We're at roughly the midway point of the Cactus League, with 14 games left in Arizona followed by the three-day Bay Bridge Series prior to the April 6 regular season opener. Spring training matters in some ways, and doesn't matter in lots of others, but the Oakland A's have as many questions to answer this month as just about any team in baseball. Let's have a look at the key positional battles. We're not going to focus too much on stats because numbers mean next to nothing in the spring, but we will be using them now and then.
The locks: Ben Zobrist, Marcus Semien
The candidates: Eric Sogard, Tyler Ladendorf, Andy Parrino
Sogard: 7-for-29, .241/.267/.310, 2 doubles, 0 Ks
Ladendorf: 11-for-33, .333/.333/.485, 1 triple, 1 HR, 1 SB, 9 Ks
Parrino: 6-for-30, .200/.297/.300, 3 doubles, 1 SB, 5 Ks
We know that Zobrist will play every day, and that Semien is slated as the regular shortstop. We're really looking for a utility man here, a backup who might also start at second sometimes on days when Zobrist plays elsewhere. Here's what Susan Slusser had to say about Ladendorf in her column on Tuesday:
There's no quicker way to the A's heart than home runs and multiple positions, and Melvin mentioned this morning and then again after the game that Ladendorf has worked his way into consideration for a roster spot if an injury creates an opening at some point. ... [Melvin]: "I know he likes playing center field quite a lot. He increases his chances at being in the big leagues at some time and has really put himself on the map with us."
While that quote is praising Ladendorf, it's also implying that there isn't really a battle here and that he's just playing for future consideration. I entered the spring thinking Ladendorf made the most sense, since he can also play shortstop and is best against left-handed pitching (which made him fit better in some sample lineups). However, it seems that Sogard already has this one sewn up, something that Slusser herself already seems to see as a given, and it actually makes some sense. If Semien is truly the everyday guy, then he won't have much need for a regular backup at short. Therefore, the utility man will be spending most of his time at second, so Sogard gets points for being a defensive whiz at the keystone and isn't docked for his lackluster skills at short. Furthermore, Sogard has the big edge in experience.
It still leaves them with a backup infielder who can't hit lefties, but maybe that's better than having a backup who can't hit righties -- remember, the vast majority of pitchers are righties (especially relievers), and Ladendorf has shown immense platoon splits in the minors. There's just a better chance of finding playing time for the guy who can hit righties, and Ladendorf can't even hit minor league righties.
Andy Parrino still looks like a small woodland creature when he's facing live pitching, so he'll likely hang out in Triple-A, but it looks like he'll be behind Ladendorf on the depth chart as things are currently going.
Status: Sogard probably has the spot, regardless of spring stats, but considering how often guys miss the first week or so of the season with a lingering spring injury, we could see Ladendorf on Opening Day too. And if there's not a spot for him, we'll almost certainly see him in Oakland sometime this season.
The locks: Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir
The candidates: Drew Pomeranz, Jesse Chavez, Kendall Graveman, Jesse Hahn, Sean Nolin, Chris Bassitt, Barry Zito
Pomeranz: 9 innings, 2.00 ERA, 15 Ks, 3 BB, 0 HR
Chavez: 8.1 innings, 4.32 ERA, 6 Ks, 2 BB, 0 HR
Graveman: 9.2 innings, 0.93 ERA, 3 Ks, 3 BB, 0 HR
Hahn: 7.1 innings, 6.14 ERA, 6 Ks, 2 BB, 2 HR
Nolin: Has not pitched (and won't)
Bassitt: 8 innings, 7.88 ERA, 6 Ks, 2 BB, 1 HR
Zito: 8.2 innings. 4.15 ERA, 4 Ks, 1 BB, 2 HR
We know that Sonny and Kaz will have the top two spots, and we know that Sonny will start on Opening Day. Beyond that, the official word is that the other three spots are up for grabs. There are seven guys jockeying for those three spots, so let's start by paring down the list a bit.
