Baseball is all about trends, with teams setting them and then other teams following patterns of success. The Kansas City Royals get to back-to-back World Series on the strength of their legs and suddenly every General Manager is a “leg man”. Next thing you know, the stolen base has gone the way of the “launch angle revolution” and the “opener” isn’t just a Tampa Bay Rays quirk it’s an actual thing.
If there is a trend emerging for the 2020s, it might be the increasing value teams are placing on versatility. Perhaps it’s a nod to the plethora of injuries teams must navigate over a 162-game grind, or maybe it’s an attempt to create closer to a 30-man roster with just 26 bodies.
You have a certain number of innings to pitch in a week, month, and season, so a 2 IP reliever becomes, in some way, like having two 1 IP relievers. Your swiss army knife utility players turn 4 bench players into players capable of covering 6 positions. And if Shohei Otani and Brendan McKay can do it, then why isn’t Matt Chapman the A’s closer? (Hey, I can dream.)
The 2020 A’s may be buying further into this trend, first by adding Tony Kemp to a crowded infield/outfield mix that already includes the equally versatile Chad Pinder. The A’s expect Kemp to vie for the bulk of the 2B time, where he has played only 348 big league innings, but Kemp has more than twice as much time, and better metrics, as a LFer.
Kemp is virtually assured of a roster spot, but his addition is inherently problematic. If he does win the long side of the platoon at 2B it probably means the A’s are returning their Rule 5 pick, Vimael Machin, to the Cubs. Machin has, 6 years of contract control and is a somewhat intriguing player, having batted .295/.390/.412 at AA and AAA last season and sporting a career .358 OBP in the minors. Machin turned 26 in September and while he has little power he rates well defensively. In many ways he profiles a lot like Eric Sogard, who has carved out a solid career.
Oakland is already almost certain to part with one of two toolsy 2B candidates, because it is hard to envision them keeping both Franklin Barreto and Jorge Mateo on the roster. Each is right handed and unproven in the big leagues, and one cannot construct a logical roster that keeps both of them along with one of Kemp and Machin. (You could squint and see Robbie Grossman cut in spring training, then Chad Pinder optioned to AAA, as both are still technically feasible, but you would immediately be sent to an ophthalmologist.)
But with Barreto and Mateo already in tow, the A’s added Kemp presumably because they highly value his ability to play the infield, the outfield, to run and field — here is a guy who could potentially contribute as a primary 2Bman, a backup OFer, a defensive replacement, and a pinch runner.
Pinder may not be a very good infielder, but he can certainly be trusted with the occasional start at 3B to give Chapman a day off, offers at least a passable choice without a roster move if Marcus Semien misses (or comes out of) a game, and he excels as COFer with established skills against LHP. He is also considered a key clubhouse leader, something the front office may also hold in high esteem.
So the club elected to add Kemp to the equally unoptionable Barreto, Mateo, Machin, and Grossman, plus Pinder — who is behind Mark Canha, Ramon Laureano, and Stephen Piscotty. That’s 9 players for 6-7 roster spots, meaning Kemp will be squeezing out a talented — but perhaps less versatile — teammate.
The quest for versatility also extends to the mound, where Oakland has a chance to leverage more innings out of its bullpen with J.B. Wendelken joining Yusmeiro Petit as relievers very capable of tossing 2 effective innings out of the pen. Especially with the new “3 batter minimum” rule, Jake Diekman is also a candidate to get more chances for appearances of more than 1 IP. And the rich only get richer if Chris Bassitt, or in theory at some point Jesus Luzardo or A.J. Puk, throw relief innings.
The question becomes, are the A’s overvaluing versatility to carry players whose varied skills obscure their overall marginal value? Or is Oakland once again embracing the right trend and sitting ahead of the curve as other teams catch up? We’ll know for sure when Chapman earns his first save.