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2015 Oakland A's infield breakdown: What went wrong and what lies ahead?

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The Athletics are pretty bad this year. Let's quantify how bad, starting with the infield, and ask ourselves what is the hope for next year.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

One question I have been pondering as these dog days of summer pass by is this: What exactly are the areas the Oakland Athletics need to improve through external means, and in what positions should we expect the A's to be patient? I would expect that positions filled by older players could receive external upgrades through trades or free agency while younger players will be evaluated to see if there is room to grow from where they are now.

First, though, we need to get a sense of exactly what went wrong. How did the A's go from postseason contender in 2014 to last in the American League in 2015? I tried to break down WAR by position, but the tools available to me on Fangraphs and Baseball Reference only let me do so clumsily. For non-pitchers, I assigned WAR proportionally to how many plate appearances they took at a position. For pitchers, by how many innings they pitched as a starter and as a reliever.

Oakland A's Fangraphs WAR by position (approximation)
C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF DH PH SP RP Total
2015 (119 games) 3.0 -0.3 0.8 0.4 0.9 0.1 1.2 2.3 -0.8 0.1 11.8 1.3 21.0
2015 (projected 162) 4.1 -0.4 1.2 0.5 1.2 0.2 1.7 3.1 -1.0 0.2 16.0 1.8 28.6
2014 (162 games) 3.9 2.3 -0.1 6.0 2.2 3.1 2.5 4.0 1.6 0.5 11.9 5.4 43.2

If I really wanted to be precise about assigning a player's WAR to a position, I would work out all the components earned by a player while playing at each position, but the data for that isn't easily accessible. So we'll roll with this, because we're just ballparking here.

For the projection out to 162 games there's also a problem where players that have been traded, like Ben Zobrist and Scott Kazmir, are still part of the calculation. I'm not too worried about being precise here, but I'll note that issue as it crops up in a position-by-position breakdown. Today, we begin with the infield (WAR from Fangraphs):

Catcher

As catcher
2015 (proj.) 2014
WAR 4.1 (very good starter) 3.9 (very good starter)
Stephen Vogt Josh Phegley Derek Norris John Jaso Geovany Soto Stephen Vogt
WAR 2.1 2.0 2.3 0.9 0.5 0.2
AVG .275 .271 .276 .298 .262 .242
OBP .345 .321 .364 .362 .354 .242
SLG .516 .477 .411 .488 .357 .364
OPS+ 150 132 126 146 108 74
PA 426 229 391 188 49 33

HOW'D THEY DO? Production from the catcher position has stayed at a high level thanks to the health of this year's incumbents, though the slowdown in production from Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley may bring the catching position a bit short of the projected 4.1 WAR total.

NEXT YEAR: Vogt and Phegley should remain in 2016, though continued production at this position depends on the health of both players in the position. Vogt also turns 31 next year, so we should stay alert to a possible decline in performance. Phegley has been mostly protected from right-handed pitching, but it will be interesting to see if he can continue producing at a high level.

The third catcher at the moment is Carson Blair, with the next prospect, Jacob Nottingham, in just his second month in High-A ball. Blair was the fifth best hitter in the Double-A Texas League by wRC+ (min. 200 PAs) before his promotion to Triple-A with a .272/.389/.509 line (149 wRC+ in 208 plate appearances). That success has not carried into Triple-A so far, where he has a wRC+ of 60 after 97 plate appearances.

FREE AGENTS: Unless the A's move Stephen Vogt to first base, I would not expect the A's to make a significant move for a catcher in the offseason. A.J. Pierzynski had the best 2015 among the options for catcher, which should tell you everything you need to know about the free agent market for catchers.

First base

As first baseman
2015 (proj.) 2014
WAR -0.4 (replacement level) 2.3 (adequate starter)
Ike
Davis
Mark
Canha
Stephen
Vogt
Max
Muncy
Billy
Butler
Brandon
Moss
Stephen
Vogt
Nate
Freiman
Alberto
Callaspo
Daric
Barton
Kyle
Blanks
WAR -0.4 -0.1 0.5 -0.4 -0.1 1.0 0.8 0.3 -0.2 0.0 0.5
AVG .230 .283 .209 .214 .222 .239 .261 .215 .138 .158 .333
OBP .296 .360 .274 .313 .300 .322 .311 .271 .227 .234 .444
SLG .358 .485 .239 .452 .222 .415 .425 .456 .155 .175 .528
OPS+ 68 115 35 94 39 95 94 89 5 12 158
PA 308 155 99 65 27 233 164 85 66 64 45

HOW'D THEY DO? First base production fell from decent to poor after Ike Davis failed to find his swing, or got hurt just as he was starting to. Sub-replacement contributions from Max Muncy and Billy Butler didn't help either.

There are some specific problems with the 2015 approximation. Stephen Vogt's positive contributions to first base are probably overstated, as he performed far better on offense as a catcher. On the flipside, Mark Canha's performance as a first baseman is probably understated as he has worse offense as a left fielder (.230/.274/.358, 74 OPS+).