Nolin hasn't pitched yet in the spring and likely won't, so he's out of the running for start of the season. Bassitt has had some struggles, and I don't think any of us believed he'd be on the roster to start the year. I think we can safely remove him from consideration for now and assume he'll end up in Triple-A as things currently stand. Zito is here, and I assume he won't be interested in a minor league assignment if he doesn't make the final cut, but let's leave him out of the discussion for now until we hear something from an insider that specifically suggests we should add him back in. He's still a long shot.
That leaves us with four guys. A lot of us entered the spring assuming that Hahn was a lock, but every report coming out of camp is labeling Graveman as the frontrunner. I mean, Slusser literally used the word "front-runner" to describe him. Obviously his numbers are fantastic, but if that doesn't interest you then consider Bob Melvin's consistently glowing reports about his makeup -- Melvin even suggested that Graveman could be more than a back-end starter.
Pomeranz has pitched well this spring, and more importantly he looked pretty sharp in his televised start on Wednesday. He appears to be working on a changeup, and if he could make that a quality pitch then he'd be a no-brainer for the rotation. He still seems like a smart choice even if the changeup isn't ready yet, but there's no confirmation yet so all we can do is speculate.
That leaves the Jesses, Chavez and Hahn, for the last spot. Chavez has to make the team or else he'll have to go through waivers, where he will be claimed by another team and lost. So, either he goes to the bullpen and Hahn opens in the rotation, or Chavez starts and Hahn opens in Triple-A. I still don't see Hahn in Triple-A, because he was quite good in the Majors last year and has a high ceiling, but we can't say anything for sure yet. I don't think his shaky spring numbers are going to be much of a factor, but if they are accompanied by a poor result on the coaching staff's eyeball test then that could be more damning.
Status: Graveman is getting so much praise that he seems like a lock, though we can't say for sure. But it seems like it's down to him, Pomeranz, Hahn, and Chavez, until we hear anything one way or the other on Zito. We probably won't know the answer until a day or two before Opening Day, but we will definitely continue to speculate, because that's way more fun than waiting.
Also: My original prediction of Sonny-Kaz-Hahn-Pom-Graveman (with Chavez in the pen) is still very much in play.
The locks: Tyler Clippard, Ryan Cook, Dan Otero, Eric O'Flaherty, Fernando Abad; (Sean Doolittle will open the season on the DL)
The candidates: R.J. Alvarez, Evan Scribner, Pat Venditte, Fernando Rodriguez, the starters who don't make it
Alvarez: 5 innings, 1.80 ERA, 6 Ks, 3 BB, 0 HR
Scribner: 6.1 innings, 9 Ks, 1 BB, 1 HR
Venditte: 5 innings, 3.60 ERA, 4 Ks, 1 BB, 0 HR
Rodriguez: 3.2 innings, 0.00 ERA, 3 Ks, 4 BB, 0 HR
Let's start with Venditte. Slusser has this to say:
I get asked often about [Billy Burns and Venditte] and their chances of making the team. I wouldn't be surprised to see either with the club at some point this year, especially if they keep performing well. ... But it's tough to see either making the A's Opening Day roster because Oakland also loves keeping options open as long as possible, so Rule-5 player Mark Canha has the edge on Burns and, of course, Venditte is on a minor-league deal and is not on the 40-man roster.
Sorry, fellow Vendittites. Looks like we'll have to wait until midseason to see history get made. I can't fault the team, either, as this falls right in line with their modus operandi. Venditte isn't even on the 40-man roster, nor is Rodriguez, whereas other players are and could be lost if not kept on April 6. Scribner is already on the 40-man and would have to clear waivers if sent down. Alvarez does have options and could be sent down, but the team seems enamored with him and for good reason. If they deem him ready to go, then they'll get no argument here.
