The Oakland A’s filled their 2017 roster with relatively inexpensive veteran players, which is what you’d expect to begin a rebuilding season. Someone needs to hold down the fort until the next wave of prospects arrives from the minors, and in the meantime you never know what hidden gems you might unearth.
With their record at 17-23, though, it’s safe to say there isn’t more to this team than meets the eye. Their defense is atrocious, the lineup is one-dimensional, and the pitching staff isn’t going to carry them to glory on its own. We’re only through the first quarter of the season, but it’s already time to start accepting that the best use of the remaining games is to prepare for 2018. That means letting the kids play.
I’m not here to suggest any outrageous, wholesale changes, or even any MLB debuts. I know the A’s aren’t going to start DFA’ing veterans in May just to make space for Jaycob Brugman, and I’m not trying to rush Franklin Barreto. But here are three small, realistic tweaks they can make to their depth chart that will get the process started while maybe, just maybe, even making the team better right away.
When Marcus Semien got hurt and landed on the 60-day disabled list, the A’s had an opportunity to dip into their overflowing well of middle infield prospects. They brought up 25-year-old Chad Pinder, but they stuck him on the bench and gave utilityman Adam Rosales the everyday job at shortstop.
In the meantime, Pinder has impressed when he’s been able to scrape together some playing time. He has hit safely in eight of the 10 games he’s started, and overall he’s 10-for-35 with an impressive batting line.
Pinder, 2017: .286/.359/.543, 150 wRC+, 2 HR, 10.3% BB, 25.6% Ks
Those numbers only represent a few dozen plate appearances, and I’m certainly not suggesting he’ll sustain them at that level long-term. But he’s a bat-first player with a league MVP award under his belt from his days in Double-A, and if he’s showing signs of life at the plate during a rebuilding season while the presumed starter at one of his positions is out with injury then it’s pretty easy to connect the dots on the proper course of action.
What makes this move even easier is that it’s Rosales being displaced. Many of Oakland’s current veterans likely signed here expecting to be everyday starters, but not Rosie. He was always supposed to be on the bench behind the likes of Semien and Jed Lowrie, so sending him back there shouldn’t hurt any feelings.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Rosie is playing admirably in his emergency role. His defense has been solid, and he’s had a few big hits, including a walk-off. But he’s still not grading out as a plus on either side of the ball, and while Pinder is probably a slight downgrade with the glove he’s got the chance to add actual value with his bat (Rosie: 92 wRC+). And let’s face it — the A’s aren’t winning with Rosie & The Vets anyway, so why not try something new?
If you insist on keeping a steady defensive hand at SS, then how about 3B? Trevor Plouffe isn’t really moving the needle, with his 95 wRC+ and merely competent defense. He’s providing an occasional homer and not much else. Why not give Pinder a try there while we wait for Matt Chapman to arrive? Or how about the corner outfield, where he’s already gotten a couple looks in Oakland?
For the last two games, Rajai Davis has come off the bench so that the A’s can try out Mark Canha in CF. It’s a goofy move but I can support it, because I want to see what Canha can do once and for all so let’s shoehorn him in wherever possible. But given that precedent, and especially the way Canha in CF already throws any remaining hope of defensive proficiency to the wind, I can’t fathom why Oakland wouldn’t also move Rosie or Plouffe aside to make room for Pinder.
Realistic move: Chad Pinder everyday SS, Adam Rosales to bench
Quick, which A’s pitcher do you want on the mound in a save situation tomorrow night? Let’s go through the list.
Ryan Madson has blown leads in his last two outings. Ryan Dull has a 6.75 ERA and a BB/9 nearly as high. Sean Doolittle and John Axford are on the DL. Santiago Casilla is literally Santiago Casilla. Even Liam Hendriks has allowed runs his last two times out.
The bullpen is already a mess. It’s not a hopeless lost cause, but it’s officially time to try something new to jumpstart the engine. And whaddya know, Oakland already has its top late-inning relief prospect on the 25-man roster!
To be clear, I’m not advocating Bobby Wahl in the 9th inning. But let’s get this kid in some hold situations, protecting a close lead in the 7th or 8th, and see what he’s got as a setup man. After watching a stretch of 4-of-5 games in which three different relievers blew late leads, there is quite literally nothing left to lose by trying out the rookie.
