Roster shakeout

By Jason Wojciechowski on March 20, 2012 at 11:30 PM

(Quick note first: I've been doing a series over at The Platoon Advantage called "The Path to Respectability" wherein I examine the bad teams in the league and see what it would take to get those teams to 88 wins. I've covered the Orioles, Royals, Mariners, and A's so far. Here is the link to the A's piece. Obviously, as A's fans, you might be interested.)

With the Japan trip coming up shortly (the A's played their last Cactus League game today) and the start of the regular season happening in just a week, the A's roster has mostly shaken out to what it's going to look like, so it's actually time to start thinking about this team as a team rather than a collection of dudes ambling around the fields in Phoenix trying to win jobs and basically boring me to death.

At catcher are Kurt Suzuki and Anthony Recker. This is no real surprise, especially after Scott Sizemore's injury moved Josh Donaldson over to a full-time gig at third. (Spoiler.) Derek Norris was likely not a serious threat to be the backup in Oakland because that kind of prospect is usually a player a team wants to see getting regular at-bats in the minors if they're not going to start in the majors. With Suzuki still around, Norris wasn't going to start in the majors, so the relatively lateness of his cut doesn't really mean much beyond that it's nice to have catchers hanging around spring training and that he's a good prospect. I'm pretty convinced that Suzuki won't be in Oakland past 2012, though I think there's a good chance that he'll finish this season with the club and be traded in the off-season. Things could change, of course, particularly if Suzuki has a hot hitting half (potentially artificially inflating his value) or if Norris destroys the PCL (potentially increasing the pressure on Oakland to bring him up), but no Norris until 2013 is my guess nonetheless.

First base is still relatively unsettled, though we do know that Daric Barton isn't making the trip to Japan. He moved slowly this spring in terms of his recovery from his shoulder injury, requiring cortisone shots, days off, and so forth. Chris Carter has already been optioned out, which shouldn't take any of you by surprise. It might sadden you, as it saddens me, but with Kila Ka'aihue and Brandon Allen both being out of options, and with the A's apparently feeling that Carter hasn't seized anything, he's off to see about setting a PCL record for homers. Or strikeouts. Or both.

Anyway, this leaves, I'd assume, Brandon Allen playing first base in Japan with Kila Ka'aihue on the bench. (I'll get to DH in a second.) I have no real reason for thinking that Allen will start over Ka'aihue beyond that Bob Melvin seems to really love Allen. Ka'aihue is a lefty swinger, so a platoon likely isn't in the works. Still, I'm sure the A's would like to keep the Kila Monster on hand as a pinch-hitter and potential replacement for Allen in case of injury, so unless someone offers them a nice treat or two in trade, I assume we'll see Ka'aihue in a backup role in Japan, and then quite possibly in Oakland as well, depending on how Barton makes it back. (Or perhaps not depending at all, given that Barton, like Carter, has an option, and thus could find himself starting the year in AAA as well.)

Yoenis Cespedes was announced as the Opening Day center-fielder, which I had come to expect. There had been talk when he signed that he was more comfortable in center than the corners, and there were rumblings of Coco Crisp moving to left almost from day one. I think it's a little unfortunate that Crisp didn't end up in the fourth outfielder situation, as I'd hoped he would, since he's very likely the fourth-best hitter in the Cespedes-Josh Reddick-Seth Smith group (especially if you consider Smith not to be Smith but JonSeth SmiGomes, the horrid chimera that results from a L/R platoon). That said, he's also probably the best fly-catcher in the group (given the utter lack of demi-gods willing to play baseball these days), and you Weaverites will remember that The Great Earl used to play offense-defense "backwards," starting his best defensive player, playing him for six or seven innings, and using his better hitter as a guy who could come up in a big spot and make a difference. Far be it from me to compare Bob Melvin and Earl Weaver, but we really should not forget defense or overrate the value of an arm, especially in left field.

It hasn't been officially announced that I know of, but it appears that Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes will be DHing. Nothing else makes much sense. I wouldn't be surprised to see, given that it's not one of the sluggy first basemen manning the spot, a rotation through DH that allows Reddick or Cespedes a half-day off. (If Crisp ever plays DH, I will personally fire Melvin.) Like I said, though, that's speculation.

On the pitching side of the ledger, Grant Balfour, cusser extraordinaire, is the closer, having beat out Brian Fuentes and seen Joey Devine fall by the wayside with a biceps injury. I'm pretty happy about this, in a sense, because it means that Melvin did recognize the better pitcher. It's unfortunate, though, because it puts said better pitcher in a situation that might well be less leveraged than the eighth inning role in which Balfour has thrived for the last couple of years. Someday we will have a manager, pitching coach, and GM willing to tell their charges that the bullpen is going to be run a different way than they're used to, and said bullpenners will simply have to accept it. Someday, I say.

