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A’s outfield competition heating up

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Ka’ai Tom and Seth Brown both making strong cases for Opening Day

Milwaukee Brewers v Oakland Athletics Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have only four spring training games remaining, and Opening Day is coming in less than a week, but their 2021 roster still isn’t quite fully decided. Fortunately, it’s for the good reason — they simply have too many players who are performing too well this month, and it’s making it difficult to choose between them.

That’s especially true in the outfield. The A’s have had a notable logjam of talent in that area for a couple years, with a full allotment of starters and also a legion of promising upper-minors prospects who are either ready for the majors or close to it.

The list begins with the obvious stars, whose status on the April 1 roster is not in question. That’s Mark Canha, who can play all three positions and last year was voted A’s Team MVP by Athletics Nation; CF Ramon Laureano, one of most exciting and productive players on the team, with MVP potential in his own right; and RF Stephen Piscotty, who struggled at the plate the last couple years but homered the last two days as he looks to return to his previous 3-WAR form.

In addition to the outfield, the DH spot is locked up by Mitch Moreland, a quality lefty bat.

Entering the spring, there were a half-dozen lefty or switch-hitting outfielders on the 40-man roster, competing over maybe one or two spots. Here’s how it’s going:

  • Luis Barrera (optioned to Triple-A)
  • Skye Bolt (optioned to Triple-A)
  • Seth Brown
  • Greg Deichmann (optioned to Triple-A)
  • Dustin Fowler (traded to Pirates)
  • Ka’ai Tom

Barrera and Deichmann haven’t played in Triple-A yet so they were probably never going to break camp, and Bolt missed part of the spring to a brief shoulder issue. Fowler was out of options and the clock ran out, so he got a fresh start elsewhere. Non-roster invitee prospect Buddy Reed was a human highlight reel for the first couple weeks of spring, but alas strained a quad and was sent down.

That leaves Brown and Tom in the running, and both are playing great this month after ranking No. 15 and No. 18 on our preseason Community Prospect List. The question is, how many spots are they competing for?

Without getting too deep into Opening Day roster predictions, we can safely assume the following for the 13 position players. There will be two catchers, presumably Murphy and Garcia; three everyday infielders in Olson, Chapman, and Andrus; three righty outfielders in Canha, Laureano, and Piscotty; a DH in Moreland; and super-sub Pinder at some position. That’s 10 spots, and it’s easy to see Kemp and Lowrie getting two more, in some combination of starting second base duties, utility, and lefty/switch bench bats.

If all of that holds true, including a healthy Lowrie and nobody else getting hurt at the last minute, then there’s only one spot left for these two outfielders.

Tom vs. Brown

Really there’s no conversation to be had here. Tom is a Rule 5 draft pick, which means he has to make the team and stay in the majors all year or else he’s lost from the organization and goes back to Cleveland. Brown has minor league options remaining and can be freely sent up and down between Triple-A all summer.

That makes Tom the easy pick for first dibs, and indeed the A’s have long made it a priority to keep as many players as possible when making these types of spring decisions. You can try out Tom for a month and if he flops then replace him with Brown, but you can’t do it the other way around. At this point it would be shocking to not see Tom on the Opening Day roster.

But that isn’t making the Tom vs. Brown contest any less thrilling. Both are putting on a show in the Cactus League, including four-digit OPS marks (1.342 and 1.067, respectively).

We had to wait a couple extra weeks to see Tom due to a brief injury, but he’s more than made up for it in eight games.

Tom, spring: 9-for-20, HR, triple, 2 doubles, 4 BB, 5 Ks

Spring success doesn’t guarantee anything once the real games begin, but there’s nothing else you could hope to see from Tom during these warmups. He’s making tons of contact, hitting it hard enough for consistent extra bases, controlling the zone as advertised, and getting on base. He already blasted Triple-A and now he’s crushing MLB spring training, so it’s time to get this guy into a big league batter’s box and see what he can do.

Manager Bob Melvin said the following of the 5’9 Tom last week, via insider Martin Gallegos:

“For a little guy, he’s got some juice in his bat. To see him take good at-bats off lefties and hit the ball the other way, that’s what we’re looking to see. Use the whole field. So far, so good.”

When he does find those gaps and corners, he can get around the bases at a good clip. Below you can see him going from home to third in 11 seconds flat, which is a full second faster than average. To pull one random season, in 2016 the MLB average was 12 seconds, and the best time that year was 10.45 by Billy Hamilton, so Tom might be closer to the top than the middle in terms of speed.

Meanwhile, Brown got off to a slow start for the first couple weeks of March, going 1-for-12 (but with five walks!). Since then he’s come to life in his last nine games:

Brown, lately: 6-for-16, 3 HR, 3 doubles, 2 BB, 7 Ks

That’s a bit high on the strikeouts, but all of the hits were for extra-bases. Perhaps even more importantly, he’s now walked seven times this spring, representing 19% of his plate appearances.

We already knew Brown had power from his Triple-A slugfest in 2019 (37 HR), and before that High-A in 2017 (30 HR), but he’s never been more than a decent on-base threat with a mediocre walk rate. Seeing him suddenly show enough patience to work his way to first base, especially during a stretch when his batted balls weren’t falling for hits, is one of the more encouraging developments that we haven’t talked about yet this month. An extra few dozen points tacked onto his OBP and a reputation as a hitter you have to throw strikes to, combined with his power, could theoretically turn him into the next breakout star.

Of course, one major difference between Tom and Brown is that we’ve already seen Brown play in MLB. He didn’t get much of a chance last summer, but he played 26 games in 2019 and made a positive first impression (121 wRC+) even without hitting for any power.

As for defense, the jury is still out until both of them play more in the bigs, but the news is probably good. We saw Brown make some nice athletic plays in the corner outfield two years ago, and at the very least it’s tough to imagine him being a huge negative out there. Tom is getting a look in center, which provides optimism about his skills on the corners, and reports are that he’s somewhere between alright and excellent with the glove.

Again, this isn’t truly a straight-up competition, because Tom’s Rule 5 status ends any debate between two prospects who are both playing well. You simply have to keep the one who can’t be sent down. But it’s nice to know that if the first candidate struggles, or an injury opens up more space, there’s another promising hitter waiting to step in.

Poll

Which outfielder do you think will make the A’s 2021 Opening Day roster?

This poll is closed

  • 81%
    Ka’ai Tom
    (460 votes)
  • 7%
    Seth Brown
    (40 votes)
  • 10%
    Both, somehow
    (58 votes)
  • 1%
    Neither (what a twist!)
    (7 votes)
565 votes total Vote Now