Oakland Athletics 2012 Spring Training Preview: Infielders

Nathaniel JueSenior Writer IIMarch 8, 2012

Oakland Athletics 2012 Spring Training Preview: Infielders

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    You smell that?

    Ah, the fresh scent of pine tar and eye black.

    It’s that time of year again—yes, spring training.

    Pitchers are loosening up their arms and hitters are getting back into the swing of things. It’s a fresh new start to baseball. Spring is a period that symbolizes the blossoming of new growth—and baseball is no different.

    No team exudes the essence of springtime more than the Oakland Athletics, an organization that has almost completely re-harvested its roster over the winter.

    Out with last year’s crop: Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey are all shipped away.

    In with fresh seeds like Jarrod Parker, Brad Peacock, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes.

    As the A’s cultivate their young, budding roster, there are many questions regarding the 2012 season?

    Which players will bear fruit? Which ones will wilt? Which produce will be re-sold this summer?

    Let’s take a look at the Athletics roster as they enter spring training. Here, we’ll analyze the team’s infielders who are currently on the A’s roster.

Brandon Allen

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    For a short while last season, it looked as though Brandon Allen was imminently the Athletics’ first baseman of the future.

    The left-handed hitter came to Oakland midseason in the trade that sent reliever Brad Ziegler to the Arizona Diamondbacks. With Opening Day starter Daric Barton demoted to Triple-A, Allen was inserted into the Athletics’ everyday lineup in mid-August.

    Right out of the gates, Allen started to make a strong impression.

    After his first week with the A’s, Allen was batting .391 with a 1.032 on-base plus slugging percentage.

    When he hit two tape-measure home runs against the New York Yankees on Aug. 23, fans were under the impression that they had found their permanent first baseman.

    Allen provided that raw strength and thump in the middle of the lineup that the Athletics had been missing for some time.

    Unfortunately, that did not last very long. In his final 28 games of 2011, he went 12-for-94—a lowly .128 average—with no home runs. He finished his semi-campaign with Oakland with a .205 batting average, three home runs and 55 strikeouts in 146 at-bats.

    As a result, Allen’s presumed starting job at first base evaporated rather quickly and, thus, spring training will be an audition for him to win the position outright.

    However, there are clearly some holes that need to be filled.

    Though he surely has the brawn to knock the ball out of the park, the problem—as with most power hitters—is his inability to make contact on a consistent basis. He is a career .210 hitter, and even though he can crush the ball to the moon, he only has 11 home runs in 324 career at-bats.

    Obviously, Allen will need to work diligently to prove that he can hit at the major league level.

    Even if he doesn’t win the first baseman job, he’d still have to have a solid batting average in order to land the designated hitter role.

    After all, what good is a player who can hit prodigious home runs if he can’t do so at a moderate clip?

    Jack Cust, anyone?

    2012 outlook: Allen will win the first baseman job—by default. It would be nice for him to hit anywhere above .250—he has shown the ability, but he needs to demonstrate consistency at the plate and drive in runs even when he’s not hitting for high average. If he falters in any way, he could be out of Oakland’s plans quickly.

Daric Barton

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    Sigh.

    Where do we begin with Daric Barton?

    This dude has been the first baseman-in-waiting for quite some time, and 2012 may be his last chance with the A’s.

    The 26-year-old Barton has had an up-and-down career—that’s an understatement.

    From the next big thing in 2007 to a lethargic .226 average as the everyday first baseman in 2008. From an injury-riddled 2009 to a respectable (respectfully speaking) 2010 campaign in which he finished fifth in the league on-base percentage.

    Last season, however, Barton revisited the valleys, as he batted just .212 with zero home runs in 67 games, before he was demoted to Triple-A Sacramento to rediscover his stroke.

    He didn’t. In 17 games with the River Cats, Barton hit just .197, as he was again plagued with various injuries, which makes 2012 a very important season for both Barton and the Athletics.

    This is the first year in a while in which Barton is not the projected starting first baseman. In the previous four springs, Barton was the clear-cut starter. After several frustrations, he might soon run out of lives in Oakland.

    If Barton is unable to regain his confidence and perform at a decent level—the level that meets the expectations placed upon him five years ago—then the A’s will be more than happy to cut him loose by the end of this season.

    With a handful of candidates competing for a spot on the Opening Day roster, Barton will have to outperform them all to remain the incumbent first baseman.

    If he doesn’t show any progress, look for him to land on the bench. Or, worse, land himself back in Sacramento.

    2012 outlook: With his defense, he could land a spot on the bench. The A’s have obviously not given up on Barton completely, so there is likely only one last chance for him. He’ll start the season on the roster as a bench player, unless he lights up spring training pitching.

Chris Carter

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    Sigh, again.

    Much of what was said about Daric Barton can apply somewhat to Chris Carter, as well, except Carter has only made a small dent at the big-league level during his four seasons in the A’s organization.

    The powerful right-handed hitter has only seen 39 games in the majors.

    Unfortunately, when he has received call-ups, he has produced like a minor-leaguer. His career numbers include a .167 batting average with three home runs and 41 strikeouts in 114 at-bats.