As to the starters, Brad Peacock and Jarrod Parker have both been sent out, the latter after tossing a terrible seven-walk game in his final appearance, but Melvin has made it clear that both are still in the hunt for the fifth starter role. The A's won't need one of those for a few weeks, so they'll work in minor-league camp and AAA and try to impress the scouts and the brass enough to get the call when the day comes. What I'm unsure about is who the four-man rotation is. You've got Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon, of course, and behind them Tommy Milone has made the squad. After that, though, Tyson Ross and Graham Godfrey are still here, but it's not clear which of them is considered the #4 man and which is just a bullpenner "battling" for the fifth job with Peacock and Parker. Arguably, in fact, that bullpenner isn't battling at all, but is simply the long reliever and will stay so come mid-April.

I don't mind either way. Ross's inability to understand where his pitches are going and Godfrey's thoroughly unimpressive stuff have me pretty well convinced that neither is going to be a long-term asset in the rotation. They should be viewed as placeholders for Dallas Braden, Parker/Peacock, and, eventually, Brett Anderson anyway. All four of those injured/optioned pitchers are or will soon be better than either Godfrey or Ross, and it seems that the A's are treating them appropriately. They're filler, and they'll do their damnedest to fill for as long as they need to, because every team always needs some filler somewhere. You can make a nice living filling.

Finally, in the rest of the bullpen, the locks are still locks: Fuentes and Fautino De Los Santos are here. Joey Devine is eligible to rejoin the roster in early April, and I'd guess that he's more or less a lock, too. (Though 2011 shows what I know.) With Balfour, that's three guys, and eventually four. And further, with the Godfrey/Ross situation, that's four/five. Jerry Blevins is out of options, and I don't know that there's any reason not to keep him, so there's five/six. After that, the cuys left are some non-roster pitchers (Evan Scribner, Travis Schlicting), Ryan Cook, Andrew Carignan, and Jordan Norberto. I don't understand why we're even talking about Travis Schlicting, but we are. It'd presumably require losing Pedro Figueroa or Sean Doolittle on waivers, and both had moderate amounts of buzz during the spring, especially Figueroa, a lefty who was only recently cut from the major-league squad. Without Schlicting, you've got a 7/8-man bullpen with some hard throwers, some promising youngsters, and some lefties. I don't know what else a losing team could want.

Well, besides not carrying so many damn relief pitchers, but that ship sailed back during the Bush presidency, so I'll probably stop litigating the issue at some point. Still, if the A's were willing to go to war with Balfour-Fuentes-De Los Santos-Cook-Blevins-Godfrey, dumping Carignan and Norberto until the next injury (and sending Cook down, most likely, whenever Devine comes back), they could keep a six-man bench that would allow them to hang on to Melvin-favorite Collin Cowgill and two of the three utility infielders (Adam Rosales, Eric Sogard, Wes Timmons). Not to mention The Kila Monster, Jonny Gomes, and Anthony Recker. This wouldn't last, because the team will need that fifth starter, but you might be able to find a spot on another team for Rosales by the time that issue arises. (Timmons is also a non-roster player and thus would require a 40-man dump, which raises the question of whether the A's will trade Rosales to clear room for him.) Instead, the A's will probably go with seven or (hell, why not) eight relievers and force themselves into some tough decisions on the position-player side.

None of this deals with the weirdness of the Japan situation, either. The A's are allowed to take 30 men overseas and designate 25 of them for each game. (As I understand it.) I would assume that Bartolo Colon will be deactivated for Game 1 and Brandon McCarthy for Game 2, but will the team load up with relievers and benchies and deactivate Tom Milone and (assuming he's the fourth starter) Tyson Ross? This would, on the one hand, possibly be wise. On the other hand, neither of those two is going to need to pitch until the regular-ass season starts, so they could conceivably pitch in emergency relief without disturbing their schedules to start come April.

My guess is that we'll see this:

The ten starters (eight + the Smith/Gomes platoon), Recker, Ka'aihue, Rosales, Sogard, and Cowgill on the position side. That's 15.

The starting pitcher for that game makes 16.

The other nine will be the eight bullpen pitchers I mentioned above + Tyson Ross.

Deactivated for both games will be Tom Milone (someone who hasn't worked in relief), Wes Timmons (could still make the team, but would require a 40-man move), and the two non-roster pitchers (ditto). McCarthy won't be active in Game 2, and Colon in Game 1.

There's a set of 30 and 25 that should provide plenty of options for Bob Melvin without requiring any permanent roster moves, losing anybody on waivers, and so forth. The A's could still trade Rosales or even Sogard to make room for Timmons after Japan. They could find a way to squeeze Schlicting on. They can do all manner of things about their normal 25-man roster that includes all their starters, both during the four- and five-man rotation stage of things, and they can put off all these decisions until the other 28 teams in the league (the Mariners being in the same boat as the A's) have to make them.