Wahl, MLB: 5 games, 3.86 ERA, 4⅔ ip, 7 Ks, 3 BB, 0 HR, 3 hits
He’s got the power stuff that is so appealing in a late-inning stopper. He brings his fastball at 95-97 mph and he regularly challenges hitters with it, high and/or inside. His breaking ball has some serious bite as well. He’s already retired Miguel Cabrera twice, including once on a strikeout by going after him up and in at 96. If that doesn’t get you an audition in the late innings then what does? Other strikeout victims include Victor Martinez, Justin Upton, and Mike Napoli.
I don’t know if Wahl is actually ready for a setup role yet, but it’s certainly within his eventual ceiling. Furthermore, he’s already here, he’s settling in well, and nobody else is getting the job done. What’s left to wait for? Toss him in the fire and see what he does.
Realistic move: Bobby Wahl sees some hold opportunities in close 7th/8th innings.
Bruce Maxwell or Matt Olson
The 8-man bullpen has to go. They’re not even using it — eighth man Josh Smith, the backup long man, has been on the team for 14 games and appeared in three of them, for a total of seven innings. That’s a waste of a roster spot.
It’s time for the A’s to do away with the extra reliever and go back to four position players on the bench. And with that extra spot, they should keep catcher Bruce Maxwell full-time rather than continuing to bounce him back and forth to the minors.
We’ve already seen Oakland lift Stephen Vogt for a late-game defensive upgrade this season, and on top of that he’s not hitting. As we’ve discussed on this site before, I’m still interested in getting him some time as a DH to see if he can get his bat in order, because at his best he can hit well enough to be worthwhile there. Having a third catcher allows the flexibility to do that, while letting the 26-year-old Maxwell continue to gain experience at the highest level.
But maybe you’re not sold on carrying three catchers. It’s a complicated setup, and perhaps it’s better to let Maxwell get regular playing time in Triple-A Nashville until a permanent spot opens up. In that case, bring up 1B/OF Matt Olson instead.
Olson is heating up in Nashville, swatting seven homers over his last 18 games. He’s a bit redundant in the A’s current lineup, with his low-contact, high-power profile, but the point here is more about developing rookies than putting the optimal present-day team on the field. Anyway, if he hits his stride then he’ll at least get on base, which is something the club needs right now.
The question is where he would play, with Yonder Alonso locking down 1B (notwithstanding his minor knee injury on Wednesday). We can again turn to Plouffe, with Ryon Healy moving to 3B and opening up the DH spot; Olson can take that spot, or play RF and push Matt Joyce to DH. I’m not picky.
Realistic move: John Axford activated from DL, one of Maxwell/Olson recalled, Ryan Dull and Josh Smith optioned to Triple-A.
That last one deserves a brief explanation. Axford is on track to return this weekend (via Susan Slusser), so he replaces Smith outright. I’m also sending down Dull, who has lost touch with the strike zone and could perhaps use a breather to rediscover it. If you prefer to send down Frankie Montas (5.59 ERA, 5.10 FIP) for some polishing, then so be it, with Dull stepping into a low-pressure multi-inning mopup role and Wahl taking his setup job (as we discussed in the previous section).
Here’s the lineup we’d be left with.
|vs. RHP||vs. LHP|
|C: Bruce Maxwell
1B: Yonder Alonso
2B: Jed Lowrie
SS: Chad Pinder
3B: Ryon Healy
LF: Khris Davis
CF: Mark Canha
RF: Matt Joyce
DH: Stephen Vogt
|C: Josh Phegley
1B: Yonder Alonso
2B: Jed Lowrie
SS: Chad Pinder
3B: Trevor Plouffe
LF: Khris Davis
CF: Rajai Davis
RF: Mark Canha
DH: Ryon Healy
The defense would be even worse than it is now. But for what it’s worth, Rosales would be available as a late-game upgrade in the tightest moments, with Rajai ready on the bench most of the time as well. And in exchange, some of the most pointlessly mediocre bats are replaced with something you might actually be interested in watching. (For the Olson scenario: He plays RF vs. RHP, with Vogt moving to catcher and Joyce to DH.)
The writing on the wall is getting clear, and it says to stop pretending like this is anything other than a pure rebuilding season. There are top prospects who are ready to audition now, and it’s time to get on with it.