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Which Oakland A’s should be in the lineup for the rest of 2016?

Answer: Not necessarily the ones who are in it right now.

Given the current roster, Smolinski, Khrush, and Eibner should be in the outfield every single day, no exceptions.
Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

It’s mid-August and the Oakland A’s are 52-69. The 2016 season is over, by any stretch of any imagination. Even when this team tries its hardest to win games, it will still probably lose them, which means that it’s the time of year to come up with a new set of priorities. Specifically, that means prioritizing the 2017 season over the present day. None of this should come as any kind of surprise to anyone.

How do you prioritize the next season? You shift your focus away from the older, “proven” players who got you to this 52-69 record in the first place, and toward younger, less-proven players who might be part of a good 2017 team. If all goes well, you’ll have at least used these meaningless games to gain information that can help you win meaningful games next year. Again, you probably know all of this, and even if you didn’t then you could have guessed it. The logic is as blatantly obvious as it is airtight.

And yet here was the A’s lineup on Wednesday:

Starters Bench
LF Coco Crisp
RF Danny Valencia
C Stephen Vogt
DH Khris Davis
1B Yonder Alonso
SS Marcus Semien
3B Ryon Healy
CF Jake Smolinski
2B Max Muncy
C Bruce Maxwell
IF Chad Pinder
OF Brett Eibner
1B Billy Butler

Let’s take a look through this lineup arrangement.

The Good

There are positives here. Marcus Semien and Khris Davis are arguably the two best position players on the team now, both legitimate sluggers in their mid-20s. They can definitely be on the next good A’s team. Even in a lost season, you keep playing your star 25-year-old shortstop and the guy who is on pace to crack 40 homers.

Stephen Vogt needs to play at least some of the time. He’s an All-Star and a productive player. The A’s just traded Josh Reddick and are now in a public spat with Coco over his vesting option. Don’t go for the hat trick by benching your only All-Star, who is also the biggest remaining fan favorite. He’s not blocking anyone anyway, but we’ll talk more about that in a moment.

Ryon Healy is here, playing every day, at the most challenging position he is capable of playing. This is the epitome of what the A’s should be going for at as many positions as possible: a legitimate prospect getting regular playing time to find out what he’s capable of contributing.

Jake Smolinski in CF isn’t perfect, but he is probably the best option on the current roster. He’s also just promising enough to be worth at-bats to see if he can continue being a solid fourth outfielder.

The Bad

Last night in the comments of the game recap, Nico made a great point that can be summed up as: The A’s sure do seem to play a lot of guys out of position. In fact, they routinely have up to five players at spots they don’t really belong. His list (I changed the order):

Valencia: 1B playing RF
Muncy: 1B playing 2B
Coco: DH playing LF
Smolinski: LF/RF playing CF
Healy: 1B playing 3B

I will respectfully disagree regarding Healy, who might be stretched but who I don’t think is truly out of position at 3B. (I may yet be wrong about that; we’ll have to see how he continues to perform.) Nico also noted earlier in the thread that Smolinski is the best possible option in CF right now and so he may as well play there, and on that we agree. But none of that changes the fact that he’s technically playing out of position.

But if you’ve already got two guys out of position for good reason, then for goodness sake don’t double down on that just for fun. And that’s almost what it seems like they’re doing at this point — trying guys out at random spots just to see what happens. The problem is, they’re doing it with the wrong guys.

I genuinely like Max Muncy. I might be one of his biggest fans on this site. And I was totally fine with seeing him at 2B when the alternative was a struggling Jed Lowrie. But now Lowrie is out and there is room to look at actual long-term options. Muncy is an intriguing utility player trying desperately to gain versatility. Now is the time to try out legitimate 2017 starters.

What to do with Danny Valencia? He utterly failed at 3B and should never be allowed to play there again. His arm is his biggest strength, so RF might make some sense if there were no other options (there are; more on that later). But is this guy really part of the future plans? The guy whose trade value was so nonexistent despite great hitting stats that he got benched halfway through July, because the odds were so low of anyone actually wanting him that it wasn’t even worth maintaining the charade of everyday defensive competency? If there’s room at DH or 1B, then I’m all for keeping his bat in the lineup. Otherwise, what are we doing here?

