By Jason Wojciechowski on February 13, 2012 at 10:20 PM
There's a lot of loose talk flying around about Yoenis Cespedes, a lot of speculation about where he might play, who might get the shaft, and so forth, but I think there's room for an attempt at an exhaustive examination.
The first question is whether Cespedes starts the year in the big leagues or Sacramento. Kevin Goldstein has said that many people think he'll need some time, as much as half a season, in the minors to get ready to face big-league pitching. The A's simultaneously have the ability to let him play in the minors (because nobody expects them to contend in 2012) and don't (because it's only a four-year deal, and how long can you keep a $6.5 million player on the farm?). Indications from Susan Slusser's reporting are that the expectation is that he'll be in the starting lineup against the Mariners in Japan. (I hope he can travel out of the country!)
If Cespedes does start the year in Sacramento, then the Opening Day picture is no different from where it was yesterday: Josh Reddick is in right, Coco Crisp in center, and Seth Smith in left (or a Smith/Gomes platoon), with winners to be determined in the DH and 1B battles. This gives the A's time to sustain an injury or make a trade (Seth Smith would seem to be the obvious candidate, though some argue that it's Coco Crisp) and bring Cespedes up to fill the gap.
What's harder is if Cespedes is, in fact, in the big leagues. The scouting talk, as I synthesize it all, is that he can handle center, but likely would not excel there, while he's almost certain to have above-average range in right and plenty of arm to make the throw to third base. This is in sharp contrast to Coco Crisp, whose range seems to be excellent even by the standards of center fielders and who most certainly does not have the arm for right, thus limiting him to left field if he's not in center.
The sensible course of action, then, would seem to be Crisp in center, where he was all along, with Cespedes in right. This leaves Josh Reddick, Seth Smith, and Jonny Gomes for left field, right? Maybe not. Smith is a good defender, but not such a good defender that you rue taking him out of the field, and Gomes is not known as a leather-man. Thus perhaps you make Josh Reddick your left-fielder and create a DH platoon of Smith and Gomes. One major advantage of this is that Smith can play the field quite adequately on days when you want to give Crisp a half day off (with either Cespedes or Reddick shifting to center), or the same for Reddick or Cespedes (with Smith slotting in directly).
This would of course leave the four 1B/DH options (Chris Carter, Kila Ka'aihue, Daric Barton, and Brandon Allen) battling for just one spot, but I'm not so sure that's bad. Carter has big-time power upside, and Barton has defensive chops and near-elite on-base potential, but it's not clear that Carter, Allen, or Ka'aihue is better than Seth Smith or Jonny Gomes, especially when those two are limited to opposite-hand pitchers.
Alternatively, Gomes and Smith can be the team's fourth and fifth outfielders (with a backup catcher and backup infielder to be named) while 1B and DH are filled the way we always thought they'd be: by picking two of the four from the group of guys who can't play anywhere else. This wouldn't be so objectionable -- Gomes was always going to be a part-time player, after all, and Smith isn't so great that you can't make him a pinch-hitter and fourth outfielder playing here and there.
Of course, that assumes that the A's commitment to Josh Reddick as an every-day player is stronger than said commitment to Seth Smith. If that's not the case, then just swap Reddick in for Smith in the previous paragraph. Then you've still got a regular outfield (except perhaps now it's a platoon outfield, with Gomes/Smith in left) and you've got your two hitters on the bench. Reddick is just as capable of serving as a fourth outfielder as Smith, and comes with the bonus of probably being able to handle center in a pinch, in case Bob Melvin doesn't like shifting guys around positions mid-game (i.e. if he doesn't want to put Cespedes in center after he's started a game in right).
Those all seem like perfectly reasonable options, right? And if someone gets hurt in spring training, then, frankly, it's no big deal. If it's Crisp, you've got Cespedes for center. If it's Reddick, Cespedes goes to right. If it's Smith, then you can go Cespedes-Crisp-Reddick and Gomes can sub in for Reddick against tough lefties sometimes, though perhaps not as often as he might have with Smith. And if it's Gomes ... well, that's harder. Then I guess you fall back on the above scenarios, but with the added bonus that you get to keep an extra one of the 1B/DH types or Collin Cowgill hanging around.
But what if, as Susan Slusser and Jane Lee seem to be saying, Cespedes is the Opening Day centerfielder? Coco Crisp can either be the starting left-fielder or he can be the fourth man on the bench, pinch-running and coming in to play left late in games. Given his actually good defense, he'd likely be better than Rajai Davis in this role.
If Crisp starts in left, that leaves Seth Smith, Jonny Gomes, and Josh Reddick for right-field, which is one place we were above. Gomes and Smith can split the DH duties, with Reddick manning right every day, or Gomes and Smith can be fourth and fifth outfielders. If Crisp is a benchy, things are pretty easy, because all you've done is swap in Cespedes for Crisp in center and Crisp for, say, Cowgill on the bench.
That's, of course, a weird place for Coco Crisp to be in because he's got a multi-year deal with one of the highest dollar values on the team. Still, one would hope that the A's won't consider that. MGL likes to say that when you evaluate players and trades and signings, you don't evaluate players, you evaluate contracts. The field manager, of course, does exactly not that -- he has ~30 guys, picks 25 of them for his squad, and then deploys them. Option status might peek its head out from time to time, but, particularly in terms of the arrangement of the 25, if the goal is to win as many games as possible, the money has to be set aside. Crisp is like the nice TV you bought a few months ago, not realizing that the really nice TV everyone's been talking about was going to go on deep discount later on. Your commune's given you all this money and expects you to spend it, so you may as well get the bigger, nicer TV. You don't have to sell the other one -- you can put it in your bedroom, even if that's not an optimal use of that first TV. It's better than getting pennies on the dollar back for it, and the TV you've currently got in the bedroom has a few glitches and might not be up to snuff.
Did I miss any possibilities? Underrate the odds of any given permutation vs. any other? I considered throwing Manny Ramirez into the mix, but I don't think I can handle that right now. We'll cross that particular dreadlocked bridge when we come to it.