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Oakland Athletics' Top Storylines at the Start of Spring Training

Nick HouserCorrespondent IIFebruary 18, 2013

Oakland Athletics' Top Storylines at the Start of Spring Training

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    The Oakland Athletics won't have some ho-hum spring training in 2013. Nay, this year begins with plenty of action and excitement in the form of players earning roster spots and position battles.

    Why shouldn't enthusiasm carry over from last year?

    During the offseason, the A's swapped Cliff Pennington for Chris Young, let several free-agent veterans walk, signed Hiroyuki Nakajima and traded for Jed Lowrie. The incoming faces are slated to serve as depth, but on any other club could very well start.

    Beyond the much-talked about platooning, there's plenty to look for in A's camp.

    A few young guys will try to make the 25-man roster, a starter last year will try to hold on to his job and several men will vie for one position. A few more players are in the midst of a transition in their careers and will need to utilize spring training.

    There's a lot on the line.

    Here's what to watch for during Oakland's spring camp.

7. Which Familiar Face Doesn't Make It?

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    Outside of the familiar locks for nearly 20 or so roster spots, there's an additional dozen men or more fighting for limited spots.

    Many aren't going to make it.

    Some of those who don't will be veterans themselves.

    The list of guys who are out of options includes: Daric Barton, Travis Blackley, Jerry Blevins, Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Pat Neshek, Chris Resop and Adam Rosales. This means that should any of them not make the big league roster, they will be placed on waivers. If claimed, they move on to another team.

    Additionally, there's non-roster invitees.

    From 37-year-old Hideki Okajima to 19-year-old Addison Russell, there's plenty of competition for those few precious spots.

    So who is likely to finish spring training without a job on the Oakland A's?

    The candidates for this unfortunate category are Jemile Weeks, Barton and Okajima.

    Weeks faces stiff competition at second base with Jed Lowrie, Scott Sizemore, Grant Green, Adam Rosales and possibly even Hiroyuki Nakajima. Should he not make the team as the starter, the fact that he is pigeon-holed at second may hurt him. There's better, more versatile options for the infield.

    Barton has been a bit of a disappointment.

    His value now lies in his abilitiy to play a better defensive first base than Brandon Moss. But with Michael Taylor beginning a transition from outfield to first and Seth Smith considering the same, Barton is the one who could end up taking the backseat.

    With Okajima, it's very simple.

    If he overwhelmingly outplays any of the other bullpen options, he earns a spot. But it won't be easy. The guys "ahead" of him are players who have been here, players who manager Bob Melvin knows.

    If Okajima does make the roster, it'll be interesting to see whose spot he takes.

6. It's Their Job to Lose

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    Josh Donaldson is slated as the Oakland Athletics' starting third baseman according to the team website. Likewise, John Jaso sits atop the depth chart over Derek Norris.

    But neither man should feel entirely safe.

    Donaldson took over third base last year after incumbent Scott Sizemore suffered a torn ACL. Donaldson began a bit shaky, forcing the team to acquire Brandon Inge. But after Inge too was lost for the season, it was back to Donaldson. Luckily, he thrived.

    This year, Sizemore returns. Additionally, Jed Lowrie will serve as competition.

    Two things bode well for Donaldson: before the Lowrie trade, Donaldson received a vote of confidence, and in the latest reports from spring camp there are no mentions of Lowrie in competition at third (h/t the San Jose Mercury News).

    Donaldson has the job, as long as he doesn't greatly underwhelm.

    As for Jaso, he's simply the better catcher right now compared to Norris. His stats are better in nearly every facet of the game.

    Although, the A's were willing to part with long-time catcher Kurt Suzuki to provide space for Norris. Any team would likely view a powerful 24-year-old as a long-term solution over a 29-year-old journeyman.

    If and when Norris catches fire, Jaso becomes the clear backup.

5. Who Will Be the 5th Starter?

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    Brett Anderson, Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone solidified their positions in the rotation last year (for Anderson, the years before that too). Bartolo Colon is on the depth chart as the No. 2 starter, but with Parker and Milone's talent combined with Colon's age and mediocrity, that would be foolish.

    Still, Colon is likely to be somewhere in the rotation.

    Though his sample size is small, A.J. Griffin performed very well in the latter half of the 2012 season, including playoffs. He's easily a candidate for a spot in the rotation.

    It very well could be Anderson, Parker, Milone, Colon and Griffin.

    Then again, Dan Straily, Sonny Gray and possibly Travis Blackley will be vying for a spot as well.

    Straily presents the most plausible candidate to "steal" a spot. He pitched in seven major league games in 2012, acquiring a 2-1 record with a 3.89 ERA and 1.322 WHIP. Straily is Oakland's second-best prospect.

    Gray is the fifth-best Athletics prospect. However, last season between Double- and Triple-A, Gray struggled a bit, pitching to a 6-9 record with a 4.26 ERA.

    Blackley also is a realistic candidate for the rotation. He filled in for injuries in 2012, performing admirably. Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle tweeted that he enters camp as a long reliever with potential for the rotation.

    Colon or Griffin will earn the No. 4 spot.