Coco should not be playing in the field. Here is a list of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball, by measure of being among the bottom-10 in both DRS and UZR, in order from the worst to the least awful:

Jay Bruce
Coco Crisp
Matt Kemp
Adam Jones
Yoenis Cespedes
Denard Span
Andrew McCutchen
Yasmany Tomas

Jones, Cespedes, Span, and Cutch all play primarily CF, so we should probably give them a break — they might play better on a corner. But Bruce, Coco, and Kemp need to get the heck off the field because they are killing their teams out there. (Tomas hasn’t been that bad.) Oh, and Coco racked up all this negative value in 200 fewer innings than most of those other guys. He’s 36 and it is clearly visible that his fielding ability is nearly entirely gone.

Meanwhile, even with all his big hits lately he’s still a tick below average at the plate overall (98 OPS+, 94 wRC+). And that’s all before you get to the unfortunate topic of his vesting option -- I would be totally fine benching him for business reasons, but that’s not even the issue here. He isn’t good enough to play every day, plain and simple. That is a statistical fact, no matter how much you and I love him (and I know we both do). There are like eight reasons not to play Coco every day in LF, and yet it keeps happening.

Finally, Yonder Alonso. I like his defense, and I love his positive attitude. There might even be space for him on the 2017 team -- his defense is worthwhile in an infield full of shaky throwing arms (Pinder, Semien, Healy), and he’s a bounce-back candidate at the plate after getting off to a dreadful start in April and May. But this hasn’t been his year, and he’s been a sub-replacement player overall.

Putting him in the lineup isn’t leading to wins, and it won’t suddenly give him offseason trade value if he doesn’t already have any (note: he doesn’t). His production is not irreplaceable like Semien or Khrush, and there’s nothing more to learn about him over the next two months. He’s either punched his ticket for the 2017 team already or he hasn’t, and if not then he seems more likely to be non-tendered than traded. Therefore, I believe the rest of this year is better spent on other 1B projects. ... like Valencia, as we just mentioned above, or another one coming in the next section.

The Ugly

And here’s the real rub: the bench. Here are the four guys who sat out of yesterday’s game.

Chad Pinder: The A’s brought up one of their top prospects on Wednesday, and made it clear that he’s here because he’s got a spot for the rest of the season (as opposed to something temporary like a brief injury replacement). Then he sat on the bench while Muncy played 2B, went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, and made a critical defensive miscue at a position he shouldn’t be playing that helped lead to multiple runs.

I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt for this one game. It’s possible the A’s didn’t want Pinder to debut against Yu Darvish and then sit around on a Thursday off-day dwelling on that trauma. Now he can debut on Friday in Chicago’s launching pad park against the husk of James Shields, followed by two lefties (albeit Sale and Quintana, but hey, welcome to the bigs), and play six days in a row to get into a rhythm. If he’s in the lineup for each of the next six games, then I’ll write this one off as simply waiting for the opportune moment.

Brett Eibner: Remember how I didn’t like Valencia in RF? And I said it might be worth a try if there were no other options? Well, this is the other option right here. They gave up a not-useless player in Billy Burns to get Eibner, and he’s already 27 years old so it’s do-or-die time. Why acquire this guy when they did if they weren’t going to give him a chance? He’s only 2-for-16 for the A’s so far, but both of those hits are homers. With Smolinski covering CF anyway, let’s see what Eibner can do in a corner (or switch them if you prefer, with Eibner in CF, which is where he primarily played in the minors). Maybe he’s only a platoon guy when all is said and done, but let’s find out now.

