Over the offseason, the A's addressed their lack of power in the lineup primarily by signing Hideki Matsui and trading for Josh Willingham. One returning Oakland player decided to take it upon himself to address his own lack of power during the offseason, however.
With Spring Training now in full swing, one of the most pleasant surprises early on is the physical condition of returning first baseman Daric Barton.
Barton, acquired by the A's in the December 2004 trade that also sent starting pitcher Dan Haren to Oakland in exchange for Mark Mulder, is entering his seventh season in the Athletics' organization. Barton burst onto the scene in his September call-up in 2007, batting .347/.429/.639 with four home runs and nine doubles over 72 at-bats in 18 games. Barton was supposed to be a symbol of Beane's rebuild success.
Unfortunately, 2008, his first full season in the majors, was a forgettable campaign. Barton played in 140 games for Oakland in 2008, but was only able to put together a hitting line of .226/.327./.348 with nine home runs and 47 RBI. As a result of his poor season, he found himself demoted to Triple-A Sacramento just before the start of the regular season in 2009. Bouncing back and forth between Sacramento and Oakland, he only managed 54 games in the majors, batting .269/.372/.413 with three home runs in 160 at-bats.
Last season, Barton emerged as one of the games most under-rated first basemen. His batting improved as he provided the A's with a batting line of .273/.393/.405 with 10 home runs and 57 RBI. He played in an impressive 159 games for the A's. Obviously happy with his improved offensive game, it was his range and defense at first base that most caught the attention of the A's front office, as well as his teammates and A's fans.
"I called him when he didn't get the Gold Glove and I was like, 'Oh, my God, are you serious?' But with Daric, day in and day out, you see him get to balls no one else possibly could get to. It's a crying shame no one has acknowledged that," said teammate Dallas Braden recently.
"Whenever I hear people talking about our need for an upgrade at first base, I chuckle," A's general manager Billy Beane had to say. "We're perfectly happy and very pleased - his defense in our opinion is amongst the best at the position in the game, his on-base percentage is good and both are getting better. ... He's a championship-caliber first baseman."
In fact, his game had improved so much that ESPN's Evan Brunell called him one of the game's best first-basemen, placing Daric in the same breath as New York's Mark Teixeira and Philadelphia's Ryan Howard.
Looking to improve on his promising 2010 season, Barton hired a personal trainer over the offseason and went to work on entering camp this year in the best shape of his life. Working out daily with Southern California trainer Brad Davidson, Barton reportedly has lost ten pounds of fat while adding fifteen pounds of muscle. His body-fat percentage dropped four percent.
"When I went down to Triple-A in '09, everything hit home. I've started to realize more and more that I need to concentrate on my career," Barton admits.
His new physique has him feeling great with a bat so far this spring. "I've never felt so good swinging the bat," Barton said. "I knew right away things would be better, taking batting practice. I would say I have more pop."
If Barton has indeed added more power to his game, he will have removed the one argument his detractors have against him. While Barton (once projected to be a 25 home run caliber hitter) plays at a position primarily known as a power position, his career high (albeit in only two full seasons) is ten home runs.
Hitting in a lineup that will offer him more protection and with better conditioning that helped add "pop" to his swing again, it is a realistic possibility that in 2011, Barton could finally put his full game together and double his home run total from last season. What a boost that would be to an already improved Oakland lineup.
"He looks great, awesome - a start contrast with where he was a few years ago," Braden said. "This shows how concerned he is about health and preparation, and obviously that spills over to every other facet of the game. As a friend, I'm excited for him."
While Braden, "as a friend", is excited for Barton; as a fan, I am excited for the A's 2011 season and what Daric Barton brings to the table.