    The loser of that battle faces three other guys hoping for the final spot in the rotation.

4. Can the Top Prospects Realistically Earn a Spot?

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    There are two interesting non-roster invitees to A's spring training this year, one much more than the other.

    The first is Michael Choice.

    The No. 1 prospect in Oakland's system, Choice has the fact that he plays outfield working against him. He also has yet to play in anything higher than Double-A.

    For those two reasons, it's nearly a guarantee he starts in the minors, but he'll be fun to watch because if he does light spring training up, he'll be in the mix for an outfield that already includes Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick and Chris Young. If he does unexpectedly beat one of those men out, you won't want to have missed it.

    The other case is Addison Russell.

    The reason this is so intriguing is the fact that Russell was Oakland's first-round draft pick in the 2012 draft. The kid is literally only 19 years old.

    But the fact remains, he got invited to camp. The A's wouldn't waste their time if they weren't legitimately confident in Russell's ability. He did, after all, hit .369 in his first season out of high school. That's incredible.

3. Lowrie and Young Are in It to Win It

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    Josh Donaldson has a spot, and it's his to lose.

    Chris Young and Jed Lowrie, on the other hand, enter camp as alternatives. Neither have an everyday position—rather, both will fill in as needed and where needed. Both, however, were starters pre-Oakland.

    Young must outplay Crisp, Cespedes or Reddick—a difficult task to do. Or, he has to simply outhit Seth Smith. Otherwise, he's the fourth outfielder and another option at DH.

    Lowrie has a better chance to start.

    He can either win second base, shortstop or third base outright. Unlike Young, whose competition includes All-Stars, Gold Glove winners and team leaders in home runs, Lowrie's competition includes a second-year guy, a 30-year-old who has never played Major League Baseball and a guy coming off an ACL injury.

    It wouldn't be surprising to see Lowrie earn a spot.

    It will be fascinating to see if Young can.

2. Hiroyuki Nakajima's Transition

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    Hiroyuki Nakajima hit .311 last year with 13 home runs and 74 RBI in 136 games. Of course, that was with the Seibu Lions of Japan.

    The question is, how will his talents transition to Major League Baseball?

    Well, if his work ethic is any indication, he should be just fine. Nakajima reported to spring training two weeks before his official report date to put in the extra work, according to Jane Lee of MLB.com. And so far, so good.

    "We're all pleasantly surprised with what we are seeing," manager Bob Melvin said. "His hands work very well, as far as batting practice, and he's not trying to do too much. His hands looked very sure while taking ground balls, too (source: Lee/MLB.com)."

    That should come as a sigh of relief for A's fans. Now hopefully it continues to carry over into the regular season.

1. Who Will Earn Second Base?

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    The biggest storyline from A's camp this year is second base.

    Normally, a competition for a starting position is among two guys. Sometimes there can be a third guy involved, but even then, he's more of a wild card or long shot.

    This season, though, Oakland has four reasonable options. That's not including a fallback and a long-shot option, making six total.

    Here's a look at each:

     

    Jemile Weeks

    Weeks took over at second late in the 2011 season. He hit .303 and stole 22 bases, appearing to be the long-term answer for the position.

    Then he hit .221 in 2012. Not only did he lose his starting role, Weeks was sent to the minors.

    He'll certainly want to earn second base back, but he'll only be able to if he returns to the form he flashed his rookie year.

     

    Scott Sizemore

    First, Sizemore is only a career .239 hitter. Second, he's returning from an entire year lost to injury. Third, he's transitioning back to second base, after switching from there to third base in the middle of the 2011 season.

    The advantage Sizemore has is that, while Weeks is coming off a disappointing year, Sizemore's last production was actually some of the best he's had in his career. At the end of 2011, he hit .249 with Oakland.

     

    Adam Rosales

    So far, Rosales has been a career backup. Unless something crazy happens, he should remain the backup. Though, his opposition isn't necessarily super difficult to outdo.

    Rosales would have to do something amazing and rely on everyone else failing to get the job.

     

    Grant Green

    Green has done very well in the minor leagues and it's time for him to get his shot at the big-league level.

    Drafted as a shortstop, he's made the switch to the outfield before transitioning once more to second base. A .302 hitter in the minors, it would seem as if the A's are trying desperately to find a spot for him in the lineup.

    Second is his best chance to earn a position this year.

     

    Jed Lowrie

    Before becoming an everyday shortstop, Lowrie was an All-American second baseman at Stanford (h/t: John Hickey of MercuryNews.com). If the other options truly don't work out while Lowrie tears spring camp up, the A's may have no choice but to find him a spot.

    And second is the only place still wide open.

     

    Hiroyuki Nakajima

    In a recent article by Susan Slusser, the San Francisco Chronicle writer makes an almost eerie connection between Yoenis Cespedes and Nakajima.

    Slusser notes that Cespedes arrived to camp last season slated to be the starting center fielder, but moved to left for Coco Crisp. This year it's Lowrie who desires to remain at shortstop with Nakajima arriving to take over the role.

    May we see Nakajima move to second to open short up for Lowrie?

    It wouldn't be absurd, especially since we've seen it before.

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