Over the weekend, the Oakland A’s traded for Chris Young, paying very little for an undervalued asset that gives them a leg up on the offseason. It also gives them an interesting set of permutations with which to arrange their lineup next season, given their current roster configuration.
Now, to be certain, we are uncertain of how the A’s lineup will look next season. There is a long winter ahead of us, and anything can and will happen with general manager Billy Beane at the helm. While Young was reportedly on the block, you would have been hard pressed to name Oakland as a logical candidate, given the fact that they already had a full outfield. But, now that it has, let’s press forward, not backward.
Let’s assume a couple of things. First, that Stephen Drew returns to Oakland. With Cliff Pennington being shipped off in the deal, the options at shortstop are Brandon Hicks, Adam Rosales and Eric Sogard, and none of those are palatable. Hence, it stands to reason that Oakland knows Drew will be back, or they wouldn’t have dealt Pennington. Even if doesn’t stand to reason, let’s just say that it does, OK? And since they’re picking up Drew’s $10 million option, and with Josh Donaldson now the incumbent at third base, the team is unlikely to pick up Brandon Inge’s $6 million option for him to serve in a backup role. Finally, let’s assume the following 13-person roster:
Catcher: George Kottaras, Derek Norris
Infielders: Chris Carter, Josh Donaldson, Stephen Drew, Brandon Moss, Scott Sizemore, Jemile Weeks
Outfielders: Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Seth Smith, Chris Young
You’ll notice I didn’t list a designate hitter. That’s because with this roster, the A’s will have the luxury of rotating the DH on a nightly basis, mainly from the outfield.
But let’s step back from that for a second, and start at catcher. Judging from how Bob Melvin worked things in the postseason, Norris would appear to be the starting catcher, but Melvin will have the freedom to liberally splice in Kottaras. Kottaras doesn’t end up having great batting averages, but over the past three seasons, he is a league-average hitter from both sides of the plate (97 wRC+ in 129 PA vs. LHP, 103 wRC+ in 453 PA vs. RHP). Kottaras didn’t see much time against lefties while in Milwaukee thanks to Jonathan Lucroy, but he has handled them well enough when given an opportunity (0.83 BB/K). That’s a valuable weapon. Last season, only 21 catchers posted a wRC+ of 100 or better (min. 200 PA), and of them, only 11 posted a wRC+ of 97 or better from both sides of the plate. That the A’s have one of those 11 guys as a bench option is a boon.
In the infield, things seem fairly set as well. At first base, the platoon of Chris Carter against lefties and Brandon Moss against righties figures to continue to make beautiful music. Donaldson will be the primary starter at third, Sizemore the primary starter at second and Drew at shortstop. Mixing in will also be Weeks, who has underwhelmed in the bigs so far, but still figures to make the team in some capacity. Still, despite Weeks’ struggles this past season, if you look back three years, his splits against right-handed pitching are better than those of Donaldson, who has posted a .281 wOBA, as well as a 0.19 BB/K against righties in that time. Donaldson did much better against righties in 2012, but if he struggles against them next season, or simply needs a day off, Oakland can swing Sizemore to third and put Weeks at second. It doesn’t figure to become a regular platoon, but Weeks’ stature will demand that he gets a certain number of PAs, and this seems like the easiest avenue to get him that. In fact, the announcement of Donaldson at third and Sizemore at second could be geared to motivate Weeks. If Weeks plays to his scouting report, the A’s would be able to regularly start him at second and platoon Donaldson and Sizemore at third.
The one fly in the ointment could be shortstop, as this roster doesn’t include a capable backup for Drew. However, when from 2007 to the time Drew broke his ankle in 2011, he played in more than 90 percent of the D-backs games, including three seasons with 150 or more games played. If he maintains that level of health in 2013, Oakland can fake shortstop for the 10 or so games Drew needs a breather. Who knows, perhaps Grant Green will force his way up for some spot starts.
It’s the outfield and DH where the genius of this lineup really comes into play. The A’s now have two center fielders (three if you count Cespedes, though we probably shouldn’t), and can platoon them pretty easily. Over the past three seasons, Crisp has a 107 wRC+ against righties, and a 92 wRC+ versus lefties. Young dovetails this beautifully, with a 93 wRC+ against righties and a 130 wRC+ versus lefties. So against righties, the normal lineup would figure to be Reddick in right, Crisp in center, Cespedes in left and Smith at DH. But while Smith has a robust 121 wRC+ against righties the past three years, his 32 wRC+ against lefties makes it all but certain that he sits against southpaws. The A’s still have a couple of options, though. If they want to run a great defensive lineup, they can run out Crisp, Young and Reddick in the pasture, with Cespedes at DH. Or, if they want a better option than Crisp at the dish, they can rest him and Smith, and play both Moss and Carter. While Carter is the better hitter of the duo against lefties, Moss has been a league average hitter in the 65 PA he’s been given against lefties the past three years. It’s obviously not a lot to go on, but the point is that the A’s have that option. And there are others still. Smith is still a good defensive outfielder, and Moss can fake it ‘til he rakes it in the corners as well.
With Young in the fold, the A’s could look to move Crisp — surely there would be a market for him given the fact that he played well last season and only has a guaranteed $8 million left on his contract. But having them both means that at full strength, the A’s can put out a lineup where it’s conceivable that they will never have a player with a wRC+ lower than 85 (assuming of course, that Norris matures). And when injuries inevitably happen, the team will be deep enough to keep punching hard. Last season, the A’s had to endure Eric Sogard’s 29 wRC+ across 100 PA, Pennington’s 65 wRC+ for 462 and Kurt Suzuki’s 47 wRC+ for 278 PA, to say nothing of the sub-.100 ISO’s posted by Daric Barton and Collin Cowgill. With all of these suboptimal contributions, the team only finished eighth in the AL in runs scored. As the offense came together throughout the course of the season, that rank improved, and a lot of the improvement was due to the outfield, which produced 41 more runs than any other unit last season. And now with Young, there are more options and more opportunities to continuously play a fearsome lineup.
Bob Melvin wasn’t afraid to mix and match with his offense last year, and with Chris Young in the fold, he may end up like a little kid rearranging his Mr. Potato Head throughout 2013. The A’s will have the chance to run out at least two quality players at each defensive position, shortstop excepted. This depth will give them a chance to not have a serious weakness whether the opposing pitcher is left- or right-handed. Obviously there is plenty of time between now and next April, and things can and will change. But given the A’s current roster, their depth will be matched by few teams in baseball. Your move, Anaheim and Texas.