once famous for but has moved away from in recent years: Let the kids play.

That strategy makes particular sense this year, because there will be an exciting group of hitters in Triple-A Nashville. Here's a rundown:

1B Rangel Ravelo: A right-handed hitter known more for contact and plate discipline than HR power. Missed most of 2015 to injury, but returned and worked his way up to Triple-A. Currently dominating Venezuelan Winter League. Blocked by: Billy Butler. The A's have Yonder Alonso and Mark Canha as options for 1B, but Ravelo could DH if there was space to do so. Ravelo is already on the 40-man roster.

1B Renato Nunez: A right-handed slugger who led the Midland RockHounds to the Double-A Texas League Championship then impressed in the Arizona Fall League. Until further notice, I'm listing him as a 1B instead of a 3B. Blocked by: Billy Butler, more or less the same story as Ravelo. Nunez is already on the 40-man roster.

2B Joey Wendle: A left-handed hitter with doubles power and good defense. The kind of guy who is praised for his hard work and intangibles, as opposed to numbers alone, which makes it nearly impossible for us as fans to know what to make of him. Blocked by: Jed Lowrie, Brett Lawrie. And hey, whaddya know, Brett is on the trade block and could be moved. Wendle is already on the 40-man roster.

SS Chad Pinder: A right-handed hitter with solid power who hit for average this year. In fact, he was named Texas League Player of the Year. There are concerns about plate discipline and exploitable holes in his swing, and he may not stick at shortstop, but he's shooting up prospect lists this winter after a breakout 2015. Blocked by: Jed, Brett, Marcus Semien, Danny Valencia. Pinder is not yet on the 40-man roster.

OF/1B Matt Olson: A left-handed Three True Outcomes slugger. Last year he walked in nearly 18% of his plate appearances (105 total), and struck out in nearly 24% of them (139 total). He only managed 17 homers in Midland's notoriously tough stadium (which is brutal to lefty power), but he crushed 37 the year before in the friendlier confines of Stockton. He's billed as a plus defender at 1B, but with such a logjam at that position the team tried moving him to the corner outfield last year and I have a feeling that is where he will ultimately start his A's career. Blocked by: Whoever ends up starting in LF this year. Olson is not yet on the 40-man roster.

UTIL Tyler Ladendorf: A right-handed hitter who can play just about anywhere on the diamond. He already made his MLB debut this year, though his rookie status is still intact for 2016. Blocked by: Eric Sogard, who figures to be first in line for a utility infield job. But Ladendorf has more defensive versatility and hits on the other side of the platoon, so they are markedly different players and it's impossible to say who could win the job just yet. Ladendorf is already on the 40-man roster.

Honorable mentions: OF Jaycob Brugman, a left-handed hitter who is a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none; 1B/3B Ryon Healy, who had a minor breakout in Double-A in 2015; C Carson Blair, who already made his MLB debut and isn't much of a prospect but is likely the next catcher on the depth chart after Vogt and Phegley and therefore could achieve rookie status in 2016. None of these three players are currently on the 40-man roster.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's remember that most of these players are only just debuting at Triple-A in April. Ladendorf is ready to go, and Wendle at least played a full season at Nashville already, but otherwise it would be premature to expect any of these hitters to have a chance of breaking camp with the team next spring. That helps explain why they still brought in some relatively inexpensive short-term options, like Yonder Alonso at 1B and Jed Lowrie at 2B -- quality veterans who can serve as stopgaps until the kids are ready, and who can almost certainly be traded if/when it's time to make room for those kids.

What about on the pitching side?

SP Sean Nolin: A left-hander who is currently a starter but could wind up in the bullpen. Already made his MLB debut. He is out of minor league options, so he has to make the team this spring or else be waived. Blocked by: No one, really, except himself. If he's healthy and his velocity is back over 90 mph, he'll probably get the first crack to make the team due to his options status. Or, perhaps the A's could include him in a future trade if they don't think he'll fit on the 2016 team. Nolin is already on the 40-man roster.

SP Sean Manaea: A left-handed starter who could end up toward the top of the rotation. He blew away the Arizona Fall League, and it seems like a real possibility that he could be in Oakland by midseason. Blocked by: The general hodgepodge of rotation options who are yet to weed themselves out via injury or ineffectiveness. Some dominos will fall ahead of him on the depth chart, we just don't know which ones yet. Manaea is not yet on the 40-man roster.

RP Ryan Dull: A right-hander who made his MLB debut in 2015. He was a closer in the minors, but for now we should temper our expectations and assume he'll just be a middle reliever in the bigs. Blocked by: The general hodgepodge of bullpen options, specifically the ones who are out of minor league options this year. Dull can be sent to Triple-A without exposing him to waivers, and for that reason I don't think he'll break camp with the team next spring, but we'll surely see him in Oakland again at some point. Dull is already on the 40-man roster.

Honorable mentions: RP Arnold Leon is on the 40-man already, but he's out of options and with each new reliever the A's pick up the chance of Leon getting squeezed out rises more and more; RP R.J. Alvarez flopped in MLB this year but could get another shot in 2016. Both Leon and Alvarez are already on the 40-man roster.

As you can see, there aren't as many pitchers who could be ready in 2016. There are a few guys of varying intrigue, but entering the offseason the young rotation had too many question marks and the bullpen had too little talent -- both areas needed some external additions. Enter checkbook, exit with prizes like Rich Hill, Ryan Madson, and perhaps someone else like Scott Kazmir and/or another reliever when all is said and done.

It's funny to think of a youth movement as a shift in strategy for the A's. For more than a decade, Beane's A's were famous for their youth. They would bring up hot new rookies, enjoy several years of inexpensive stardom, and then trade them away before their declines in exchange for the next wave of prospects. As recently as 2012, they had 18 rookies in costume for dress-up day, and at one point that year they had a five-man starting rotation made up entirely of rookie pitchers. But in the years since, the strategy shifted toward a more extreme win-now philosophy, and many youngsters have been sent away for immediately competitive veterans -- from Chris Carter, to Michael Choice, to Addison Russell, to Daniel Robertson, the A's stopped being the team that relied on their own farm to directly stock their MLB team. For us fans, that meant looking at prospects like trade chips instead of future saviors.

The stars seem to aligning for that course to change. If the A's do deal Brett Lawrie and end up with an infield of Jed/Semien/Valencia, then there are multiple infielders waiting -- if Jed gets hurt, or if Valencia turns back into a pumpkin, then a hot first half by someone like Wendle or Pinder could propel them to the big club. Heck, part of the reason for trading Lawrie at all could be that some prospects are nearly ready to take over. If the A's manage to shed Billy Butler's contract, then there are multiple big bats who could be in the running to take over the DH spot before the end of 2016. With those backup plans in place, why spend a bunch of money to block them?

As currently projected, the A's starting lineup (Vogt, Alonso, Jed, Semien, Valencia, Canha, Burns, Reddick, Butler) includes zero rookies and has an average age of around 29 years old. There are more guys over 30 than there are under 28. But as we know, your Opening Day lineup never stays intact for a full season, and sometimes it doesn't even resemble the one you field in September. With $13 million of the 2016 payroll already handed to a pair of free agent pitchers, and the rest of the available dollars clearly earmarked for the same purpose, perhaps this is finally the year when the A's return to their roots and look to their farm for another harvest of hitting talent.