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A's 2015 Preview: The Infield

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Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

The A’s are running an almost entirely new look this year, and the infield is probably the site of the most change. Opening Day 2014 featured an infield composed of Daric Barton, Eric Sogard, Jed Lowrie, John Jaso, and Josh Donaldson. The only player of that group left in the Oakland system is Sogard, and he certainly won’t be starting barring injuries. Unfortunately, being the #faceoftheMLB can only do so much for one’s career prospects.

The core of the group will be made up of seven entirely new players and one old friend: Ike Davis, Mark Canha, Billy Butler, Ben Zobrist, Marcus Semien, Brett Lawrie, Josh Phegley, and Stephen Vogt. There’s probably going to be a utility infielder spot, and it’ll probably be Sogard’s, but he’ll be a minor figure in all of this.

Here’s a quick reminder on how all this was acquired, because this offseason has been ridiculous and we don’t blame you if you forgot one or two of these moves.

Player How he was acquired
1B Ike Davis Traded from Pirates for international slot money
1B/OF Mark Canha Rockies' Rule 5 pick from the Marlins, traded for RHP Austin House
DH Billy Butler Free agent, signed for 3 years, $30 million
2B/OF Ben Zobrist Traded for C John Jaso, INF Daniel Robertson, and  OF Boog Powell
SS Marcus Semien Traded for RHP Jeff Samardzija and RHP Michael Ynoa
3B Brett Lawrie Traded for 3B Josh Donaldson
C Josh Phegley Traded for RHP Jeff Samardzija and RHP Michael Ynoa

I’m overwhelming positive on this new group. I think they’ve improved significantly at every position except for 3B. Of course, I’m biased as an A’s fan and blogger, but what they’ve done here is incredibly interesting, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen a team perform such an extensive makeover while remaining competitive. I want this experiment to succeed, not just because I’m an A’s fan, but because it’s so dang fun.

Here’s a rundown of who’s who in this whole new world.

Ike Davis

Spring Training stats: 6-for-13 with a double and a walk.

Ike Davis has been struggling for the past two years. Between a bout of valley fever (a debilitating illness that famously derailed old friend Conor Jackson’s career) and dealing with the vicious New York media, his career has met a complete roadblock in the time since his 32 home run 2012 campaign. However, there’s one skill that’s never left him: his ability to hit right handed pitching. Last year, he managed to hit .247/.360/.405 off of righties in 392 PAs. Basically, he’s John Jaso without the concussions or the ability to "catch".

That’s what he’ll be asked to do this year — hammer RHP. He’ll be in a strict platoon role, only facing righties. If he can recapture some of his power, fine. But, as Neil Weinburg reported, that’s not really his game anymore . He’s not from the Adam Dunn school of walking, striking out, or hitting HRs anymore; he actually makes a lot of contact. It’d be nice to recover some power, but maybe that’s not what he’s aiming for anymore. And that’s okay! New look Ike Davis is a good player, and power isn’t the only way to produce runs.

My Prediction: I see him as rebounding slightly from his 2014 numbers, but not obscenely. I expect him to put up a .250/.360/.420 overall line (a bit better if you isolate against righties, but I’d be extremely surprised if he got more than 50 PAs versus lefties) with 15 HRs.

Mark Canha

Spring Training stats: .238/.304/.500 with 2 HRs and 5 2Bs.

Here’s a huge wildcard. I really don’t know what to make of him, honestly. He’s a non-prospect that hit .303/.384/.505 in AAA in one of the tougher ballparks in the PCL. He’s a local kid, a UC Berkeley graduate who was born in San Jose. The A’s front office absolutely loves him, and he’s virtually a lock for the 1B vs. LHP role in 2015. So, I suppose we’ll see what he can do. If he turns out to be a failure, there’s depth available in Nate Freiman, who has played that role in the past.

So, what can we expect from  if things break right? Well, he has power, but not a ton — he hit 20 HRs in a fully healthy AAA season last year. If his minor league splits prove accurate, he won’t have to be limited to a platoon role in the MLB: he hit .284/.365/.515 off of lefties and .311/.391/.502 off of righties. He’s probably play exclusively versus lefties next year, but if there’s an injury in the OF and he’s playing well, he’ll take over the starting role. He can play some corner outfield, but is most at home at 1B. Other than that, he could be a AAAA failure or Jose Bautista, a budding superstar overlooked by all of baseball. Pretty simple, right?