NEXT YEAR: Ike Davis is a strong candidate to be non-tendered, and Mark Canha could be optioned to Triple-A now that the A's have finished his Rule 5 season. Canha will only be 27 next year, however, so there is some upside as he enters what should be the prime of his career. Max Muncy will only be 25.

There are other prospects to consider, like Rangel Ravelo, who was promoted from Midland to Nashville on August 6. Ravelo will be entering his age-24 season in 2016. Further down the prospect line are Matt Olson and Renato Nunez, both entering their age-22 seasons but only in Double-A.

FREE AGENTS: Chris Davis headlines the free agent class, and it would be a preposterously bold move for the A's to take advantage of having a protected top-10 draft pick (the A's would lose their competitive balance sandwich pick instead) and sign Davis to a deal that MLB.com's Mike Petriello guesses could top $100 million. Such a pie-in-the-sky signing could open the door to Oakland dealing away its first base prospects, though Olson is being tried in the outfield and Nunez at third base.

This kind of move is one that would essentially stake Beane's leadership of the front office on Chris Davis. If his career path takes the turn of a Ryan Howard, Beane is done. If Davis takes Josh Hamilton's career path instead, Beane is a genius.

Beyond Chris Davis, there are a few reclamation projects like Mike Napoli or Steve Pearce, but it wouldn't be a good strategy to sign a reclamation project that could block the first basemen coming up the minor leagues.

Second base

As second baseman
2015 (proj.) 2014
WAR 1.2 (bench player) -0.1 (replacement level)
Eric
Sogard
Ben
Zobrist
Brett
Lawrie
Tyler
Ladendorf
Eric
Sogard
Alberto
Callaspo
Nick
Punto
Andy
Parrino
WAR 0.4 0.6 0.0 0.1 0.3 -0.5 0.1 0.1
AVG .246 .264 .222 .125 .223 .277 .214 .091
OBP .293 .333 .237 .222 .302 .313 .286 .091
SLG .284 .400 .333 .375 .259 .324 .293 .091
OPS+ 66 109 61 68 66 87 70 -46
PA 393 192 52 12 280 160 155 11

HOW'D THEY DO? Second base saw some improvement thanks to Ben Zobrist's hitting and Eric Sogard's improved defense at the position, as well as the addition by subtraction of Alberto Callaspo's free agency. What hurt Zobrist the most was that after years of being rated as a good-to-excellent defender by the advanced metrics used in WAR, Zobrist had a terrible 2015 in the field. He was perhaps hampered by the knee injury that required surgery this season.

(*)This is one case where the way I've extrapolated the projections is not ideal, as Ben Zobrist obviously won't have any more plate appearances for the A's beyond the 141 he collected before he was traded to the Royals. Take off a tenth for WAR if you like, but the point is that second base overall improved a little bit from where it was last year, though not by all that much.

NEXT YEAR: Eric Sogard is the incumbent by default, though Brett Lawrie might spend more time at second to allow Danny Valencia to play third base if the A's don't want him to play left field. Tyler Ladendorf may have chances at second base as well, which could push Eric Sogard into Triple-A entirely (he has one option year left). I feel like I've said this every year for the last three years, and some combination of injuries manages to keep Sogard with the big league club every year.

Joey Wendle needs to be added to the 40-man roster to protect him from next December's Rule 5 draft, but his lackluster performance in Triple-A might keep him from appearing with the big league club after rosters expand. I would rather not take plate appearances away from Tyler Ladendorf, recently returned from ankle surgery, and I would like to see how Brett Lawrie handles second base. Wendle could see time in the Arizona Fall League, instead.

Further down the prospect pipeline are Chad Pinder and Colin Walsh, both with Double-A Midland. Walsh is enjoying a late surge in his age-25 season, he is the third-best hitter by wRC+ in the Texas League (min. 200 PAs) with a .308/.435/.478 batting line (159 wRC+). At 23 years old, Pinder is ninth with a .317/.362/.489 line (135 wRC+).

FREE AGENTS: There are a few interesting choices, with none other than Ben Zobrist leading the free agent market entering his age 35 season. Howie Kendrick is probably the best of the younger free agent choices at 32, while Asdrubal Cabrera is enjoying a nice bounce-back year playing shortstop with the Tampa Bay Rays on a one-year, $7.5 million contract. Cabrera will be 30 next season. Daniel Murphy is also available and will be 31, and there are a number of other bounce-back options the A's might consider for short term deals to let Pinder and Walsh develop.

