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Re-evaluating Coco Crisp's role on the 2016 Oakland A's

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Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the 2016 season, it was tough to know what to expect out of Coco Crisp. His injury history was extensive and chronic, and at age 36 a full resurgence to his prime form was completely out of the question. Last year he was limited to 44 games, and when he did play he looked like a shell of his former self. Many fans expressed a desire to move on completely, offering a thanks for the memories but not seeing any happy endings on the horizon. I've learned my lesson about giving up on Coco in the past, but even still a fourth outfielder role seemed like the best possible outcome this time around.

As usual, baseball is not going the way we all expected. Coco hasn't set the world on fire by any means, but he's done enough to start six of the Oakland A's first 10 games (make that 7-of-11, as he's leading off again on Friday). Most importantly, he's shown two skills that were in question after last year: power at the plate, and aggressiveness on the bases.

The most worrisome thing to me about Coco's poor 2015 was that there didn't seem to be much force behind the contact he made. He only managed six extra-base hits in 139 plate appearances, all doubles, and his rate of hard-hit balls plummeted -- from a career rate of 24.7% down to 15.8%, which was among the dozen weakest marks for all hitters with at least 100 PAs. The only qualified MLB hitter with a lower hard-hit rate was Burns himself, a guy whose game plan has little to do with hitting the ball with authority. Coco's power had been reduced to that of a slap hitter, just a couple years after blasting 22 homers.

But then this happened:

That homer wasn't a cheapie, either. It went several rows deep, at Safeco Field no less, with a true distance of 386 feet. My point isn't to overreact to one single at-bat. It's that I didn't even know if Coco could physically do that anymore, even once. In that at-bat, he showed that there is more left in the tank than what we saw in 2015. He ripped another rocket against the Angels in the Coliseum, and though this one didn't make it out of the park, it was still an impressive drive in Oakland's heavy air.

So, Coco can still hit. There are still signs of decline, to be sure -- in particular, he's swinging and missing more than he used to -- but we're just talking about normal decline rather than falling completely off a cliff. In the tiny sample we've seen so far, that hard-hit rate is right back where it used to be at 22.7% (in his A's career from 2010-14, he ranged from 23.3% to 32.1%).

He can still run, too. After stealing just three bases in the entire second half of 2014, and only two in his 44 games last year, Coco has already swiped three bags in 2016 without getting caught. He also looked as quick as ever running out his triple against the Angels.

Add it all up, and Coco has a lot more to offer than most of us assumed this spring. He can still turn on his game-changing wheels, and he has enough pop in his bat to be effective. His defense isn't what it once was, but he's still passable in CF and at least average in LF. His arm is a negative, but it's not a noticeable downgrade from the noodles of Burns or Khris Davis.

Fitting him into the lineup

What does all of this mean for the A's lineup? Manager Bob Melvin said this spring that an everyday role for Coco seemed unlikely, though we have seen him start three games in a row in the early going this season. But the team also wants to give regular rest to Billy Burns as well, so perhaps the current leadoff tandem will continue for the time being (with an occasional overlap that puts both of them in there on the same day). Indeed, Melvin is noncommittal about how things will play out the rest of the year, via Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle:

Burns is on the bench for a second day in a row and Melvin said it will be a day-to-day decision in center, and occasionally Burns might be in center and Crisp in left.

"This allows us to keep both of them fresh," Melvin said, noting that Burns was banged up with leg issues last year.

Regardless of which center fielder gets more starts, though, one greater point is that the backup CF job is no longer in question. One of the apparent holes in the Opening Day roster was the lack of a reliable backup for that premium position, given the possibility that Coco was only suited for LF moving forward, but the presence of a somewhat resurgent Coco means that we can stop worrying about seeing Chris Coghlan or Mark Canha shoehorned out there (for now at least).

Entering the year, it seemed like Coco would be a backup outfielder who got an occasional start in LF or as the DH. We're not even two weeks in, and what we've seen so far is a guy who can play half-time in CF and steal some at-bats from a healthy Billy Burns. It might not last, as Coco is always a threat to disappear onto the DL for months at a time, but for now he's looking like a legitimate contributor rather than a nostalgic deadweight on the payroll.

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What are your thoughts on the seemingly healthy Coco? How much playing time should he get, both overall and at the expense of Burns? Is that a mohawk we see sprouting on top of his head? Vote in the poll and debate in the comments!