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The return of Mark Canha, again

Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

For the third year in a row, Mark Canha is on the verge of breaking out for the Oakland A’s.

In 2015, he was acquired as an under-the-radar minor league slugger. However, the beginning of his rookie year was bogged down by a stomach illness, and he didn’t make it into the everyday lineup until August. Once there he did start hitting as advertised, though, and posted a 133 wRC+ over the final 46 games with regular playing time.

In 2016, coming off that successful stint the previous summer, he became a prime breakout candidate. But a slow start quickly turned into season-ending hip surgery, and that was that.

In 2017, after missing essentially an entire season, he made the Opening Day roster. But the rust showed, and he looked lost on both sides of the ball. After a couple weeks he was sent down to Triple-A to sort things out. And he did! After five homers in 19 games, he returned to Oakland.

In his first week back, with momentum behind him and a new batting stance on display, Canha is 7-for-15 with more extra-base hits (3) than strikeouts (2). That includes a clutch homer Tuesday night, which turned a razor-thin lead into a relatively comfortable victory.

Players usually look happy when they’re rounding the bases, especially in such a key moment in a close game. But everything about Canha’s body language, from the bat flip to the screaming and whooping, looks like a guy who has been waiting a looong time to get back to this point. That one must have felt extra good.

Now the big question: Is this just a brief hot streak, another tantalizing data point in a career that never quite pans out? Or is Canha finally staying healthy long enough to get in a real groove and become a productive big leaguer?

Only time will tell, but I’m here to offer the optimistic take. I see a player the A’s actively pursued via trade, and who was quite productive as a rookie when he finally did get a real chance. Then he lost a season to injury, spent the first month of this year shaking off the rust, and now he’s back and still in his prime at age 28.

You might reasonably see a darker interpretation of Canha’s journey — he can’t stay healthy, or he’s only hit well in the bigs for two months, or he’ll never find a defensive home. We will agree to disagree for now.

At this point, I have to admit my extreme bias on this topic. I really like Mark Canha. He grew up in the Bay Area, and went to Cal. He’s got the classic A’s origin story, as an overlooked minor leaguer stolen away to the Island of Misfit Toys. He’s got personality to spare, brings a fun side interest as a foodie on Instagram, and wears enormous sideburns that don’t care what the hell you think. We even have the same birthday. I want all A’s players to succeed, but I root for him even harder than most.

But on top of those emotional reasons for fandom, I also see a worthwhile player. His power is real, and he can get on base enough that he’s not an all-or-nothing hacker. His defense is still a work in progress, but the A’s are confident enough that they gave him a start in CF on Tuesday after teasing that idea during the spring.

The key, though, is that Oakland will have to let him play to find out. Only once have we ever seen Canha play everyday for an extended period of time, back in 2015, and he hit like a boss. Now that he’s here again, and finally healthy, and on a four-game hitting streak, I’d like to see him get everyday at-bats for a stretch and find out what happens. Not a platoon role, but a true regular opportunity for at least a few weeks.

To their credit, the A’s seem to have the same idea for now — he’s in the lineup against a right-handed starter for the second straight game. I don’t know where Canha will fit long-term if he continues to hit enough to force that conversation, but if putting him in CF during a rebuilding season is what it takes to get him in the lineup for now then I’m all for it. This is the time to try stuff out and see what works, and the status quo wasn’t winning anyway.

I don’t know for sure that Mark Canha will pan out as a productive player, but I do know that I’ve been waiting three seasons to find out. Now he’s back, again, and hopefully this time we’ll get some answers.