    Carter’s lack of success is even more of a mystery than Barton’s inconsistency. After all, Carter mashes it in the minors.

    In 2008, he hammered 39 home runs at Single-A Stockton. The following year, 28 homers at two different minor-league levels.

    In 2010, Carter banged 31 home runs at Triple-A Sacramento. Clearly, he can knock the ball out of the park consistently.

    Not in the majors, apparently.

    The 25-year-old Carter will look to hone his stroke this spring training, in hopes that he will be able to be the power hitter the A’s envisioned with they acquired him in 2007.

    If he can prove that he can hit at a decent clip, Oakland will be more than excited to insert him as their designated hitter. The Athletics lost a lot of power on the right side of the plate when Josh Willingham departed last winter, so Carter has a chance to fill that void—if he can hit at a marginal rate.

    2012 outlook: Look for Carter start the season with Oakland. With Manny Ramirez due to miss the first two months of the season, serving out his 50-game suspension for a failed drug test last year, a right-handed bat is sorely needed.

    Unless Carter shows that he simply cannot hit big league pitchers (which is possible), he’ll at least be on the roster for the first two months of the season.

Josh Donaldson

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    One of the more interesting storylines this spring training is that of Josh Donaldson. The 26-year-old received a late-season call-up last year with Oakland as a catcher.

    This spring training, however, Donaldson has a strong chance of landing on the Athletics’ opening day roster as their starting third baseman. Last week, Scott Sizemore, Oakland’s projected starter, tore his anterior cruciate ligament—he is out for the entire 2012 season.

    This opens up a spot at third base—a chance for Donaldson to make the team.

    The A’s do not have a clear-cut favorite to replace Sizemore, which is what makes Donaldson’s candidacy so intriguing. Though he is a catcher by trade, Donaldson did play a little third base in college.

    He hopes to parlay that experience into a starting role with Oakland. His versatility could land him a spot on the roster one way or another—which is an attractive possibility for manager Bob Melvin.

    One thing that Donaldson has going for him is his bat. Last season, he hit 17 home runs in Triple-A Sacramento, and in 2010, he banged out 18 long balls.

    If Donaldson can is able to show some consistency at the plate—more importantly, at the hot corner—then he could wind up as the team’s everyday third baseman on Opening Day.

    There’s a lot of competition from some more experienced major leaguers, so Donaldson will have to continue to wow the coaching staff.

    Third base is up for grabs—let’s see if Donaldson can snare it.

    2012 outlook: So far, it seems as though Donaldson is winning folks over at third base. With veteran Adam Rosales also a viable candidate, Donaldson will need to show that he can field the position with minimal difficulty. 

    *Donaldson is also a candidate for the A’s backup catcher.

Kila Ka'aihue

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    The tongue-twister Kila Ka’aihue was added to the Oakland roster at the tail end of last season. The left-handed batter is another youngster who has the potential to hit the ball fairly deep and very hard.

    In 2008, Ka’aihue was the Texas League Player of the Year after hitting 26 homers in 91 games. He finished the campaign with 37 dingers at two different minor league levels.

    Quite impressive.

    Unfortunately, like Allen, Ka’aihue has yet to find consistent success at the major league level.

    Over the past two seasons with the Kansas City Royals, the soon-to-be 29-year-old has hit 10 home runs in 262 at-bats, to go with a .210 batting average and 65 strikeouts, hhich makes for an interesting competition this spring training.

    Allen, Ka’aihue and Barton are all left-handed hitting first basemen—so none of them exactly has a clear distinction over the others. Ka’aihue and Allen both provide significant power that the A’s have lacked at the first base since Jason Giambi departed in the 2000s.

    The problem is both of them have yet to display the ability to hit for a decent average.

    2012 outlook: Spring training will be very important for Ka’aihue. Should he indicate the ability to separate himself from Allen, Ka’aihue could land a spot as the designated hitter until Ramirez fulfills his 50-game suspension. It's likely, though, that Ka’aihue will start the season in Sacramento.

Cliff Pennington

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    One of only a few solidified starting spots is that of shortstop Cliff Pennington.

    The 27-year-old switch-hitter heads into his third straight spring training as the Athletics’ starting shortstop. However, the book is still somewhat out on what type of player Pennington can be at the major-league level.

    Last season saw some minor improvement from Pennington, as he finished the year with a .264 batting average and eight home runs.

    For some reason, he did not display the all-around consistency the A’s had hoped for.

    In 2010, Pennington had 29 stolen bases, but last year he swiped only 14. Additionally, Pennington's defense—a supposed strength of his—declined a bit, as he finished the season with a .964 fielding percentage.

    Oakland certainly doesn’t expect Pennington to be in the elite class of shortstops with the likes of Jose Reyes, Troy Tulowitzki or Elvis Andrus, but Pennington needs to display a steadiness in the field and at the plate in order to not be ranked as the worst starting shortstop in the majors, according to FantasyBaseballDugout.com.

    His inability to make the basic plays in the field and execute situational hitting is what helps prevent him from excelling beyond just a regular, ordinary shortstop and player.

    Hopefully, a permanent place in the lineup will help.