The smart move here is to keep as many players as possible. However, the first step in that process is not unnecessarily adding players to the 40-man roster, because for each player you add you have to cut someone and risk losing him. That rules out Venditte and Rodriguez, because neither is so far-and-away better than the other options that he has to be here from Day 1 (for example, you wouldn't send down Otero just to make room, because you also want the best possible team on the field and he's too good to waste). That likely makes them destined for Triple-A, waiting for another injury on the MLB club.
And what about Scribner? You could shoehorn him onto the roster now, but when Doolittle returns Scribbles will be gone anyway. It's probably best to let him hit waivers right at the end of spring, when teams already have their rosters set and aren't ready to take on a new player at that moment; if you wait until Doolittle returns a couple weeks into the season, then enough time has gone by that teams may have already had holes open up due to injuries or ineffectiveness.
If Alvarez is too good to pass up, and Chavez gets squeezed out of the rotation, then it makes sense to me to expose Scribner as soon as possible and get it over with so that he can be saved for later. The other alternative is to send down Hahn or Pomeranz in order to fit Chavez into the rotation, clearing space for Scribner in the pen, but I just don't think Scribbles is good enough to go that far out of the way to accommodate him. He falls under the category of "let him go, and if it's meant to be then he'll return."
And finally, a note about Ryan Cook. He has been terrible so far this spring, but there hasn't been any whisper at all that he is hurt, so for now this is just a veteran working out the kinks and preparing for the season. There is currently no reason to expect that he won't be on the Opening Day roster as a set-up man, until we hear anything differently from the folks who know these things. I know a lot of us have our doubts about him long-term, but try to ignore these current struggles until they officially become something more.
Status: The last two spots are probably down to Alvarez, Scribner, and the rest of the rotation candidates. Too early to say anything beyond that. Note that Eury De La Rosa, Chad Smith, and Arnold Leon have all been cut from big league camp already, so they are out of the picture for now. (Click here for full transaction log.)
Fun with stats
Spring stats are meaningless, but they're still pretty to look at and we haven't had any new numbers to play with in months. We are kids who only faintly remember what candy tastes like, and we were just set free in the Jelly Belly factory. Try not to get sick.
Here are some of the most extreme lines for A's players. None of these numbers will affect anything at all. But man, check out those sweet, sweet numbers!
Ben Zobrist: 9-for-22, .409/.417/.818, 1 HR, 6 XBH, 0 Ks
Billy Burns: 15-for-39, .385/.419/.590, 5 XBH, 3 SB, 4 Ks
Ike Davis: 5-for-10, .500/.545/.600, 1 double, 2 Ks
Joey Wendle: 9-for-26, .346/.414/.423, 1 triple, 6 Ks
Burns and Wendle will start at Triple-A, but nice to see them off to a good start! We already knew Zobrist rules.
Brett Lawrie: 4-for-22, .182/.217/.273, 2 doubles, 5 Ks
Coco Crisp: 1-for-6
Stephen Vogt: 1-for-14, 1 K
Coco has been dealing with an injury, but he could sit down in a chair for a year and then stand up and knock a double to the gap on the first try. I'm not worried about him, and he seems at least resigned (though not enthusiastic) about moving to left field. Vogt only just came back from his foot surgery. Lawrie has a reputation as a slow starter, and he's going to start at third base no matter what, so don't let yourself get down about his numbers.
Josh Phegley: 6-for-26, .231/.259/.500, 4 doubles, 1 HR, 6 Ks
Billy Butler: 5-for-24, .208/.286/.542, 2 doubles, 2 HR, 5 Ks
Mark Canha: 7-for-36, .194/.275/.444, 3 doubles, 2 HR, 15 Ks
Despite the Ks, the team still seems on board with Canha. Between his ability to play multiple positions and his Rule 5 status (has to stay on roster or be lost), Slusser doesn't do anything to refute the belief that he's a lock. Phegley and Butler already figured to be locks, and if you're wondering where the power will come from in 2015 then here are three of your top candidates, getting an early start on things.
We still have two more weeks of spring, so we'll be keeping an eye on these final roster battles right up until Opening Day. Who do you want to see on April 6?