The Oakland A's are no longer competing for the postseason in 2015. They should still try to win as many games as possible*, but in their efforts to do so they should give as many innings and at-bats as possible to players who could factor into a good 2016 team. That means moving away declining players who are under shorter contracts and aren't even getting the job done in the present day, and moving toward those who are some combination of younger, under longer-term team control, still have something to prove, and specifically need the at-bats so they can prove it before offseason decisions need to be made.
They're starting to get on the right track, with Pat Venditte rejoining the team on Saturday, Brett Lawrie getting reps at second base, and Mark Canha starting the last three games. Even Danny Valencia is worth a look despite not meeting the criteria of "younger," since he is hinting at late-blooming development and he's here for two more seasons if it's real. But the A's rank dead last in the AL in second-half scoring, by more than half a run per game, and there is still one particular hitter whom I don't think they can afford to keep down: Jake Smolinski.
Smolinski's career track record is inconsistent and he is far from a sure thing, but he does have this going for him:
Since June 23: 32 games, 111 PAs, .381/.432/.711, 1.144 OPS, 7 HR, 10 BB, 13 Ks
That split begins when the A's claimed Jake off waivers from the Rangers, though it's worth noting that he also posted a 1.280 OPS with four more homers in a dozen games for Triple-A Round Rock. Since arriving, he played 13 games for Nashville (1.188 OPS), then 11 for the A's (1.019), and now eight more for Nashville (1.191). The only time he failed this year was his 35 games for the Rangers, mostly in April, and his .470 OPS with them should serve as a reminder that he isn't a can't-miss superstar or else he'd be here already (or not at all, because he'd still be in Texas). But outside of that on-and-off stint to start this year, he's only been wildly successful in MLB, and he's just put up a month so colossally strong that it can't be ignored any longer.
Smolinski is exactly the kind of player who the A's should be looking at. He's right in their preferred age range at 26, in the beginning of what is generally a player's physical peak. He's making MLB minimum. He's under team control for five more seasons, through 2020 if we want him, and as an outfielder that trait is crucial because the current outfield depth chart for 2017 includes Billy Burns, Mark Canha, and ... I dunno, Ryan Sweeney? Why not start looking for answers ahead of time? But perhaps most importantly, there is a chance that the red-hot Smolinski could serve as one of the team's best hitters right now, not necessarily on true talent but in terms of who is actually swinging the bat well enough to help win games over the next couple weeks of August 2015.
But of course, roster space is limited until Sept. 1, so in order to bring up Smolinski someone else will need to go away. Here are three realistic ways the A's can make that happen, in order of my personal preference. (Note: Demoting Aaron Brooks was going to be a fourth option, but the A's already did that in real life while I was writing this.)
1. Waive Ike Davis
I just wrote about this option the other day, so I won't go too deep into it. The short version is that Ike never bounced back into a good hitter, and he's only got one year of team control left that could cost as much as $5 million -- not cheap. He's probably gone this winter anyway, and he's not helping now, so let him go try to catch on with a contender and experience his first postseason.
To replace Ike at first base, put Canha there every day. He needs regular at-bats to finally help gauge what he can do at the MLB level. That might already be happening, since Canha has started three straight games at 1B (against a knuckleballer, then a lefty, then a righty), but one way or other it should happen. There is just no value, for the present or future, in giving at-bats to Ike instead of Canha -- in fact, Canha has the better numbers this year anyway. And once Canha is the starter, there is no reason to keep Ike. The lineup gets a bit righty-heavy, but it needed to improve against southpaws anyway and the two best hitters (Vogt and Reddick) are still lefties.
2. DFA Edward Mujica, go with 6-man bullpen
Suggesting this the day after a taxing 13-inning contest isn't the best timing, but the A's took care of that today. In addition to DFA'ing Brad Mills as expected, they also sent down Aaron Brooks, with his next couple starts presumably being picked up by either Felix Doubront or a Triple-A starter like Barry Zito or Cody Martin (would be called up that morning to replace a tired reliever). Those moves allowed them to bring up Venditte and Dan Otero, two relievers who can go multiple innings. The tired pen will be fine tonight, and nobody except Drew Pomeranz threw enough to need more than one night off.
Mujica is a free agent after this season, and like Ike he is doing absolutely nothing to help the team now. For my money, he's the worst reliever in the pen, making his current designation as the "closer" that much more laughable. Within his last four outings, he blew a 10th-inning tie and a few days later blew a 9th-inning save in which Oakland led by two runs. He has no on-field value, he has no trade value, and I just don't understand why he's still here. The A's have better options in Triple-A.
Or, they could just roll with a six-man bullpen for a bit. Dan Otero can go up to three innings without a problem, and Venditte, Rodriguez, Scribner, Abad, and Pomeranz have each shown in their A's tenures that they can go two frames at a time. A six-man pen isn't as limiting when every single guy in there can be a multi-inning option. And if you're worried about Pomeranz's forearm tightness and whether it'll send him to the DL (don't be), then just replace him on that list with Arnold Leon, another MLB-quality long man waiting in Triple-A (he has to wait 9 more days to come back unless he's replacing a DL-bound player). They would only have to last that way for two weeks until rosters expand, with R.J. Alvarez still available in Nashville if they need to make one more emergency swap-out in that time span for freshness purposes, and in the meantime Smolinski can get some more MLB at-bats.
