This was originally expected to be a rare spring where most of the A’s roster was pretty much set, with very few roster questions left to be answered. Possibly the biggest question when camp opened was – who would be the 13th position player to make the squad?
For much of the offseason, there was some uncertainty surrounding John Jaso’s physical status and manager Bob Melvin frequently mentioned his name as a likely candidate to get lots of at-bats as the team’s designated hitter. So it was expected the A’s would probably need to carry three catchers, meaning that lefty-swinging backstop Stephen Vogt, who ably filled in for Jaso when he went down last season, would likely make the team.
Once games got going though, it started to look like Jaso was ready to reclaim his spot behind the plate and it seemed that first baseman Daric Barton, who is out of options, was emerging as the favorite to claim the final roster spot. That wasn’t the only new development to shake up the A’s roster picture though.
Reliever Ryan Cook reported to camp with a sore shoulder that kept him off the mound, newly-acquired outfielder Craig Gentry arrived in Arizona with a strained back that kept him out of the lineup and, just this weekend, first baseman Barton had to be pulled from Saturday’s contest against Colorado after straining his left hamstring – and as we all know, hamstring issues can be notoriously tricky.
Prior to tweaking his hamstring though, Barton had been garnering attention as one of the A’s hottest hitters in the early spring, posting a .444/.643/.667 slash line in his first 7 games. But a number of other players had also been busy putting themselves on the map by coming out of the box with strong spring performances, including Barton’s chief competitor for the final roster spot, catcher Stephen Vogt, along with a trio of outfielders – veteran Sam Fuld, former top prospect Michael Taylor and young speed-burner Billy Burns – while right-handed reliever Evan Scribner was also doing his best to impress out of the bullpen.
Clearly, between some unexpected injuries and some surprising early spring performances, there could be a few changes to the face of the A’s opening day roster. So let’s take at how things are shaping up with a little over three weeks to go until opening day…
Counted on as one of the A’s key setup men, Cook arrived in camp with a sore shoulder and, more than three weeks after pitchers first reported, he still hasn’t faced live batters. Even if the right-hander is able to get into a game in the next week, and doesn’t suffer any setbacks, he’s clearly behind schedule. And it’s entirely possible that Cook could end up needing a little extra time in extended spring training before the team feels he’s totally game-ready.
One of the A’s key offseason acquisitions, the team is expecting Gentry to be a force in the lineup against left-handed starters and to do a better job filling in for the A’s starting outfielders than Chris Young did in that role last year. But the player who was known as “Kitten Face” in Texas reported to camp with a lower back strain and, after a week and a half’s worth of games, he still hasn’t been cleared to make an appearance in the field. The A’s are counting on Gentry to lend a dynamic presence to the lineup but, if his back is still bugging him in a couple of weeks, then he might just end up starting the season on the sidelines.
A long-serving presence in the A’s picture, the team’s on-again/off-again first baseman appeared to be on-again after a strong early spring performance and Jaso’s seeming return to normal behind the plate, minimizing the need for the team to carry three catchers and enabling the A’s to avoid having to expose Barton to waivers. But after this weekend’s hamstring strain, he could very well be off-again. There’s no report yet on the severity of the strain, but hamstrings are always a tricky issue, and it’s rarely wise to expect a quick or smooth road to recovery.
Scribner started the spring as essentially the 8th man in a 7-man bullpen. Manager Bob Melvin has all but said that Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson, Dan Otero, Jesse Chavez, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook are set. But with only one left-hander in that group and one of the team’s most promising left-handers, Fernando Abad, out of options, it’s been expected that Scribner, who is also out of options, would be the odd man out. But probably the only pitchers who’ve been more effective than Scribner so far this spring would be Chavez, Doolittle and possibly right-hander Arnold Leon. With Doolittle and Chavez already locks and Leon slated to start the season in the River Cats rotation, if Cook is unable to be in the A’s bullpen on opening day, then Scribner is obviously the A’s go-to guy. His strong performance so far this spring and the fact that he’s out of options should make the choice an easy one.
