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Jaff Decker, Oakland A’s center field depth

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Probably not the former Rays CF you were hoping for.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of every winter, baseball teams stock up on some veteran minor league free agents to fill out Triple-A rosters and provide depth in key areas. Most of these names never amount to anything, and many of them bounce around from system to system as the years go on. Occasionally they break through, and even carve out late-blooming MLB careers!

The A’s have had decent success with minor league free agents in recent years, as you would expect from a team that has to look for bargains whenever possible. Brandon Moss is the shining success story, but some other players who have at least reached Oakland since 2012 include* Chris Smith, Matt McBride, Pat Venditte, Eric Surkamp, Patrick Schuster, Jim Miller, Carson Blair, and Luke Montz.

Granted, that’s not the cream of the crop, and there are at least twice as many who never made the bigs in those years. But the point is that these depth guys are at least worth being vaguely aware of, because one of them might actually show up in the lineup one day, for better or for worse.

Oakland has signed nine of these free agents this winter**. I was going to do one big post rounding up all of them, buuut it’s mid-December and this week I wrote posts about Sonny not getting traded and the Brewers signing our old memories. It’s what you might call a slow news day week month, so I’m stretching this out into four posts that will each focus on one particular player. First up is Jaff Decker, signed by the A’s on Nov. 22 with an invite to spring training.

* Note: This is separate from waiver pickups like Dan Otero, or cash acquisitions like Stephen Vogt or Jesse Chavez, or actual young minor league signings like Zach Neal. In this post I’m talking about veteran minor league free agents with a non-roster invite to spring training.

** Click here to read about the minor league free agents whom the A’s already had last year and re-signed this winter, like McBride, et al.

Jaff Decker, OF

Let’s start with the important thing that you’re definitely wondering about right now. Via Wikipedia:

Decker's first name is pronounced 'Jeff'. He was named in honor of his uncle, who died in military service. Decker's grandfather intended to name his son 'Jeff', but the hospital nurse recorded it as 'Jaff', and the spelling was passed on to his nephew.

Next, some quick facts: Decker is a pure lefty, he’s short but not small (5’9, 190), and he’s a former 1st-round pick out of high school (No. 42 overall, Padres, 2008). He’ll play next season at age 27.

Defense

He’s spent the majority of his time in LF, but he’s also gotten a lot of run in CF (including most of 2016). All the reports I found on his defense are at least a few years old, but here is one from 2011 to set a baseline, by Adam Foster of Project Prospect (coincidentally, Adam is a friend of mine from college!):

Anyone who labels Decker as a well-below-average defensive corner outfielder is lazily looking at his build and pretending that they saw him play. He's surprisingly fast with a very strong arm and solid instincts in the outfield -- he's a bit of a pest on the base paths, too. It's unlikely that he's more than an average defensive corner outfielder over the life of his career, but he's far from a liability out there.

After more or less losing his 2012 season to plantar fasciitis (via FanGraphs), he earned this report from John Sickels in November 2013:

His defense is better than it used to be and he has a decent arm.

These are vague descriptions, but you start to get a picture. He stole 18 bases last year in Triple-A while someone paid him money to play CF, so he must have at least some level of speed and athleticism. If his arm is fine too, and with no specific word about Custian hands or Burnsian poor route-running, then you’re probably talking about a non-liability on the corners at worst. It’s not a stretch to wonder if he could at least be a backup option in center, along the lines of Jake Smolinski.

Offense

His offensive profile is easier to illustrate. His patience leads to high walk totals without a particular excess in strikeouts, and his moderate power and speed help make up for a low batting average. John Sickels mentioned Matt Stairs as a comp, at least in terms of style and appearance. I wonder about Rich Becker as a stats-based comp, perhaps with a slightly lower average.