My Prediction: I think he’ll actually end up really close to Ike Davis’s line and skillset. .270/.340/.420 in some 250 PAs, mostly against lefties. He’ll hit ~10 HRs, and earn himself more playing time in 2016.

Billy Butler

Spring Training stats: .208/.286/.542 with 2 HRs and 2 2B

The Billy Butler signing was maybe the most inexplicable move of the offseason, especially among the sabermetrics community. Sure, he replaced the horrible Alberto Callaspo DH experiment from last year, but committing $30 million to an aging DH coming off the worst season of his career is a strange, strange thing to do, especially for the A’s. Maybe Billy Beane knows something we don’t. Maybe he decided that if he couldn’t beat the Royals, he would become them. Maybe he got black-out drunk and woke up next to a signed Billy Butler contract.

At least Billy Butler can hit for average, we know that much. It’s been a while since an Oakland player could contend for .300 (okay, Josh Donaldson’s 2013, but… sad), and Butler is nothing if not a constant threat to cross that milestone. Last year he hit .271, which was the lowest mark of his career. The A’s haven’t had a legitimate contact hitter for years. That’s pretty neat.

However, Butler’s evaporating power is incredibly worrying. Last year he hit 9 HRs in 603 PAs, down from 15 in 2013 and 29 in 2012. That’s a worrying pattern for a guy about to turn 30. I don’t think he’ll ever regain his 2014 form, honestly. Those 29 HRs were a fluke — that’s not the type of hitter that he is. I can see him hitting around 15, but don’t expect more than that.

There is reason to be hopeful. First off, he will destroy left-handed pitching. Even last year, he managed to hit .321/.387/.460. Without Josh Donaldson, the A’s needed someone with that ability. Butler will at least have the ability to replace that part of Josh Donaldson’s game.

Second, he did get markedly better in the second half than he was in the first half. He improved from a .273/.325/.355 in the first half to a .269/.321/.418 line after the All-Star Break. That’s 60 points of slugging, and that’s significant. Maybe a rebound in power is in the cards?

My Prediction: I think he’ll rebound. The Steamer projection system predicts .273/.344/.412 with 15 HRs, and that’s essentially what I’m thinking too. Last year, Alberto Callaspo and Adam Dunn took the lion’s share of the starts at DH. They hit .223/.290/.290 and .212/.316/.318 and were worth a cumulative -1.3 wins. As weird as it sounds, Billy Butler might be a 3 win upgrade on this team.

Ben Zobrist

Spring Training stats: .360/.370/.720 with 4 2Bs, 1 3B, and 1 HR.

Ben Zobrist needs no explanation. He is good. He is the absolute crown jewel of the offseason, a guy who fits better on this A’s squad than any hypothetical or imaginary player could. He’s an All-Star, he’s astonishingly consistent, he plays every position, and he’s the best player on the team by a fair margin.

The only question is where he’s going to play the majority of the time. He slots in as the everyday 2B for the team as constructed, but he’ll move around a fair bit. With Reddick injured, you can imagine him playing RF until he comes back. If Olivera ends up signed, he’ll probably slot into… LF, I guess? Having Zobrist is one of the finest luxuries in team-building. He can slot into any open spot in the outfield or the infield and be a plus defender no matter where you put him. This is probably his only year in Oakland, so enjoy it. The Zobrist era will be fun.

My Prediction: I’ll cede to Steamer again here. I’ll predict a .265/.350/.401 line with premier defense. Slightly worse than last year, but he’s still a 5 win upgrade over the 2014 2B disaster.

Marcus Semien

Spring Training stats: .278/.350/.472 with 2 HRs and 1 2B.

Marcus Semien is a rookie and another wildcard. The 24 year old Cal graduate and Berkeley native has basically been anointed immediately as the starting shortstop, and with good reason: his minor league stats are sterling. He hit .267/.380/.502 in AAA last year and .290/.420/.483 in AA the year before. Last year, in his first MLB cup of coffee, he hit .234/.300/.372, which isn’t great, but fine for a shortstop facing MLB pitching for the first time. Basically, we can assume he’ll hit, and hit well.

