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Franklin Barreto off to promising start in Summer Camp

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Is the second baseman ready to break out in 2020?

Kansas City Royals v Oakland Athletics Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One of the top story lines entering the Oakland A’s 2020 season has to do with second base. They have several candidates for the position, but it’s unclear which one might step up and seize the job, and there’s limited time to try them all out in a short 60-game campaign.

The highest-profile name in the group is Franklin Barreto, a former Top 100 prospect who is just 24 years old and would still rank in the Top 10 of our Community Prospect List if he were eligible. He has stalled in his past attempts to jump to the majors, but the latest reports out of Summer Camp are glowing.

On Saturday, manager Bob Melvin singled Barreto out among all A’s hitters in camp, reports Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle. On Sunday, insider Martin Gallegos echoed that report, and added that Barreto had been able to continue working on his hitting throughout the coronavirus shutdown. Even before the shutdown, Barreto was off to a nice start in the original spring training — in 39 plate appearances in the Cactus League he was batting .306, with six of his 11 hits going for extra-bases.

Of course, these are all just positive feelings for now. This is the preseason, when every player is in the best shape of his life, every prospect is poised for a breakout, and the numbers are mostly meaningless. But for what it’s worth, this is an encouraging start to a make-or-break year for the young infielder, who is out of options and can’t be sent back down to the minors anymore.

Nobody doubts Barreto’s ability to hit the ball with authority. He slugged 18 homers in 77 games while playing for pitcher-friendly Triple-A Nashville in 2018, and 19 for Last Vegas last year, and we’ve seen him absolutely smoke some balls in his brief MLB stints. The problem is making consistent contact, as he’s struggled with strikeout rates in Triple-A and whiffed at an astounding rate in the majors.

In 2019 he did improve his K-rate in Triple-A, reducing it from an untenable 31.8% to a possibly reasonable 26.7%, but he’s been completely overmatched at the MLB level. In 209 plate appearances, he’s struck out 85 times, a gargantuan 40.7% rate. Among 563 batters in MLB with at least 200 PAs from 2017-19, his 17.0% swinging strike rate is 25th-highest, and it has risen each year. Worse, whereas he was at least able to display some strike-zone judgment in the minors by drawing walks at a high clip, he’s only totaled seven free passes in the majors so far.

When he’s made contact in Oakland, he’s crushed it. Of 38 career hits, nearly half have been for extra bases, including nine homers, seven doubles, and two triples. He just needs to hit the ball more often, and get fooled less of the time — and his defense isn’t great so his bat needs to pan out in order to carry him, though his fleet 60-grade speed helps. A’s assistant hitting coach Eric Martins said the following last weekend, via Shayna Rubin of the Mercury News:

“He needs to get consistent at bats because we know what he can do,” Martins said. “I can see him in the lineup because he’s as dangerous as anyone we got. He understands it’s his time, he has an opportunity.”

Unfortunately, those consistent at-bats haven’t come yet. The A’s had All-Star Jed Lowrie at second base through 2018, completely blocking the position. Even last year, when newcomer Jurickson Profar was a negative on both sides of the ball, Barreto wasn’t able to force his way into the picture. But now might be his best opportunity yet.

The second base job still isn’t wide open for Barreto, but there’s now a clear path to at least some playing time. The logjam eased a bit when Jorge Mateo was traded two weeks ago, especially since Mateo was a fellow-right handed batter. In her story, Rubin notes the current expectation is a platoon at 2B, which would leave Barreto on the short side next to left-handed batters Tony Kemp and Vimael Machin. But at least that would be more of a chance than he’s gotten in the past, as an occasional one-to-two-week injury replacement.

That said, there’s still another right-handed option to compete with at the keystone. Chad Pinder is going to be looking for at-bats, with the outfield jam-packed, healthy, and flush with other righties. The super-sub utilityman could find himself in the mix at 2B and is already preparing for the possibility, reports Gallegos and also John Hickey of Sports Illustrated.

There’s still a week and a half to go before the season begins, but the A’s are scheduled see a lefty on Opening Day in Andrew Heaney of the Angels. That should give Barreto his next opportunity to prove he belongs in the bigs and in the lineup.

Oh, and when we do see him, Barreto will be wearing a new jersey number, reports Gallegos — No. 4, instead of the No. 1 he’s had in the past. And maybe a mask too.

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(I made it through the whole Barreto story without mentioning Josh Donaldson! Ah dangit, zero days.)