There are many difficult decisions in life, but what the Oakland A's should do with recently called up top prospect Jemile Weeks when starting 2B Mark Ellis comes off the DL is not one of them.
To make myself clear, when I say Weeks needs to stay in the big leagues, I don't mean relegating him to a platoon, or to play every other day, or to play twice a week; I mean to play every day...for good.
I'm not one to inflate or exaggerate the impact a rookie has with such a small sample size—it's been a good one, though (.344 BA, 4 RBI, 6 XBH, SB in 9 games)—but watching what Weeks brings to the table makes this a no-brainer, literally.
Ellis, the longest tenured A's player and widely respected throughout the organization, is said to be perfectly healthy and ready to come off the DL as soon as he's eligible, which will be on June 22.
The A's brass—and their balls—will be put to the test when forced to make a decision in which the baseball side interferes with the human-aspect side (having to tell a respected veteran and long-time starter that he will be a back-up the rest of the year).
But the baseball side makes this easy enough, and if the A's are still mulling over what to do—for any reason whatsoever—then the A's have bigger problems than their impotent offense and fragile pitching staff.
However the A's choose to break the news to Ellis is fine by me—tell him to his face, leave a post-it on his locker, leave him an anonymous voice-mail, or paste it in bold letters across Mt. Davis—so long as it is communicated to Ellis that his role has changed ... that it must change ... and for good.
If Ellis finds that unpalatable, I suppose I could understand. And if he wants to be let go, then they need to give him a hug, tell him thank you, wish him well and try to hold back the incongruous grin they're bound to have when acknowledging that Ellis' hamstring injury is the best thing that has happened to the A's all year—because it was the only way the A's were ever going to get around to promoting Weeks this year while still in the playoff picture.
Before going on the DL on June 7 with a strained hamstring, Ellis, who is a free-agent after the season and is not expected to be asked to return, was batting .211 with 1 HR. He wasn't getting on base, he wasn't having quality at-bats, and he wasn't helping the team.
His age and track record make it very plausible that Ellis is primed for a career-worst year offensively.
But that is moot for the simple reason Weeks' performance thus far, along with his pedigree, do not warrant giving Ellis his starting job back. And, ultimately, you would simply have to weigh the type of season you expect Ellis to have the rest of the year—he would have to hit over .300 just to come close to his career batting average—with what you expect to get from Weeks the rest of the way.
You know which direction I lean, and I leaned the same way on June 7 before Weeks ever saw a major league pitch. His talented play thus far only further reaffirms that confidence.
Ellis is by all accounts exactly the type of person who could handle a disappointment like this with professionalism and class—the kind of person that accepts the uncomfortable conflict between his own laudable competitiveness and the team's interest to try and win games as best as it sees fit—but he already expressed his expectation to play considerably to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle.
"I know I'm a good player, I know he's a good player...These things have a way of working themselves out," Ellis said.
The situation will certainly work itself out, but perhaps not in the fashion Ellis expects. It is clear Ellis doesn't expect to be a bench player or even a utility player; it seems he expects the A's to find a way for both of them to play. Together.
And I'm not so sure Ellis' assessment of himself is all that accurate anymore.
I still can't wrap my head around the fact that Ellis hit .291 last year in 124 games. From 2006 through 2009, Ellis was a .256 hitter, and that's close to his career average of .265.
Is Ellis still a standout defender?
He makes all the routine plays—something the A's don't always do—but whether he's lost range at 2B is hard to gauge.
Wherever you come out on Ellis—on his offense, defense, or even his clubhouse "presence"—Weeks is, unequivocally, an upgrade at 2B.
Weeks, the A's No. 1 pick in 2008 and their fifth-best prospect according to Baseball America's 2010 list, has had a hard time staying healthy throughout his minor league career, but he's used a tight, lightning-quick stroke at the plate to drive the ball as well as any A's hitter all year.
In combination with his speed (he's already got three triples) and base stealing ability, he has already become the A's most dynamic player.
The genius formerly known as A's manager Bob Geren actually batted him leadoff in his major league debut, and though that was a mistake, I don't see any reason he shouldn't end up in either the No. 1 or 2 hole in the lineup relatively soon.
I understand that batting ninth supposedly takes the pressure off young hitters by allowing them to relax, and that batting ninth becomes a second leadoff man after the first time through the order, but Crisp and Weeks at the top of the order is a unique weapon.
Not only would the move make the A's better—both right now and into the future—it also would compel me to turn on the tube and watch the A's, rather than from time to time succumbing to the very real fact that the A's are not always worth watching.
My hunch is that this doesn't have a fairy-tale ending. My hunch is that Ellis' pride and competitiveness will be too much to overcome to accept his fate quietly.
My fear—and sadly, a plausible one—is that the A's may not be ready to give Weeks the everyday second base job when Ellis returns, and in turn would give Weeks part-time duties, which I think may be the worst possible move.
This scenario worries me because it is bad for both the team's present and future, and also Weeks' growth as a player.
If anyone is changing positions, it's Ellis; the A's have never been the type of organization that jerks around with a player's set position the moment he hits the big leagues.
Whether Ellis is open to—or capable of—such a change is beyond my capacity for speculation. And the A's aren't going to keep six infielders (you wouldn't think, anyway).
My confidence in Billy Beane and Co. is at an all-time low, and it's gotten me a bit uneasy and primed for a letdown on this matter. To my dismay, I can envision Ellis being in the lineup on June 22 with Weeks on the bench or on a bus to Sacramento.
Say it ain't so, Billy.