What we can’t assume is that he’ll play shortstop well. He hasn’t played shortstop at the MLB level yet, and reviews on his defense are mixed. Scouts are famously bad at judging shortstop defenseJhonny Peralta was once destined for the outfield before he somehow transformed himself into a premier defensive shortstop. But he wasn’t very good at the "easier" positions of 2B and 3B in 2014, so maybe the scouts have a point. Honestly, we won’t know until he gets an extended look at the MLB level, and it seems like the A’s are willing to give him just that.

According to my terrible amateur scouting, I view his defense as an upgrade over Lowrie. He’s certainly not plus defensively, but he’s absolutely good enough on that end to warrant a starting role on the team. He’s very rangy, but his defense is limited by a subpar arm — adequately strong, but inaccurate. The ranginess should serve to offset that deficiency, and I think he’ll be close to average when the statistics and reviews come in.

My Prediction: Steamer predicts .238 /.314/.394 with 16 HRs and 10 SB, which I’d take the slight over on. I’m thinking .250/.330/.400, 15 HRs and 15 SBs, which would be around a 110 wRC+. What will make or break his value will be his defense, which we don’t have any way to statistically judge as of yet. If he does end up failing, switching positions with Zobrist would not be out of the question. Zobrist makes this roster so much fun, guys.

Brett Lawrie

Spring Training stats: .179/.233/.357 with one HR.

Don’t let his spring stats fool you. Lawrie could’ve hit .000/.000/.000 in spring and he’d still have the starting 3B role absolutely wrapped up. For good reason — when the 25 year old has been healthy, he’s been a force. Therein lies the rub, though: he’s had an extensive injury history. He’s never played more than 125 games in his four MLB seasons, and his past two years have featured totals of 107 and 70 games played. His injury history reads like he’s Mr. Glass: fractured middle finger, oblique strain, rib strain, another fractured finger, sprained left ankle, another oblique strain, broken hand, another oblique strain.

Funnily enough, this acquisition reminds me a lot of the Jed Lowrie trade. He was another player with a ton of potential who kept getting derailed by freak injuries, broken bones, and general horrible luck. He finally put it together in 2013, forming an absolutely crucial part of that team’s offense. Brett Lawrie has the potential to do the same thing. It’s easy to forget that he’s still 25, even though he’s spent four years in the MLB. He’s still younger than  most prospects! He could easily put it together and have a 5+ win season out of nowhere.

But I kind of doubt it. For one thing, Jed Lowrie’s injury history was punctuated by freak accidents, collisions, and broken bones. Lawrie’s injury history is a series of oblique strains, and when you look at his swing, you can see where it comes from. His swing is all violence and moving parts, and his obliques look like they’re powering everything. He plays with a rare intensity among baseball players, but running and diving all over the place is not good for you. His playing style reminds me of Josh Reddick, another player with problems staying healthy. He’s fantastic when he can play, but his playing style limits how often he can play. It’s a Catch-22.

My Prediction: Steamer says .262/.321/.423, and I agree with that. It also predicts that, with his excellent defense, he’s a 3-4 WAR player. That’s where I’ll disagree with the projections: he’ll have a hard time being that excellent because he won’t manage to exceed 400 PAs. I can’t be optimistic on all these predictions, sorry!

Stephen Vogt

Spring Training stats: .059/.158/.059 in 19 PAs

Stephen Vogt is an underrated triumph of the A’s scouting department. A former 12th round pick by the Rays, he was an old, non-prospect, AAAA catcher with doubts about his defense, his bat, and basically everything else. Organizational filler, to be kind. When he did get a look in the MLB, he went 0-27. He was destined to languish in AAA, until the A’s acquired him for cash considerations. Cash considerations! That’s baseball talk for "sure, go ahead and take him, we don’t care."

He emerged as an MLB caliber player in 2013, when he took over the starting catcher role after a wave of injuries left the A’s with zero catching depth. He managed to show off some excellent defense and hit .252/.295/.400, and ended up starting all five games of the ALDS. After starting 2014 in the minor leagues again, he showed off positional flexibility and a really surprisingly fantastic bat to start the year. Hell, in the first half of the season, he managed to hit .358/.388/.532, which is absolutely insane for a 29-year-old rookie. It couldn’t last: he played through back issues and plantar fasciitis, but as a result his offense fell off a cliff and he couldn’t catch.