3. DFA Sam Fuld
Full disclosure, I still love Sam Fuld. It doesn't have to make sense. He's just really fun to watch because every day he does something wild, and he has his moments when he gets hot for a couple weeks or when he pulls off some kind of heads-up hustle play to change a game. I get a bit wrapped up in the awesomeness of his story. I'm actually working on a post all about him for next week, so, mark that thrilling occasion on your calendars, amirite?
But the fact is, Fuld has his niche and he only works when you use him just right. If you lost your CF and need an emergency short-term fill-in who can also serve as a change-of-pace slappy speedster in your lineup, then Fuld is your man. That role plays to his strengths and ignores his weaknesses. But the A's have found a new everyday CF in Billy Burns, and his presence also fulfills the slappy speedster quota. The two of them playing next to each other is redundant, and if Fuld isn't starting then he's a pinch-runner and you just don't need one of those on a bad team.
Fuld is a free agent after 2016. Will he play an important role on a good A's team next year? It's not impossible, but it seems unlikely. I didn't like writing about dumping Ike, and I like this topic even less, but from a practical standpoint it makes sense. Furthermore, I think Fuld has an even better chance of catching on with a playoff team -- someone always needs a backup CF or a pinch-runner for a playoff roster.
But how will Smolinski get in the lineup?
Each of these moves achieves our goal of getting Jake on the roster, but none gets the real job done -- putting Jake in the actual lineup where he can hit actual home runs that actually count for the A's. Coco appears to be the primary starter in LF, but he isn't playing every day and he conveniently prefers facing righty pitchers. Jake could have a platoon role while serving as a late-inning pinch-hitter if Reddick or Coco are pitted against a LOOGY. That's a start, but I want him in there every day to see if he can handle it or if he's just a platoon masher like Jonny Gomes.
That's where Coco and Billy Butler come in. You probably noticed their absences from the list, because there's a good chance your first reaction to the title was, "I'll give you 1 way: Dump Butler." But I'm trying to be realistic here, and the fact is that both of those guys are finishing the season on the roster. Butler is a sunk cost, but the A's are not going to simply cut him in the first year of a three-year deal. It is not impossible to salvage some value from him, whether by an unexpected resurgence next year or by getting someone else to take on any amount of his salary in a trade. As for Coco, well, if you can name me another player in the last decade who came to Oakland as a free agent and wound up signing three consecutive contracts here, and/or spent six consecutive years as an Athletic, then we can talk about the possibility of Billy Beane cutting him. The A's are not dropping him, he's too expensive and broken to be traded, and you can't just phantom-DL a player to get him off the roster.
No, Coco and Butler can't help Jake get onto the roster because they are stuck on it themselves, but they can help him get in the lineup once he's here. Butler is just a disaster every time he takes the field at this point, because even if he manages to get on base his land-snail foot speed limits what he can actually do -- witness him getting thrown out at home plate on Friday on a hit that would have scored at least 1-of-3 Molinas. The A's must agree, because he's been dropped to 6th or 7th in the order the last four games and has begun to sit against some tough righties.
Coco is in a similar situation. His 4-for-6 night raised his batting line to .139/.244/.190, but not a single one of the hits was truly impressive (two lucky flare pop-ups, two medium-hard grounders placed perfectly down each foul line). He's not hitting. He's not fielding well. And he made a massive baserunning blunder on Friday, by taking the kind of ballsy chance you should take in the 9th inning of a close game but doing it in a bases-loaded rally in the 4th (and ending said rally). He just doesn't look right at the moment, and given the chronic nature of his injury it's debatable how much he has left in the tank.
Butler and Coco need to stay on the roster, but that doesn't mean they need to play. If I had to bench one of them to make room for Smolinski, it would be Butler without question, both because I'm more emotionally attached to Coco and because, as previously mentioned, the lineup is starting to get a bit righty-heavy, especially if you dumped Ike or Fuld to get Jake here in the first place.
The everyday lineup can include Vogt or Phegley catching, Lawrie/Semien/Valencia in the infield, and Burns/Reddick in CF/RF, with Canha at first base. That leaves Smolinski, Coco, and Butler to fill in LF and DH, which makes it supremely easy to get Jake in there every day -- vs. RHP you start Coco in LF, and vs. LHP you start Butler at DH, with Smolinski filling in the remaining spot. (Or make a DH platoon out of Coco and Butler and give Smolinski LF full-time.) That leaves you with Sogard as the utility infielder and either Fuld as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement, or Ike as a solid pinch-hitter, depending on whom you cut to get Jake here. Sample lineup:
Bench: Sogard, Ike/Fuld (pick one), off-platoon C (Vogt/Phegley), off-platoon DH (Coco/Butler)
(Adjust as necessary for platoon purposes)
The A's are sorely lacking in good hitters. Valencia is hot right now, and many others are solid and/or show great promise, but there is still plenty of chaff to be replaced and there are future prospects to be judged. The lineup can be improved both today and possibly tomorrow, using only common household items. It's time to free Jake Smolinski ... again.
* No, tanking for a better draft pick is not a thing in baseball. It can make sense in other sports with faster amateur-to-pro-star turnarounds, but in the ultra-crapshoot of the MLB Draft I don't think it's a goal worth striving for, except maybe if you are No. 2 and there is a consensus once-in-a-decade No. 1 player like Bryce Harper available. On the contrary, next year's draft runs seven-deep in comparable elite talent before dropping off at No. 8, and the A's currently have the fifth-worst record; if the worst-case scenario is that the current players break out and win a bunch of games to knock the A's out of that bottom-seven, that's a tradeoff I'm willing to make because my top priority is this team being good in 2016 and a strong second half would be a good indicator of that happening.