A look at the Oakland Athletics outfield and first base lineup reads just fine, at first glance. Billy Burns and Josh Reddick are your everyday center and left fielders, respectively. Against lefties, Coco Crisp takes the duties in left field with Mark Canha at first base. Against righties, Mark Canha goes to left field while Yonder Alonso plays first base. Sam Fuld is your fourth outfielder and can play some good defense. As long as their front line starters all get 600 plate appearances, it's a reasonable if unexciting setup.
The problem is that the A's should not be expecting 600 plate appearances from most of their projected front line starters. Coco Crisp will still be dealing with the chronic neck issue that held him to 139 plate appearances in 2015, most of them ineffective. Yonder Alonso's 402 plate appearances in 2015 were his most since 2012 thanks to hand, wrist, forearm, shoulder, and back injuries in the last few seasons. Josh Reddick had a relatively healthy 2015, playing in 149 games, but injuries in 2013 and 2014 have caused him to miss a month or more each of those seasons.
The solution, with less than two weeks before the start of spring training, is that the A's should try to sign the top outfielder that won't cost them their competitive balance round draft pick. The A's should try to sign Austin Jackson to a one-year contract and play him all over the outfield with a plan to give all of their starting outfielders some extra rest.
As things stand
In 2016, let's say health matters limit outfielder Coco Crisp to 300 plate appearances, first baseman Yonder Alonso to 400 plate appearances, and right fielder Josh Reddick to 500 plate appearances. Let's also assume that even healthy players need rest, so no player can take more than 600 plate appearances. Each position needs 700 plate appearances, 200 against left-handed pitching and 500 against right-handers. Mark Canha helpfully plays left field and first base, but he can only play one at a time. Assuming you accept that Canha's reverse split was a fluke of illness and timing, Alonso also should never face left-handed pitching.
If the A's don't make any cuts to the incumbent roster of position players, the allocation of first base and outfield plate appearances should look something like this:
|1B-OF plate appearances, 2016 estimate|
|Pos.||Player||vs. LHP||vs. RHP||TOTAL|
|4th OF||Sam Fuld||100||50||100||150||400|
You see Sam Fuld there slated for 400 plate appearances before we consider who might be called up in the event one of our imagined health-limited players goes on the disabled list. While it is a bit of a mystery why Fuld's batting line fell to .197/.276/.293 (60 wRC+) in 2015 and could bounce back some, he was still a below average hitter even at his best. It's his glove that makes him Super Sam, but one might stop to wonder if there's a better option available.
Fuld's odd reverse split against lefties (with only 400 plate appearances against lefties in his career) disappeared in 2015, as if that year's batting line could get worse. I would be horrified if Fuld faced any lefties next year, but the potential limitations injuries may have between Crisp, Alonso, and Reddick seem to mandate such a result unless Jake Smolinski, Tyler Ladendorf, or Rangel Ravelo were called up to play in the outfield or let Canha do so.
Crisp has historically hit right-handed pitching better as well, but the alternative to letting him man left field against left-handed pitching is either to let Yonder Alonso play first (but will he stay healthy?), Sam Fuld hit against lefties, or move Billy Butler to first base (but then who is the DH?).
Some combination of Jake Smolinski, Andrew Lambo, and Tyler Ladendorf will be called up as Crisp, Alonso, and Reddick make trips to the disabled list. Prospects Rangel Ravelo or Matt Olson could also see playing time.
One solution might be to just release Fuld entirely and roll with Tyler Ladendorf as the fourth outfielder, but that leaves the A's without any acceptable minor league option to serve as a fourth outfielder who can handle center field if Ladendorf suffers a major injury, as he did last year when he lost four months to ankle surgery.
With Austin Jackson
Instead of resigning ourselves to another "If only it wasn't for the injuries" season, let's add Austin Jackson, use him in a manner that will get him to 600 plate appearances, and release Sam Fuld. What I envision is that the normal rotation of Canha, Burns, and Reddick will get regular rest days while allowing Jackson to jump into whatever spot opens due to an injury:
|1B-DH-OF plate appearances, 2016 estimate|
|Pos.||Player||vs. LHP||vs. RHP||TOTAL|
Canha and Burns basically get one game out of every seven off, with that day off scheduled against a right-handed starter. Reddick gets one game out of every seven off, preferably against a left-handed starter. Austin Jackson tries to always start against left-handed pitching, and takes one game out of seven off against a righty whenever Canha, Burns, Reddick, and Alonso are all playing. To wit:
|vs. LHP||vs. RHP|
|Canha day off||Alonso||Jackson||Burns||Reddick||Butler||Alonso||Jackson||Burns||Reddick||Butler|
|Burns day off||Canha||Crisp||Jackson||Reddick||Butler||Alonso||Canha||Jackson||Reddick||Butler|
|Reddick day off||Canha||Crisp||Burns||Jackson||Butler||Alonso||Canha||Burns||Jackson||Butler|
|Butler day off||Canha||Jackson||Burns||Reddick||Crisp||Alonso||Canha||Burns||Reddick||Crisp|
In bold are Jackson's positions in his regular rotation spelling one of those three. Jackson would be playing about five games out of every seven, with Canha, Burns, and Reddick playing six out of seven, and that's before we consider injuries as the season goes on. Jackson gains more time whenever Reddick or Alonso take another trip to the disabled list.