Decker has succeeded with the bat throughout the minors, but he hasn’t figured out big league pitching yet. His career can be separated into three distinct eras:

  1. From 2008-11, he was comfortably above-average from Rookie Ball all the way up through Double-A — which he reached when he was only 21. During this time he was a Top 100 prospect.
  2. In 2012, his serious foot injury helped limit him to only 47 games in Double-A. Even though he didn’t hit a lick (.184), he still managed to hold his own (96 wRC+) thanks to an absurd walk rate (21.1%). This was by far the worst season of his MiLB career, culminating in surgery.
  3. From 2013-16, he got brief cups of coffee in MLB each year (from the Padres, Pirates, and Rays) but didn’t take advantage. He hit a homer in 2013 (off Jhoulys Chacin) and racked up some walks in 2015, but generally he’s only been called on as a spare bench guy for a handful of games at a time. Meanwhile, he’s stayed warm in Triple-A that whole time, with above-average lines every year and an overall 119 wRC+ in 1,506 PAs.

Decker, 2013-16 AAA: .266/.368/.409, 119 wRC+, 13.3% BB, 18.9% Ks

There are positives to be found in that batting line, and now he should be entering his prime years. He only managed 31 HR over those four years in Triple-A, but on the bright side 12 of them came last year, his highest total since 2011. His steals also came at a poor rate (47-of-69, only 68%), but they were at their worst right after his foot surgery and have improved dramatically since — over just the last two years he’s 36-of-46, an acceptable 78% success rate.

His L/R splits aren’t severe but they are noticeable. He’s not necessarily an outright platoon guy, but given that he’s on the fringe to begin with, his path to MLB would likely be in a platoon role where the at-bats he does get can be maximized via the most favorable matchups.

Verdict

At the end of last season, when the community began running through high-profile CF trade candidates, Taj Adib did a FanPost on four under-the-radar options. One of the names on his list was Decker, so, at the moment I suppose Taj is winning the proverbial office pool. And the A’s didn’t even have to trade anything to get Jaff, since he subsequently became available as a free agent!

I don’t have any complaints with Decker as a depth guy:

  • He can do some things on both sides of the ball
  • He can do those things as a lefty hitter, and possibly in CF on defense
  • He’s clearly got Triple-A figured out after overcoming previous injuries
  • He’s only just entering his prime years
  • There’s some latent prospect pedigree and minor breakout potential
  • ... and he’s got some fun weirdness, as a person named Jaff and an athlete shaped like Matt Stairs

On a purely conceptual level, as a quiet jack-of-all-trades outfielder with an odd first name, he reminds me of Jaycob Brugman in many ways.

The worst-case scenario is that Decker flames out of Nashville, which would be mostly irrelevant to the A’s big picture. The best-case scenario is probably that he breaks out, reaches Oakland, and settles in as a surprisingly competent heavy-side platoon CF (with Smolinski or Eibner or whoever). The likely outcome, in between those two extremes, is that he shows up in Oakland for a couple stints and a few dozen PAs but doesn’t move the needle much one way or other.

Decker overlaps with Brugman to some extent, in the role of versatile lefty fourth/platoon outfielder. Brugman is already on the 40-man roster, which probably puts him ahead in line at the moment, but plenty can change before Opening Day. Like Bruggy, Decker isn’t the answer to this year’s big outfield questions, but he is an adequate emergency option to slot in behind whatever bigger names the A’s do (hopefully) get.

Bonus: Kenny Wilson, OF

We have nine players to fit into this four-part series, so everyone will have to share their space. The group contains only one other outfielder, so here he is.

Wilson played in Oakland’s organization back in 2014, with Double-A Midland and The Former Triple-A Affiliate That Shan’t Be Named. Last season, at age 26, the right-hander played in Miami’s system, hitting great in Double-A and terribly in Triple-A. But he plays CF! Welcome aboard.

He hasn’t yet played in MLB, and his career Triple-A line is as follows (in 497 PAs):

Wilson, AAA career: .212/.307/.270, 1 HR, 10.3% BB, 20.9% Ks, 33-for-45 SB

At this point, I don’t expect Wilson to contribute to the big league club. Will he even make Nashville, or go to Double-A Midland? This is the deepest of the depth pieces.