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Till Depth Do Us Part...

MLB: AUG 05 Tigers at Athletics
“I’ve now got it here...and here.”
Photo by Samuel Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s that restless time of year when you grumpily ask, “Is it Opening Day yet?” And in 19 days the answer will finally be “Yes!” Mike Fiers and Sean Manaea are both reasonably on turn to start on March 26th.

But first, apparently there’s a new rule that you are not allowed to participate as part of the media without at least one reference to the coronavirus, so here is my entry. It seems that every disease prevention outlet is emphasizing the importance of trying to avoid touching your eyes, nose, ears, face in general. So what I get out of this analysis is that pretty much every third base coach is screwed and can expect to have the coronavirus by next Wednesday. Conclusion: Matt Williams is a visionary who was three steps ahead of the virus. Well done, Matty, well done.

If one aspect of the A’s “game plan” is clear, they like to try to have one too many players everywhere. They built a solid 6-man rotation so that if A.J. Puk had shoulder soreness they would still be poised to open the season with 5 legitimate SPs (Fiers-Montas-Manaea-Luzardo-Bassitt).

Oakland’s “what you need plus one” strategy is found elsewhere on the diamond as well. Despite his terrific showing in September and continued excellence in spring training so far (.407 BA, 1.206 OPS), Seth Brown appears to be headed for AAA Las Vegas behind Robbie Grossman, who was tendered a contract even though he represents some redundancy with Brown. Brown has options, so to the A’s thinking, “Why not have boths?”

With Stephen Piscotty likely headed to the IL to open the season, there is a chance Brown could sneak onto the Opening Day roster, but it still may be a longshot simply because of how many “out of options” bench players the A’s are trying to hang onto.

That brings us to the infield, where once again the A’s have doubled up — twice. After selecting Vimael Machin in the Rule 5 draft Oakland went out and added Tony Kemp, who figures to make the team and get most of the 2B at bats against RHPs. Kemp’s presence probably means the A’s cannot keep the LH batting Machin, who winds up being an insurance policy that will expire once others make it through camp healthy.

“Others” include Franklin Barreto and Jorge Mateo, neither traded this off-season, both out of options, each now fighting for a spot that appears to be the weak side of a platoon and/or a “utility infielder” role and/or a stashed “26th man”. There is really only room for one of them, but the A’s like their depth and have held onto both.

The good news about this approach is that the A’s — who have to penny wise and built for the long haul — can absorb one loss almost anywhere on the diamond without feeling the pinch. The bad news is that absent injury Oakland has to figure out what to do with more talented players they want to keep than they have chairs for them to sit in.

How is it all shaping up as of March 7th? I would argue that Grossman’s and Kemp’s roster spots are assured, that Sheldon Neuse is AAA bound, and I am anticipating that Piscotty will be placed on the IL partly to buy a little more time for everything to sort itself out.

So for 13 position player spots, you figure to figure the following in place:

K. Davis, Olson, Kemp, Semien, Chapman, Murphy, Allen/Heim, Grossman, Canha, Laureano, Pinder.

That’s 11 even without Piscotty, and not yet considering Brown, Barreto, Mateo, Machin: 4 players vying for 2 spots. The two implications of this math?

- Machin’s only avenue to making the team is injuries elsewhere on the roster. The default has to be that he is sent back to the Cubs.

- On the surface, Brown is competing with Grossman for a spot (OFer with a LH bat), but in reality he is competing with Barreto and Mateo because the only way Brown makes the team right now is if one of Barreto or Mateo don’t.

Depth has a way of sorting itself out against your will and there are still 19 days left for 1-2 players to go down with injury (or coronavirus — sorry, as a member of the media I’m literally obliged to bring this up). But given the status quo, I would assume the plan right now is to option Brown to AAA and return Machin to the Cubs, leaving Barreto and Mateo to round out the 26-man roster.

If it does play out this way, a new question arises: where do those two find their playing time? Barreto would be cast in the role he has previously played to scathing reviews: part-time player trying to succeed without regular at bats. Mateo might be relegated to pinch running and at bats in blowouts, hardly conducive to developing a young talent but the cost of accumulating depth faster than you can promise it a job.

The A’s are basically right. To build a good outfield you need 5 outfielders, not 3 — as Piscotty has already demonstrated. As David Forst once said, “We’re not trying to build a 5 man rotation, we’re trying to build a rotation for a 162 game season.” So now the A’s have some enviable depth. It’s a nice problem to have, and in the next 3 weeks it could be a problem. Something to ponder as you spend the weekend not touching your ears.