Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane swung what he termed to be his final deal of the offseason on Monday by acquiring infielder Jed Lowrie and reliever Fernando Rodriguez from the Houston Astros for first baseman/designated hitter Chris Carter, pitching prospect Brad Peacock and catching prospect Max Stassi.
Lowrie is the key to the deal for the A's. He provides them with a hedge against Beane's bets at all four infield positions—particularly at shortstop. Beane summed up his interest in Lowrie by telling the media,
Jed is a guy we've had a lot of interest in going back to his Boston days.The No. 1 thing about him is his versatility. He plays all four infield positions and he switch hits.
Lowrie's natural position is shortstop, but the A's current plan is to start the season with Japanese free agent acquisition Hiroyuki Nakajima there. Lowrie can also play third base where the incumbent stater is Josh Donaldson, second base where Scott Sizemore is penciled in as the starter or first base where the A's have Brandon Moss.
Lowrie creates depth and versatility on the infield in case Nakajima struggles in his transition from Japan to the states, or if Sizemore, Donaldson or Moss were to falter.
Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Kaz Matsui, the last two shortstops to transition from Japan, struggled to adapt to shortstop defensively and ultimately ended up at second base. However, Nakajima was a Gold Glove winner in Japan—potentially giving him better odds to stick at short.
Offensively, Matsui hit a mediocre .267/.321/.380 in his American professional career, while Nishioka completely flopped by hitting just .215 in two seasons with the Twins. On the other hand, the Brewers received solid offensive production last season from Japanese rookie Norichika Aoki—who hit .288/.355/.433.
If Nakajima struggles to transition, the A's will now have a solid back-up plan in place with the acquisition of the 28-year-old Lowrie.
Lowrie was an All-American performer at Stanford before being drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the supplemental first round of the 2005 draft. He was ranked as the 73rd best prospect in the minor leagues by Baseball America prior to the 2008 season after hitting .298/.393/.503 in 133 games between Double-A and Triple-A during 2007.
Injuries have prevented Lowrie from blossoming into the star professional player his collegiate and minor league career indicated he was destined to become. He's never been healthy enough to play in 100 games at the big league level. He set a career high by playing in 97 games for the Astros last year before a nerve problem in his sprained ankle cost him nearly two months of action.
When Lowrie was healthy enough to play last year he was productive. He hit just .244 but walked in 11 percent of his plate appearances to boost his on-base percentage to .331. He hit 16 home runs and slugged .438—ranking in the top five in Major League Baseball amongst shortstops in both categories. He's been an above average defender for his career according to the advanced metric Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) at shortstop (+2.4 UZR), second (+1.2) and third base (+2.3).
Carter had an excellent year for the A's as the right-handed platoon partner for Moss at first base last season. He hit .239/.350/.514 with 16 home runs in just 260 plate appearances.
However, unlike the versatile Lowrie, Carter is a limited defensive player who can only play first base. According to UZR, he cost the A's seven runs in only 541 innings. Strikeouts were also a problem for him at the plate, as he whiffed in nearly 32 percent of his plate appearances last year.
In flipping Lowrie for Carter on the infield this season, the A's are trading away some power for fewer strikeouts, more versatility and better defense. Ultimately, the key to the deal for Beane was creating more flexibility on the roster.
Our roster is very interchangeable. That's one of the things we had last year, which worked to our advantage. I think this roster is every bit, if not more, interchangeable than last year's was, and we think that was one of the major reasons we were able to win the division.
Beane's offseason moves led the A's to the American League West crown last year. Thus, re-creating the flexibility that led to a 20-win improvement in 2012 makes plenty of sense for Beane this winter.