When camp opened, the assumption was that Vogt was likely to claim the A’s final roster spot. With manager Bob Melvin repeatedly mentioning that John Jaso might be getting a lot of at-bats as the team’s designated hitter this year, the need for the team to carry a third catcher seemed obvious. And Vogt did a great job of endearing himself to A’s fans and staff alike when he filled in for Jaso late last season and in the playoffs, where he started every game and came up with the key hit for the A’s in their Game #2 victory. But as spring games got going and Jaso seemed ready to re-establish himself behind the plate and Daric Barton was busy getting on base about two-thirds of the time, carrying a third catcher seem to decrease in importance and protecting Barton from waivers seemed to increase in importance, leaving Vogt destined for a spot behind the plate in Sacramento. But if Barton’s strained hamstring keeps him out of action for a few weeks, then Vogt, who’s been one of the team’s best hitters early this spring, posting a .467/.529/.667 slash line, could have a shot at reclaiming his roster spot with the A’s.
Signed fairly late in the game to a minor-league contract, there originally didn’t appear to be much opportunity for Fuld to make the team. The outfield was set with Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp and John Reddick, with Craig Gentry as the fourth outfielder and first baseman Brandon Moss also available to fill in in the outfield. But Fuld has been one of the team’s hottest hitters so far this spring, with a .304/.360/.565 slash line, and has impressed manager Bob Melvin and his staff with his play in the field. And if either Gentry or Barton isn’t ready to go by opening day, Fuld is well-positioned to take advantage of the opportunity. Like Barton, he’s a left-handed hitter and, like Gentry, he can also play center field if needed. So if the A’s end up needing a replacement for either of those two players, Fuld is well-suited to fill the bill. His hot spring and the fact that he has an opt-out clause that he can exercise if he doesn’t make the opening day roster, don’t hurt his chances either.
The A’s former top prospect and the River Cats’ all-time hit leader, Taylor appeared to be nearing a dead end with the A’s this spring as he was out of options and seemingly without a major league roster spot available to shoot for. But after a heart-to-heart talk with manager Bob Melvin early this spring, he suddenly started looking like a new man in the batter’s box. And Taylor has been one of the A’s most productive hitters thus far, posting a .333/.379/.556 slash line while playing every day this spring. With Fuld’s ability to play center field though, it might take both Barton and Gentry being unavailable on opening day for Taylor to have a shot at making the roster. But if both of them are out and Fuld claims one of the available spots, then Taylor might make the most logical replacement for Gentry’s right-handed bat against left-handers, while the A’s put off exposing the former top prospect to waivers and give him one last shot to show what he can do.
The right-handed half of the A’s first-base platoon in 2013, it’s been assumed that Freiman was ticketed for Sacramento in 2014. But could he have the chance to hang on to his roster spot if fellow first baseman Barton starts the season on the shelf? It’s possible, but the problem with Freiman is that he’s essentially a one-trick pony. He can only play first base and he can only hit left-handed pitching, so he’s basically cut out to be the right-handed half of a first base platoon. But with the team seemingly intent on installing Alberto Callaspo in that position at this point, there’s really not much room for Freiman on the roster. Besides, his .167/.286/.333 slash line so far this spring hasn’t been particularly impressive. And even if both Barton and Gentry aren’t ready to go on opening day, and the team wants to fill one of those spots with a right-handed bat to replace Gentry’s, why wouldn’t they go with Taylor, who’s out of options, while they can stash Freiman at Sacramento? Freiman’s best shot at making the roster would most likely come not as a result of injury but rather as the result of a trade, namely of the man who’s most likely to take his job – Mr. Callaspo.
The player who baseball columnist Ken Rosenthal called “the most intriguing player in the A’s camp” could be the wild card in all this. Acquired from the Nationals in the Jerry Blevins deal, Burns has excited A’s fans and staff alike this spring with his ability to get on base and his blazing speed. After a week and a half’s worth of spring games, he sports a .406 OBP. And at one point, his 7 stolen bases not only led all players but led all teams in the Cactus League. Burns has clearly generated a lot of excitement and impressed a lot of the right people this spring, but it’s important to remember that the young switch-hitter is still relatively inexperienced, having played just 30 games above Class-A in his career. So while he undoubtedly has the skills to impress and excite, the stars might really have to be aligned perfectly for Burns to get his shot at this point.
Stay tuned for our on-the-scene reports from spring training next week!
* * *