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Spring Training Story Lines Abound In 2023

Los Angeles Angels v Oakland Athletics
The bunting looks so festive this time of year.
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

How refreshing that this year, we are spared gripping story lines such as, “Will anyone care how Stephen Piscotty hits?” (Maybe if you’re his dad), “Can Stephen Vogt hit within .050 points of his weight?” (Sadly, no), and “Will the A’s cycle through more forgettable players in a season than they ever have?” (Yes)

OK, there was some interest in checking out Kevin Smith and Cristian Pache, but by and large the most talented prospects were years away and everywhere you turned there was a Zach Logue on the mound, the tattered remains of a Jed Lowrie at the plate, and an embarrassing mish-mash of mediocrity fighting for the right to play 3B.

Fast forward to 2023, when once again no one expects the Oakland A’s to still be playing after game 162. But this will be a Cactus League worth following, and today I offer just a few of the potential stories that will unfold over the next 6 weeks...

“Triple-O Pache”

OOO stands for “Out of options” and Pache is now a member of the club. This means the A’s have to either keep Pache on the roster or they can trade him or expose him to the waiver wire at some “most strategic time” to try to slip him through.

From February 25th to March 27th, the gold glove CFer with a career 26 wRC+ has about a month to convince the A’s he is worth keeping. It may help Pache’s cause that if the A’s see him as a “late bloomer” their rebuilding schedule allows them to carry a struggling young player for another year or two. It may signal Oakland’s projections of Pache that they went out and acquired a potential “everyday CFer” in Esteury Ruiz.

The bottom line is, with a career slash line of .156/.205/.234 in his 332 PA sample, with a 29.2% K rate, the improvement Pache needs to show is not a jump but rather a quantum leap. And with spring training results not measuring high on the “projectability scale,” Pache will have to show something besides just some hits — a better looking swing, a refined approach, improved pitch recognition — in order to make his case.

The Rest Of The Outfield

How many spots are even open? Presumably Seth Brown will slot in against RHP, while Esteury Ruiz and Ramon Laureano have a chance to lay claim to 2 everyday spots. But there are opportunities for an outfielder to force his way into the mix, and the candidates couldn’t be more distinct from one another.

JJ Bleday, the newest addition to the fold, comes with the highest pedigree having been drafted #4 overall by the Marlins in 2019. And while his MLB debut was somewhat of a flop it came after less than 1,000 MiLB plate appearances and still included the elite plate discipline Oakland greatly values. Bleday also has 3 options remaining, which could wind up being the stat that most informs the A’s decision-making for Opening Day.

In contrast you have Conner Capel, whose only resemblance to Bleday is that he bats LH and has options remaining. Capel was picked after 151 other guys back in 2016, and was available on the waiver wire last season when the A’s took a flyer on him. But unlike Bleday, Capel found his best success at the big league level, batting .308/.356/.519 (149 wRC+) in 22 games. Whether a nice 22 game sample late in the year will get Capel consideration might depend on how much he picks up in spring training where he left off in 2022. Was it a small sample garbage time fluke or a peek at who he really is? Stay tuned.

Then you have Brent Rooker, whose strongest argument might be “I stand in the RH batter’s box!!!” The spot most clearly open, at a glance, would be a platoon partner for Brown and Rooker could be that guy. Working against Rooker is that he hasn’t had success at the big league level so far (.200/.289./379, 31.9% K-rate) and his profile is as a bat-first player who won’t help you on defense. It’s also conceivable that the A’s could make Pache that platoon partner by shifting Ruiz over to the corners against LHP, a scenario made more likely by the fact that Rooker has one remaining option.

The answer to which of these 3 will win a spot on the initial roster could well be “none of them,” since the A’s have multiple infielders who can serve as a backup outfielder: Tony Kemp, Aledmys Diaz, and Jace Peterson all have OF experience. But someone could force their way on, and that’s a story line worth following.

Looks At The Real Future

Every year, the list of non-roster invitees includes some younger players who won’t make the team out of camp but are talented. This year that group includes several players the A’s are flat out counting on to make an impact 1-2 years down the road, and in a couple cases possibly as soon as later this season.

Tyler Soderstrom, Zach Gelof, Denzel Clarke, Mason Miller, and JT Ginn headline the group of NRIs hoping to offer a glimpse of better days to come soon, while Lawrence Butler, Hogan Harris, Jordan Diaz, Kyle Muller, Luis Medina, and the aforementioned trio of outfielders, are already on the 40-man roster. There is appreciable talent here and the rebuild will sit considerably on their collective shoulders.

Can We Hit A Bit This Year?

Last season, watching the A’s try to hit was like listening to Helen Keller try to do play-by-play. This year’s offense may not be world beaters, but there is far more potential and not just because Vimael Machin, Sheldon Neuse, Jed Lowrie vDead.0, and the “debut fail” of Kevin Smith have been replaced by the Joe Leagueaverge duo of Aledmys Diaz and Jace Peterson.

It’s easy to write off Ryan Noda as a Rule 5 shot in the dark, but he was not castoff by the Dodgers so much as he was simply blocked by Freddie Freeman and a deep outfield, and the fact that if the Dodgers wind up regretting Noda’s departure they can afford to go out and purchase a replacement.

The fact is, Noda has played in 555 MiLB games, advancing exactly one level each season, and he has a career OBP of .407. That’s nothing short of exceptional. His slash line of .264/.407/.486 is impressive enough, but he also has 58 SB in 73 tries. Remember that the A’s got Laureano for a reliever (who reached the big leagues for all of 5 appearances) because a 40-man crunch, combined with the Astros’ outfield depth at the time, created opportunity.

Like Laureano, and before him Brandon Moss, Noda has all the trappings of a great find and this Cactus League is his audition for a roster spot and a starting job most likely at 1B.

Then you have Jordan Diaz, whose options and defensive shortcomings make him a “definite maybe” for Opening Day but whose hitting profile has put him on a fast track that allowed him to reach MLB at age 22. If he can hit enough the A’s will find a spot for him, whether it’s at 2B, a 1B platoon with Noda, or the DH spot.

In Conclusion

I have just named an awful lot of guys worth watching with a close eye, and we didn’t even really touch on the pitchers. Ken Waldichuk, J.P. Sears, Freddie Tarnok, Muller, Medina, Miller, and Harris will all try to turn heads and accelerate their place in Oakland’s rotation — or perhaps eventually, in some cases, the 8th or 9th inning — as the A’s try to develop a core of keepers for the next several years.

What other key story lines do you see unfolding in March? Just the ones I have mentioned are enough for me to be counting the days until February 25th...