The biggest part of signing Austin Jackson is that the club is no longer holding its breath every day to see if Coco Crisp slept on his neck the wrong way, only to be forced into starting Sam Fuld and having limited bench options in the late innings. Now Crisp can be the nice bench option to have, but it's not a huge problem if he's unavailable but not on the disabled list.
This setup makes the most sense for the depth outfielders the A's already have in Triple-A. Rather than expect Coco Crisp to boost himself up to a full load of plate appearances in the event a front-line starter is injured, Jake Smolinski, Andrew Lambo, Tyler Ladendorf, or even Matt Olson will be jumping into the role vacated by whoever goes on the disabled list.
How good is Austin Jackson, anyway?
Jackson's 2015 put him anywhere between 1.5-2.3 WAR(P) depending on who you ask. He's four years removed from a consensus 5+ WAR campaign in 2012, when he batted .300 for the Tigers. If you like advanced fielding metrics, his year-by-year numbers like to dance around 0 the last four seasons in center field, and an average center fielder is a pretty good outfielder.
Projection systems tab Jackson for around 1.5-2.0 WAR if he gets 600 plate appearances, and tend to rate him as a slightly below average center fielder as he enters the 2016 season.
How much would Austin Jackson cost?
Rumors on Austin Jackson remain scarce. On January 21, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN said the Brewers, Angels, and Rangers have expressed interest in the outfielder (h/t MLB Trade Rumors). When outfielders of this caliber don't land with a team this late, they're typically looking at a one-year deal. Colby Rasmus signed for $8 million in his pillow contract with the Astros on January 20 last year. Nelson Cruz took $8 million on February 24, 2014, but was hampered by a qualifying offer as well as his PEDs suspension in the Biogenesis scandal.
MLB Trade Rumors' Tim Dierkes predicted as free agency got underway that Jackson could be looking at a one-year, $12 million deal while the FanGraphs crowd suggested a three-year, $30 million deal at the median.
I have to think that with those three teams, including two division rivals, inquiring on Jackson, the bidding should go higher than the $8 million Rasmus received entering 2015. A $10 million deal with some plate appearance incentives could do the trick.
Can the A's afford it? Perhaps, if you go by what general manager David Forst told us at Fanfest:
Well, as always with the free agent market, we sort of just stay in touch - we're never the aggressors. ... I can't say there's anybody out there right now that...we're sort of really in on. ... I can't think of anyone specifically off the top of my head right now that I think might fall to us, but we do have the flexibility, both payroll and roster-wise, to sort of be opportunistic if it's there.
What I read from this is that, perhaps, the A's front office has some number in mind that would make them leap at the chance to sign Austin Jackson, but it's either far lower than where the three teams are taking the market for him or it's lower than what Jackson is demanding. If the Angels, Rangers, and Brewers keep looking at each other while Jackson drops his number down to, what, $9 million? $8 million? $7 million? Lower? The A's could swoop in then.
Don't forget that the A's would then end up releasing Sam Fuld, and he would receive 30 days termination pay for his release more than 15 days before Opening Day, or about $315,000, unless the terms of his arbitration settlement specified differently (unlikely).
Why would Austin Jackson sign in Oakland?
The A's have the advantage of being able to assure Jackson that he would be the frontrunner for 500 plate appearances in multiple outfield spots if his skill merits it, but they can't promise him a chance to play every day in center field. What do the Angels, Rangers, and Brewers have to offer?
- Angels: In 2015, Mike Trout started 155 games in center field while Gold Glove winner Kole Calhoun started 157 games in right field. Left field is begging for an upgrade and Austin Jackson could be it, but the Angels are within $5 million of the luxury tax threshold and don't want to reach the penalties this year. They'd want to move salary off the books to sign Jackson, and it's not clear if he would be better than the Craig Gentry/Daniel Nava platoon they want to try.
- Rangers: Shin-Soo Choo took the bulk of starts in right field last year, while Delino DeShields Jr. is penciled in to make the bulk of starts in center field. Left field might be open to upgrade on Justin Ruggiano as Josh Hamilton's platoon partner. Hamilton has had his own issues staying healthy the last couple of seasons, which could open up more chances for Jackson. It's hard to see where they'd be able to assure Jackson he'd have to chance to prove his abilities unless the Rangers execute a similar planned rest program as I've proposed above.
- Brewers: Milwaukee has the most to gain by signing Jackson, as they have Kirk Nieuwenhuis in the lead to start in center field there. The Brewers, however, are more in the discussion of teams that are tanking for the draft rather than competing for the postseason. I'm not sure what use they would have for Jackson for just one year, and it doesn't seem likely that Jackson will lock himself in for multiple years in Milwaukee.
That leaves the A's, a team that can lay out a plan to give Austin Jackson 500 plate appearances, with a general manager who says they have the flexibility to spend if the price was right, and a club that, if you squint, might have a shot at going to the postseason.
Lower your price, AJax. Your chance to bounce back is waiting for you in Oakland.