Third base

As third baseman
2015 (proj.) 2014
WAR 0.5 (replacement level) 6.0 (All-Star)
Brett
Lawrie
Max
Muncy
Danny
Valencia
Eric
Sogard
Andy
Parrino
Mark
Canha
Tyler
Ladendorf
Josh
Donaldson
Alberto
Callaspo
Andy
Parrino
WAR 0.5 -0.3 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 6.2 -0.2 0.0
AVG .267 .206 .267 .000 .000 1.000 .000 .261 .200 .000
OBP .303 .222 .333 .000 .500 1.000 .000 .348 .274 .000
SLG .405 .324 .600 .000 .000 1.000 .000 .462 .345 .000
OPS+ 90 46 146 -100 57 449 -100 126 73 -100
PA 547 49 45 5 3 1 1 653 62 1

HOW'D THEY DO? As expected, trading away All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson for not All-Star third baseman Brett Lawrie resulted in reduced performance at the position, though it ended up being worse than hoped. UZR gives him an extremely harsh defensive rating, completely the reverse of what Lawrie did with the Toronto Blue Jays. This could be just be an adjustment period moving from the formerly fast turf at Rogers Centre to the slower Coliseum grass, but it's something to watch going forward. Danny Valencia's hot start was good enough to offset Max Muncy's rookie campaign.

NEXT YEAR: Who plays third depends on how Brett Lawrie fits into the picture at second base and how the A's treat Danny Valencia going forward. Valencia is enjoying a career year against both left-handed and right-handed pitching, but he's had a lot of time on the bench to stay healthy and rest, and has only once exceeded 400 plate appearances in a season. Lawrie also just turns 26 next year, so there's still time for Lawrie to find his plate discipline.

Max Muncy will be entering his age-25 season in 2016, and he's been working hard to improve his third base defense. We'll probably have a chance to see if he has improved during September callups. Rangel Ravelo may also join the team then, he'll be 24 next year. Down in Midland, Renato Nunez continues to hit well, though he'll only be 22 next season.

FREE AGENTS: At the top of the third baseman list are David Freese and Juan Uribe. Pretty slim pickings, and I don't see the A's going for any of those players unless something bizarre happens like Billy Beane trading his MLB third baseman with some upside for a bunch of prospects.

But let's engage in a thought exercise. Say the A's did trade away Brett Lawrie into a free agent market starved of third baseman. He was, at least last year, considered a necessary part of a deal to obtain an All-Star quality third baseman. Does that value still exist in Lawrie, and could it be used to further other parts of the club without damaging the 2016 campaign? Perhaps a short term deal for Juan Uribe, who is in the final year of his two-year $15 million deal, could bridge the gap between 2016 and whenever Oakland's next prospect for third base hits his stride.

Just a thought exercise, calm down everyone.

Shortstop

As shortstop
2015 (proj.) 2014
WAR 1.2 (bench player) 2.2 (adequate starter)
Marcus
Semien
Eric
Sogard
Andy
Parrino
Jed
Lowrie
Nick
Punto
Eric
Sogard
Andy
Parrino
WAR 1.2 0.0 -0.1 1.8 0.0 0.0 0.3
AVG .257 .259 .000 .247 .250 .244 .129
OBP .303 .259 .250 .317 .389 .295 .200
SLG .389 .296 .000 .352 .386 .341 .290
OPS+ 104 65 -18 98 130 88 43
PA 607 37 5 548 54 46 35

HOW'D THEY DO? Shortstop fell back a bit, but I can chalk this one up to a player getting his first chance to play every day at a position where he had little major league experience.

Marcus Semien's defense for the first two months of the season was awful. It wasn't just the errors, though his throwing accuracy to first was notoriously bad. He was making other mistakes that didn't show up on the box score, like not touching second base when he didn't have the benefit of the neighborhood rule, or allowing what should be routine double plays turned into single outs. I'm seeing significantly fewer of those non-error mistakes and his double plays are being turned much more smoothly. He still misses occasionally on his throws to first, but always low, giving his first baseman a chance to dig out the throw.

Semien is hitting like Jed Lowrie was in 2014, except Lowrie was 30 that year. Semien is only 24 this season, and there's every reason to hope that his hitting will improve as he matures.

NEXT YEAR: Semien's closest internal competition is Chad Pinder in Double-A. Behind Pinder are prospects Franklin Barreto and Yairo Munoz in High-A. Absent a free agent signing to push Semien to second base, it would seem Semien has at least one more year to show he can be an adequate defensive shortstop with a good bat.

FREE AGENTS: Jimmy Rollins, Ian Desmond, and Asdrubal Cabrera are up there, but I don't see the A's making a big bet on any of those players being much better than Marcus Semien. Pass.

Some thoughts

It would not be reasonable to expect growth from the already excellent catcher position, but I believe third base and shortstop production can improve with the players in place. It would cost more to acquire surer bets at those positions than to find out if Brett Lawrie and Marcus Semien will develop into better players with time.

First base and second base need to get better, but I'm not as sure the current options in Oakland's system fit the bill for competing in 2016.

Next time

In our next installment, we take a look at the outfield picture and the designated hitter position. Following that, we'll wrap up with pitchers.