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Oakland A's spring training 2017: 5th outfielder vs. 8th reliever

The A’s have a decision on their hands for the 25th spot on the Opening Day roster.

MLB: Spring Training-San Francisco Giants at Oakland Athletics
This is a metaphor of some kind.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The A’s are potentially holding onto an eighth reliever over a fifth outfielder according to John Hickey. Take a deep breath and a nice drink of the hardest alcohol within arm’s reach.

That seems kind of dumb, and we’ll unpack it more, but this is apparently the A’s final roster question. It appears that barring injury, 24 of the 25 roster spots are occupied, leaving the last spot to be fought for by some combination of Alejandro De Aza, Jaff Decker, Frankie Montas, Raul Alcantara, and Daniel Coulombe. Eighth reliever or fifth outfielder? That is the (very stupid) question.

The argument for a reliever

There is none.

Okay, I’ll try. Let’s start with the possible logistics.

According Hickey, there are six locks for the pen: Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Santiago Casilla, John Axford, Ryan Dull, and Liam Hendriks. Those are some solid names and John Axford. A fine start.

The seventh spot would likely go to Raul Alcantara, the long man. Hickey doesn’t explicitly mention Alcantara, but carrying eight relievers without a long man would be slightly more dumb than, well, carrying seven relievers without a long man. My feelings on this topic aren’t a secret.

The problem with that is the dearth of lefties in spite of the pen being completely full. All seven guys listed above deserve a spot, but there’s no LOOGY. Enter Daniel Coulombe. Coulombe has all the makings of a lefty find in the pen, but his spring has been less a bit of a disaster until his last few outings. Thanks to his rough start and his final remaining option, he’s on outside looking in for the final spot.

Complicating matters more is Frankie Montas. There’s a Spring Training tradition of baseball people being shocked at the stuff top prospects, like said baseball people don’t have internet access. This year’s version is Montas, known fireballer who has already tasted the bigs. While Coulombe has struggled, Montas has succeeded and while there’s little utility to spring stats, his success makes his already near arrival seem even closer.

I do get and love the idea of starting with Montas on the roster for a few reasons. For one, his injury prone ways makes me think getting him in the majors sooner than later is the right move. We saw how valuable a reliever can be last year, and Montas has the chance to be a truly special pitcher. With his ability to be a sort of long man, he could effectively end games after six innings, he could give the A’s a serious leg up in extra inning games, and getting him used to the majors now would make him more ready to lead a playoff run in 2018 and beyond.

Either Coulombe or Montas would make the A’s better. We saw how important bullpens were in the 2016 playoffs, an there’s little doubt both arms would help the A’s get key outs at critical times.

There’s a bit of a wrinkle if Alcantara wins the fifth rotation spot. That would open up a bullpen spot and allow for a fifth outfielder. Alcantara probably isn’t the best option to start but it’s a possibility. There’s still a chance you could fit both Coulombe and Montas on the roster from there, but the logjam is certainly less of an issue.

The argument for a fifth outfielder

The four outfielders in front of this hypothetical fifth are Khris Davis (can’t throw), Rajai Davis (can’t reallyyyyy field), Matt Joyce (definitely can’t field), and Mark Canha (we don’t really know if he can do anything at all).

Mark Canha is awesome, his swing is as sexy as his sideburns, and there’s legit reason to get excited about his bat. Defensively, he’s a question mark at best. He’s under-qualified to play first, left has been a struggle and he’s barely played the field in right where he’s scheduled to platoon. He’s also currently being floated as the backup centerfielder in spite of never really playing there and being just oh so unqualified.

From a purely numbers standpoint, an additional outfielder capable of playing all three spots is a no-brainer. As is, you’re basically bench-less if Joyce is to tweak a hammy or you want to give either Davis a full day off. They’re essentially one bad day away from Adam Rosales in center, the kind of plan that lands you in last place.

It’s hard to say which outfielder is the right choice - neither Jaff Decker nor Alejandro De Aza have hit much in the bigs lately, and both are hovering above average defensively in the outfield. Sadly, average defense will be like a cool drink of water after years of drinking pure gasoline. It would help the A’s out late in games, giving a solid pen a slightly better chance to turn balls in play into outs.

De Aza has an opt out in his clause, meaning if he isn’t to make the roster when the club breaks camp there’s a good chance he’s gone. That shouldn’t be a huge cause for concern (he was signed as minor league free agent, after all), but it does mean cutting De Aza means he’s gone for good. If you don’t find out what he can do from the get go, you might not have the chance at all.

The final argument in favor of a fifth outfielder rather than an eighth reliever is simple: c’mon. No team needs eight relievers in the regular season. This isn’t the playoffs and it’s not like the A’s have seven Andrew Miller clones milling around their clubhouse. No, the team is really thinking they need John expletive Axford over a guy who can catch a flyball. They might really weigh the potential addition of a seventh righty reliever as worth having Mark Canha play one of the most important positions on the diamond.

It’s not final

Should the A’s choose either Montas or Coulombe for that 25th spot, things could change awfully quickly thanks to the beauty of options. Both pitchers can be sent between the minors and the bigs at will. If the A’s start the year with eight relievers and find that, I don’t know, they want one decent fielding outfielder, they could send Montas down for a Brugman or a Decker.

It’s a little more complicated if they hold onto De Aza, a guy who can’t be so easily optioned. There’s a chance they could sneak him through waivers and stay with the club. While De Aza could be an asset, there are certainly less painful losses than a glove first free agent, and similar waiver wire pickups would be available. But is he worth losing for an eighth reliever? Is anything worth losing for eight freaking relievers?

I’m not so sure. At the very least, it seems like you should start with the fifth outfielder and if you find yourself in desperate need of an eighth arm, make the move then. No team should need an eighth reliever from the get go, as other pitchers will be rested for at least the early stretch of the year.