Yeah, I know you know this story, but it might be my favorite storyline on the A’s in years. There’s maybe no player in baseball I want more to succeed.

In the offseason, he had foot surgery and is pencilled in as the starting catcher vs. right-handed pitchers. The A’s front office has placed a massive amount of faith in him: rather than reacquiring Geovany Soto or signing any other clear backup option, they stood mostly pat at the catcher position. That’s a lot of faith for a guy who couldn’t catch more than 7 games last year, and it seems like a clear weakness of the club. But Stephen Vogt is certainly more than experienced at bucking expectations.

My Prediction: I’m predicting a repeat offensive performance for Vogt, but immensely more valuable due to him being able to catch all year. 270/.320/.410 in 450 PAs, mainly at catcher, contributing more than 3 wins to the club. I believe!

Josh Phegley

Spring Training stats: .273/.294/.606 with 2 HRs and 5 2Bs

I’m not going to devote a whole lot of space to Josh Phegley, given that backup catcher is one of the least important positions on the roster. He’ll be mostly facing left-handed pitching, a skill he’s excelled at in his years in the MiLB: he hit .262/.304/.531 in 2014 and .280/.319/.528 in 2013. He’ll mostly produce his value based on his two killer tools, his power and his arm strength. After the Derek Norris era in Oakland you can almost forget what a good arm from catcher looks like, but he’s thrown out 50% of potential base stealers in spring so far, including the fastest man in the MLB, Billy Hamilton.

He’s also hit a couple long, long homers in his playing time, showing off his great power — this afternoon he hit a home run off of Aroldis Chapman that appears to have exited the state of Arizona. He won’t hit for a high average and he won’t walk much, but when he does make solid contact, balls will go a long, long way.

If he does have to fill in for an injured Stephen Vogt for an extended period of time, he won’t be the worst option. He hasn’t shown a huge platoon split in the minors, so he should be fine against right handed pitching. His defense is a strong suit, and it’s probably better than Vogt’s. He’s actually looking like a pretty great option to have as an injury replacement, and he should be a quality backup backstop. If he starts more than 60 games, something’s gone horribly wrong, but he should play a role.

My Prediction: I’ll cede to Steamer yet again. .240/.279/.397 seems reasonable for a player of his type, he’ll hit a couple of dingers (I’ll predict 7), and he’ll contribute a win or so. He’s not exactly a force of nature, but he just has to sit behind the plate, throw out runners, and hit lefties at a league average rate.

***

That leaves one spot open on the roster. This could be filled by Eric Sogard, Tyler Ladendorf, or Andy Parrino. Ladendorf has made a fantastic case for himself, playing quality defense at every position and hitting the cover off the ball, but it’s Sogard’s spot to lose. He’s the only one with MLB experience, he can fake it at SS enough to be a fine backup there, and if Semien goes down with an injury Ladendorf will be called up anyway.
Of course, there’s also the wildcard: Hector Olivera will probably be signing soon (finally), and rumor has it that the A’s are one of the finalists for his services. If that happens, Sogard will be relegated to the minors and Zobrist will play mostly in the outfield. We’ll just have to wait and see if that will happen, though.

Olivera will probably be a quality 2B or 3B, although it’s tough to predict how a 30 year old rookie would perform, even if he has excelled in Cuba. The A’s seem like they’re willing to commit to him, and I’d trust their scouting department with my life. One cool thing is that his presence will provide quality insurance if Lawrie goes down: Olivera will move to 3B, Zobrist will move back to 2B, and one of Fuld/Gentry will start in the OF. Basically, there will be very little drop in quality, which is really really cool.

***

I honestly think the A’s infield has the potential to be one of the best infield groups in the MLB. The acquisition of a quality 2B in Zobrist fixes so many of the problems the A’s have been dealing with since 2012, and his versatility makes the lineup a fun mix-and-match. The outfield is short on depth and short on power, but the infield will absolutely carry this team in 2015.

Even without Donaldson’s superstar sheen or Lowrie’s quality veteran presence or Brandon Moss’s huge power, this group has been improved upon. They’ve gotten significantly younger and significantly better. There’s great depth everywhere except catcher. I’m incredibly excited to see what these guys can do.

I still miss Donaldson, though. Excuse me while I cry myself to sleep.