The Oakland A’s may have suffered a significant injury on Thursday. In just their second game of the season, Gold Glove first baseman Matt Olson exited after five innings. The problem was pain in his right hand, reports Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle, and while we don’t yet know the specific nature, she suggests it “sounds like definite cause for concern.” (Update: It’s the hamate bone.)
Any time missed by Olson will have a notable effect on the team. Not only is he a good hitter, but his elite defense elevates the rest of the infield with all the throws he picks out of the dirt or pulls from the stratosphere. All injuries are bummers, but this could be a particularly costly one for Oakland.
However, there is some good news in the consolation department. You see, the A’s just happen to have an extra player sitting around, a quality player who had a good 2018 but has absolutely nowhere to play on this 2019 roster. And his natural position is first base, dating back to college!
All winter, Athletics Nation was bracing for a Mark Canha trade. There didn’t seem to be a lot of space for him to play, but he’s too valuable to let rot on the bench and there were needs elsewhere on the roster. His situation got even worse when Robbie Grossman came aboard, increasing the logjam in LF in the form of a hitter who didn’t necessarily need to be hidden against lefty pitching. When the trade never came, though, I repeatedly offered a reminder: It’s not clear yet where Canha will play, but just wait for the first injuries to happen and then you’ll be glad he’s here.
As it turns out, it only took two games for that relevant injury, and it came to the guy who played all 162 last year and seemed like the most reliable rock in the lineup. And dang, is it ever a good thing Canha is here when you consider what the options would otherwise have been to replace him. Granted, anyone who replaces Olson will automatically be a downgrade because he’s one of the team’s stars, but without Tom Ace up our sleeve it could have gotten downright ugly.
For as simple of a position as first base seems (it’s incredibly hard), the A’s don’t have a whole lot going on there after Olson and Canha. The next-best bet would probably be moving Chad Pinder there, but that would be suboptimal. It would mean taking the versatile super-sub and gluing him to one low-value position, and it would mean switching him from a place where he’s excellent (outfield) to a place where he has no professional experience (eight career innings, half of which came today).
Beyond the MLB roster, the Triple-A lineup is stacked just about everywhere except first base. There are promising youngsters throughout the outfield, and top names in the middle infield and 3B, and a budding star catcher, but nothing at 1B. The best bet there might be Eric Campbell, a minor league free agent signing who turns 32 next month and boasts a weak 80 wRC+ for his MLB career.
All that said, we don’t yet know what’s wrong with Olson’s hand, nor how bad it is, nor how much time he’ll miss, nor if he’ll even miss any at all. Maybe everything will turn out fine when they check him on Friday, and for what it’s worth there’s a week to go before the next real game. We’re all hoping this conversation turns out to be moot.
But if the news comes back bad (and it did) then this is exactly what depth is for, and the precise reason the A’s stocked more players than they needed. It seemed excessive when they signed Grossman because he does a lot of the same things as Nick Martini, but then Martini went down in the first week of spring. They spread around their limited free agent money on a few veteran starters instead of just one big splash, pushing some exciting young arms further down the chart, but then the very best of those up-and-comers (Jesus Luzardo) went down and will miss a couple months so it’s a good thing there are plenty of other MLB-caliber options available. There was a catcher competition in spring camp, until the primary front-runner suddenly had surgery. This. Is. What. Depth. Is. For. And all of this has already happened just two games into the actual regular season.
Of course, as perfect as this particular 1B vacancy would be for Canha, it was a relatively unlikely one given Olson’s strong health record — but there are other scenarios where his presence would have helped avert catastrophe. After all, this is the guy who stepped in and salvaged CF early last year while the team scrambled for an answer there after Boog Powell’s injury. The point is, holding on to Canha last winter was the answer to many potential “what ifs,” not just this specific one.
As with anything there is a threshold at which blocking too much talent would be wasteful, but those cases are probably rarer than we realize. Last year we saw how quickly an entire rotation can disappear, and as much as I hate to bring it up, 2014 showed us how quickly an ultra-stacked lineup can fall apart and wish it’d kept that one extra healthy slugger.
In this case, it’s a darn good thing that the A’s chose to keep Canha in the fold even before they were sure how to use him. If they hadn’t then we could be looking at either a completely punted corner position or, at best, the complete loss of our super-sub’s versatility and positive defensive value. Instead, our worst-case scenario at first base is still a guy who posted 2 WAR and a 113 wRC+ last year in limited duty, and one who already knows how to do the job. It could be much, much worse, and every little bit counts when you’re aiming for October.