With the long, cold, dark, depressing offseason still just plugging along not doing anything, the glaring crisis the A’s have in center field remains to be the most pressing and discussed issue for the team. And with good reason, as there really isn’t a painless fix- the team would either have to give up multiple top-top prospects in a trade for an actual good center fielder, give up multiple good-to-great prospects in a trade for a flawed center fielder, overspend on flawed and aging but still decent (for now) free agents, or spread on multiple very flawed free agents and mix and match with underwhelming in-house options. And there are certainly good reasons for opting to go with any one of these particular paths, but none of them would leave fans feeling entirely wholesome and good about whatever happens. If you’re making an omelet, you have to break some eggs etc etc.
But what if there was a painless fix?
Make Franklin Barreto the danged center fielder.
Last year was bad for a lots of reasons, but the driving force behind many of them was the serious lack of MLB capable depth up and down across all positions in the minor leagues (especially pitching depth). It was a historically bad season, injury-wise, for the A’s and the minor league backups understandably weren’t up to the task of making up for that missing production. But the Dodgers (and all of their infinite wealth) had worse injury bugs than the A’s, but because they had absurd levels of quality depth waiting in the wings (because of their infinite wealth) the team didn’t miss a beat, and ran away with the NL West. Thanks to some smart trades and signings from the front office over the past year, the A’s finally have quality depth at every position except the outfield, and trading away that depth feels foolhardy considering the horrendous season that just happened. Keep all of the prospects, become hoarders of the talent. No trades.
It has been shown multiple times now that the A’s can be top bidders for a free agent and still wind up empty handed, so unless the team is dumpster diving for has-beens who really shouldn’t be on a big league roster, the A’s have to overspend to an even greater degree than the rest of baseball has to, to woo free agents. Since the A’s have a small (and likely to be shrinking) payroll, overspending obviously has a greater impact on the roster and how the front office can operate. To top it off, more often than not even the best free agents are long removed from their best years, probably declining, and wind up becoming problems in subsequent years when emerging prospects start to get blocked. While the A’s have money to spend this offseason, they swung and missed at the best free agents who could have really aided this team, and are much better off spending that money elsewhere on the roster than center field.
Since getting traded into the organization, Barreto has yet to play any outfield, exclusively playing at shortstop and second base. But he has played in the outfield as recently as 2015 when he was with the Blue Jays, starting (only) fifteen games there, with fourteen other games in both corner outfield spots, and in an interview during spring training of last year he went on record saying, “I grew up as a center fielder- when the Blue Jays signed me they moved me over to short. I like doing both, but wherever they want me to play, I’m going to do my best.” In that same interview he was referred to as “enthusiastic” to play center field while he played Winter Ball in Venezuela (meaningless? Quite possibly). Barreto is the team’s top prospect for a slew of reasons, first and foremost his bat is sure to play at any position, and his athleticism, work ethic, and baseball IQ, among his many other talents, are all positive signs that he could make the position switch relatively easily. Considering shortstop is the hardest position to play outside of pitcher and catcher and so few prospects actually wind up being good enough to stick to the position, I understand the allure of trying to see if Barreto is capable there for as long as possible, but the A’s don’t need a shortstop or a second baseman right now. They need a center fielder.
Most prospects don’t work out, but the A’s still have Marcus Semien at shortstop for the next couple of years (at least), and all of Lowrie, Wendle, Pinder, Martin, Munoz, and Schrock either ready now or ready next year to throw at second base and give it a go. The outfield has Brugman (who is fine but not “center fielder of the future” fine) and maybe Olson, and then lottery tickets who are years and years away. It has been posited that Barreto would push Semien off of shortstop to either an outfield or utility role, but Semien needed an infield guru and four months of tanking on offense to focus on defense to learn the position he still plays below-averagely now, I’m not entirely convinced moving Semien around to the outfield or any other multitude of positions will work out well for him, and should simply remain and focus on where he is comfortable now. Barreto filling a need in center field, where the team has no depth and no hope, right now is significantly more valuable to the A’s, as a franchise, than putting him at shortstop and reducing Semien’s contributions or putting him at second base where he’s blocking other (less exciting but still valuable) prospects and cromulent players. Plus, Barreto clearly went back and forth between outfield and infield in the minor leagues, at least a little bit, and him playing center field now doesn’t mean that he’ll never ever play middle infield again, and he could always shift back to the middle infield if the team’s needs require it. Trea Turner’s development isn’t being stunted by him moving off of shortstop to center field for the Nationals. Brad Miller and Dustin Ackley of Seattle were jerked around from the middle infield to the outfield and their development didn’t get screwed up because of it. Their development got screwed up because they played for the Mariners’ organization.
All signs are pointing towards Barreto being MLB ready by mid-season, so unless one would want him up right away to take his lumps and just skip AAA (which is highly unlikely), that means that the A’s need some sort of stopgap center fielder to keep Barreto’s spot warm for him. But considering the real prize is Barreto, who that stopgap is isn’t all that important.
Fixing center field could be painful and complicated. Or the A’s could just sign some random schmuck on the cheap or platoon with whomever they’ve got to prepare for an inevitable Barreto callup and allocate their limited resources elsewhere and preserve all the depth that they didn’t have last season.