    Last season, Pennington hit in seven different spots in the batting order, splitting most of his time as the No. 2 and No. 9 hitter. With Jemile Weeks and Coco Crisp likely to fill up the first two spots in the batting order, Pennington will likely land in the nine-hole, where he excelled the most last season(.285 batting average).

    2012 outlook: If there were any nagging injuries bothering Pennington last season, he certainly didn't show it—except on the basepaths. This season, expectations might be a bit lower for Pennington, but if he can just make the simple plays more cleanly in the field, he’ll help the Athletics even more in the long run.

Adam Rosales

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    The Athletics’ supersub from 2010, Adam Rosales was a super flub in 2011.

    Mired by various injuries, including a foot injury that landed him on the disabled list to start the season, Rosales never found his magical form as Oakland’s most valuable bench player.

    He finished 2011 with a terrible .098 batting average, and he spent most of his time recovering in Triple-A Sacramento.

    Now, Rosales is looking to regain his health and re-earn his spot on the Athletics’ major league roster. With a vacancy at third base following the injury to Sizemore, Rosales finds himself in the lead in the competition to become the starter, at least when considering his 72 career starts at third—far and away the most of any other player on the A’s roster.

    So far, Rosales is still trying to get back to full strength.

    Right now, his versatility at both corner infield positions, as well as experience at shortstop, make him a strong candidate to be Oakland’s first player off the bench. If he is able to hit for a high average this spring, he might be able to win the starting third base position outright.

    2012 outlook: He needs to progress faster in order to overtake the third base spot. Right now, Josh Donaldson seems to be putting himself in the lead, so Rosales has to get healthy quickly to even be considered the Opening Day starter. But it’s almost a certainty, with Rosales’ skill—hitting, running, fielding—that he’ll be on the roster in some capacity.

Eric Sogard

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    Another nominee for the starting third-baseman position is Eric Sogard.

    The 25-year-old middle infielder started 10 games for Oakland in 2011. Though his range is not stupendous, he can field the position relatively flawlessly.

    The question is: Can Sogard hit at the major-league level?

    In 2011, Sogard hit .298 during his time at Triple-A Sacramento—the previous season, he batted .300.

    An excellent contact hitter, Sogard has a steady bat and good eye at the plate (more walks that strikeouts in his minor league career).

    What can he do against big-league pitchers?

    The A’s aren’t asking for much, especially after the season-ending injury to Sizemore—whose bat provided adequate pop from the right side of the plate. Sogard does not have the same power that Sizemore has—or even that of Rosales and Donaldson. What he does have is a keen eye and a consistent bat, something the A’s sorely lacked last season.

    2012 outlook: It’s a tough call, but Sogard will likely end up as the Athletics’ backup infielder, finding a spot on the roster behind Donaldson at third and subbing in at both middle infield positions or he could receive more grooming in Sacramento.

Wes Timmons

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    As a non-roster invitee, Wes Timmons is not exactly expected to make the Oakland Athletics’ roster this spring training.

    The 33-year-old middle infielder has spent parts of the past 10 seasons in the minor leagues. He has yet to sniff the big leagues despite hitting over .340 last season at two different minor league levels.

    Though he is unlikely to land with Oakland this spring, Timmons’ story as a career minor-leaguer is one of those stories of determination and guile. He would have to obviously usurp the backup middle infielder role from incumbent Rosales or Sogard, but Timmons can hit and hit well, so it’s not impossible.

    Still, you have to feel for the guy, especially when it’s probable that he won’t land a spot on Oakland’s Opening Day roster.

    2012 outlook: Timmons will start the year in Sacramento. He could see some playing time in Oakland midseason, once the A’s start unloading some of their roster at the trade deadline. September call-up at year's end.

Jemile Weeks

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    The surest of all sure bets this spring is Jemile Weeks.

    What position he’ll play (second base) and where he’ll bat in the lineup (leadoff) were all set in stone last year, after his standout rookie campaign in 2011.

    Last season, Weeks didn’t join the Oakland ballclub until June, and yet he still finished the season with a .303 batting average, 26 doubles and 22 stolen bases.

    His presence in the lineup certainly ignited the Oakland offense, and his speed at the top was a key contributor to the team scoring more runs during the second half of the season.

    Weeks looks to parlay last season’s grooming into full-term success in 2012. Hopefully, he can carry over his rookie performance from a season ago and improve in the areas where there are holes—defense, in particular.

    The A’s expect great things out of Weeks. He was tagged as Oakland’s lone untouchable player last offseason, as the A’s shipped off nearly everyone from 2011’s roster. He has the right attitude and determination to achieve those lofty goals set by the team and by himself.

    With Weeks at the top of the lineup, the A’s will be able to score some runs, as long as the hitters behind him can move him along.

    If anything, however, the Athletics will have one of the most exciting young infielders in the game for some time to come, one who will hopefully become Oakland’s first position player to be elected to an All-Star Game since 2003.

    2012 outlook: With the second position being so thin in the American League, it’s possible that Weeks could find himself among the selected Midsummer Classic participants. If he can put up numbers close to his 2011 performance (i.e., a .300 batting average and a score of stolen bases), Weeks will indeed be an All-Star.

     

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