Bruce Maxwell: I don’t actually have that much of a gripe here. Maxwell is playing about every third game on average, which is fine for a backup catcher. I already talked about how Vogt belongs in the lineup, and I’ve already promised 1B and DH to multiple other guys so I can’t fairly add Vogt to that list too (maybe in 2017?). I also believe there is a lot for Maxwell to learn just by being there in Oakland, in the dugout, in the clubhouse, getting to know the pitchers he’ll be working with and catching their bullpen sessions or whatever it is catchers do. But if they moved closer to a 50/50 arrangement to give Vogt a breather at the end of a meaningless season, then I wouldn’t complain about that.

Billy Butler: Things are about to get weird. I’m about to argue that Butler should play more. Here we go. He’s the team’s hottest hitter in the second half, and only Khris Davis is particularly close. Here are the top four:

Butler: 158 wRC+
Davis: 142
Healy: 103
Coco: 101

If Butler can keep hitting well and finish the season with a wRC+ above 110 (currently 106), I believe there’s an outside chance that he can build up enough intrigue to draw a trade suitor this winter. If that happens then the A’s could free up $5-10 million and a clogged roster spot, and I believe that’s a goal worth aiming for (and one that can’t be replicated by giving playing time to Alonso, Valencia, Coco, etc.). Butler won’t be on the next good A’s team, but playing him could have a positive future result for the club.

Ideal lineup

So what should the lineup look like, then? Again, I’m only using the 13 guys on the current roster. Until someone else comes up, this is the most ideal way to do things, if your goal is being interesting and gaining information rather than producing boring, losing baseball.

vs. RHP

C: Vogt/Maxwell
1B: Billy Butler
2B: Chad Pinder
SS: Marcus Semien
3B: Ryon Healy
LF: Khris Davis
CF: Jake Smolinski
RF: Brett Eibner
DH: Coco Crisp

RH pinch-hitter: Danny Valencia
Super sub: Max Muncy
Late-inning 1B defensive replacement: Yonder Alonso

Don’t really care how the catching platoon shakes out, but just shoot for around 50/50 playing time. Coco still plays the long side of the DH platoon, but now his toxic glove is out of the field and he presumably won’t get in enough games to vest his option (toss a few of his starts to Alonso if you want, with Butler at DH). I don’t care how many errors Butler makes, I care about how high he can pump up his offensive profile. Smolinski and Eibner are the kinds of guys worth everyday looks at a time like this, even though they’re probably platoon guys.

vs. LHP

C: Vogt/Maxwell
1B: Danny Valencia
2B: Chad Pinder
SS: Marcus Semien
3B: Ryon Healy
LF: Khris Davis
CF: Jake Smolinski
RF: Brett Eibner
DH: Billy Butler

LH pinch hitter: Coco (only if absolutely necessary)
Super sub: Max Muncy
Late-inning 1B defensive replacement: Yonder Alonso

Valencia makes sense in a lineup against lefties, and he can try his hand at 1B semi-regularly. That shifts Butler back to DH. With those two plus Smolinski and Eibner, this is actually kind of a powerful platoon lineup.

And all along, in both versions, we get everyday looks at Pinder and Healy, while also enjoying our biggest stars Semien and Khrush.

Other top options in Triple-A (not necessarily endorsing any of them one way or other, but this is what I’d do with them if they came up):

  • If Arismendy Alcantara comes up (other than covering for Semien’s upcoming paternity), I would platoon him in CF with Smolinski just to get his bat in the lineup.
  • If Jaycob Brugman comes up, then he trumps Alcantara and platoons in CF with Smolinski; if Alcantara is here too then he takes Muncy’s spot as super sub.
  • If Matt Olson comes up, he can platoon in RF with Eibner.
  • If Joey Wendle comes up, he can share time with Pinder at 2B (maybe Pinder steals a couple starts from Healy at 3B in a three-way, two-position platoon).
  • If Renato Nunez comes up, then he can take Valencia’s spot outright (plus maybe a few 1B/DH games vs. RHP, from Butler/Coco).

What do you think of all this? Which guys should be playing, and which of the remaining top prospects should come up ASAP? (Let’s be realistic, Matt Chapman isn’t coming up this year nor should he.) To the comments!