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Does Rajai Davis belong at the top of the Oakland A’s lineup?

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Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

After a slow couple months to start the offseason, the Oakland A’s news has picked up quickly in the new year. Most importantly, they signed a player, center fielder Rajai Davis. Let’s see how he fits into the A’s lineup.

First off, as things stand now, we can expect Rajai to be the regular starter in CF. He’s clearly the best defender, and a better bet overall than Jake Smolinski or Brett Eibner. The only other options who bat lefty (and thus would make sense in a platoon with the righty Rajai) are Jaycob Brugman and Jaff Decker — both far from likely to make the Opening Day roster.

But what about Rajai’s place in the batting order? The word from the insiders is that he will be “near the top” of the lineup, with Joe Stiglich of CSN calling him the “likely leadoff man.” Is that the best spot for him?

Let’s consider what you want from your leadoff man. You want him to get on base, first and foremost. It doesn’t really matter if he does that by drawing lots of walks or making lots of contact. It’s nice if he’s got some speed, too. He should also be someone who you wouldn’t mind if he led the team in plate appearances.

Let’s check the first part:

Rajai, career OBP: .314
Rajai, 2016 OBP: .306
Rajai, 2014-16 OBP: .311

Well that’s not a good start. Davis most definitely does not get on base a lot. Then again ...

Matt Joyce: .403 OBP in 2016
Ryon Healy: .337
Yonder Alonso: .316
Jed Lowrie: .314
Khris Davis: .307
Rajai: .306
Stephen Vogt: .305
Marcus Semien: .300
Jake Smolinski: .299
Joey Wendle: .324 in Triple-A
Chad Pinder: .310 in Triple-A

The A’s aren’t really packing much OBP from anywhere in their lineup. Even though Rajai doesn’t get on base a lot, he does get on about as much as most of Oakland’s hitters. The two notable exceptions are Joyce and Healy, but there’s still plenty of room for them in the Nos. 2-4 spots. By this measure, Rajai’s as good of a choice to be the table-setter as anyone else, especially if you remove the obvious middle-of-the-order guys from consideration (like Healy, Davis, Vogt).

Next up is speed, and obviously Rajai passes that test. He led the AL in steals last year, and he’s got 365 for his career (79.7% success; over the last four years it’s 82%; last year it was 87.8%). Even entering his age-36 season, he’s still got some of the best wheels in the sport. We don’t even have to imagine it — we saw him affect games with his legs from the top of the order plenty of times when he was on the A’s before. Even better, this time he could have Joyce batting behind him, working long counts while he dances around on the bases (31% of the time, at least).

Finally, there’s the part about leading the team in plate appearances. His wRC+ was 85 last year, 97 over the last three years combined, and 90 for his career. That’s not what you want from your most frequent batter, but again, the other realistic options aren’t much better. Who else makes any sense?

  • Semien: Brings power and speed. However, OBP is even lower than Rajai, and Semien’s speed is merely good and not game-changing. In the past he’s seemed to struggle when hitting at the top of the order, which the team has suggested is a thing and not just a coincidence. Either way, I like him better around the 5th-7th spots, cleaning things up just after the heart of the order.
  • Wendle: High-contact sparkplug, with some speed and gap power. But hasn’t posted big OBP marks in the minors, so he probably won’t start doing so in the majors. He might wind up turning into a decent pesky leadoff man when all is said and done, but he doesn’t need to start there from Day 1. If he’s in the lineup out of spring, I’d consider batting him 9th (in that “second leadoff” spirit) and making him earn his way up toward the top.
  • Lowrie: Please no.
  • Joyce: He has the most on-base skill by far, but is he a leadoff man? I like him at No. 2, where his OBP can still be maximized in front of the power hitters, but where his own midlevel power is less likely to be wasted with no one on base.
  • Brugman and Decker: And what about the other CF options? Again, these guys are probably long shots to make the team in April, but if they do then either one could pair up with Rajai to take any leftover starts/at-bats. Even better, they’d both profile well as leadoff men in his absence. Click here for more on Decker.

Brugman led off for Triple-A Nashville last year and posted a .352 OBP, in line with his career .343 mark in the minors. Decker has a .389 career MiLB mark, with a .368 in a few years in Triple-A. Neither one is a burner, but both can swipe a handful of bags.

Honestly, when I started this article I expected to be opposed to Rajai leading off, mostly because of his low OBP. I didn’t want to turn to him just because he’s fast and convention says to bat the fast guy first. But after looking for a better solution, I’m not sure there is one, and actually his speed does serve as a nice tiebreaker between him and a couple other imperfect options. How about this setup, at least until another move is made:

CF: Rajai
DH: Joyce/Smolinski
3B: Healy
LF: Khrush
C: Vogt
SS: Semien
RF: Olson? Canha? Renato DH? New signing?
1B: Alonso
2B: Wendle/Lowrie/Pinder

There are plenty of variations. Phegley against lefties, and whoever are Alonso’s and Joyce’s platoon partners as well. Maybe instead of Olson in RF, it’s Joyce in RF and Renato Nunez at DH. I mentioned Canha because Joe Stiglich included him in his own recent musing. The point is, most of those questions come in around the 6-9 spots in the order. Those top few hitters are a bit more clear.

Surprisingly, I’m on board with Rajai and his .314 OBP in the leadoff spot. Now please go steal me some bases and make 2017 a bit more fun!