As we pointed out in our analysis of the John Jaso trade just recently, the A’s are clearly in “WIN NOW” mode. And the team made another “WIN NOW” move on Monday, dealing part-time first baseman Chris Carter, minor league pitcher Brad Peacock and minor league catcher Max Stassi to the Houston Astros for infielder Jed Lowrie and right-handed reliever Fernando Rodriguez.
Lowrie is a 28-year-old former 1st-round draft pick out of Stanford. The switch-hitter hit a career-high 16 home runs in 340 at-bats with the Astros last season. He’s played primarily at shortstop in his 5-year major league career but has also spent time at third, second and first, and his versatility provides the A’s with added depth at every infield position.
Rodriguez is a hard-throwing right-handed reliever who has some control issues but who also managed to strike out an average of 10 batters per 9 innings last year. The 28-year-old has a tendency to give up the long ball and posted an ERA of 5.37 in 70 1/3 innings with the Astros last season. Rodriguez will likely have to battle with Pat Neshek and Chris Resop for a spot on the right side of the A’s bullpen.
To acquire the pair, the A’s parted with three players who’ve all spent far more time in the minors than the majors: Max Stassi, the most highly rated catching prospect in the system who has been praised for his abilities behind the plate but who has also been hampered by injuries and has yet to progress beyond A ball; Brad Peacock, who was slated to be one of the top starters at Sacramento this season but who had his ups and downs last year and ended up posting a 6.01 ERA with the River Cats; and Chris Carter, who was supposed to be the right-handed half of the A’s first base platoon this year. Carter, the only one of the three who was expected to start the year on the major league roster, had formerly been a top prospect but, despite his strong power numbers in the second half last year, his September struggles strengthened the A’s doubts about his potential for long-term success.
About coming to A’s, the Stanford alum Lowrie was quoted as saying, “I’m excited to come to a team that won one of the better divisions in baseball last year. I’m excited to have an opportunity to come back and play baseball in the Bay Area.” He graciously neglected to mention the fact that he’s also undoubtedly excited not to be playing for the Astros, who will likely be bringing up the rear in their new division this year.
With Lowrie’s addition, the A’s infield situation suddenly becomes a bit murkier. Lowrie has played short, second, third and first. Scott Sizemore has played second and third. Hiro Nakajima can play short, and possibly even second. And then there’s also Jemile Weeks, who can play second, and Josh Donaldson, who can play third.
Being a switch-hitter, of course, only increases Lowrie’s versatility. But his left/right splits are somewhat curious. For his career, he has an OPS that’s .154 points better against lefties. But last year, he had an OPS that was .196 points better against righties. Lowrie claims that his previous struggles as a left-handed hitter were primarily related to lingering injuries, and his minor league splits do lend some credence to that claim. But it would be nice to see his splits even out a bit given the fact that he’s likely to be seeing plenty of action against both righties and lefties for the A’s this season.
But how exactly will the A’s use Lowrie this year? Well, they’ve certainly got plenty of options. But in a conference call with reporters, A’s general manager Billy Beane said that he and manager Bob Melvin had discussed their options and that they view Japanese import Hiro Nakajima as their shortstop. Beane also mentioned that he could see Lowrie as a nice right-handed complement to Brandon Moss at first base, much like Chris Carter had been.
If we take Beane’s comments to heart, that then raises the question of where Lowrie would play against right-handers. The most obvious answer would be at second base, where there’s already a great deal of uncertainty, and where the top two current candidates, Scott Sizemore and Jemile Weeks, have both performed better against lefties than righties in recent times – Sizemore, who seems to be the favored candidate, even more so, which could make him a perfect platoon partner with Lowrie at second base.
Lowrie could also be available to back up both Nakajima at shortstop and Donaldson at third base if either struggles or just needs some time off. Of course, if Nakajima, whose defensive ability at shortstop is still a big question mark, spends much of the spring butchering balls at short, Lowrie could always take over the spot full-time and push Nakajima into duty at second. But wherever he plays, as long as he’s healthy – and that’s been something of an issue in the past – it looks like Lowrie will be in the lineup. So he should end up getting into a lot more games for the A’s than Chris Carter would have this year, which ought to make him a productive addition to the major league roster.
One of the biggest winners in this trade could turn out to be the A’s former first baseman Daric Barton, who now stands a decent chance of making the roster as the only true first baseman on the squad. Moss and Lowrie only have a combined 68 major league games at first base between them, and teams often like to have a little defensive certainty on the roster. Before this trade, Barton’s chances of landing a roster spot rested on something happening to either Moss or Carter – and now something has most definitely happened to Carter. Of course, it’s possible that Barton still doesn’t make the roster, but it’s certainly a whole lot more likely that he does now.
On the other side of the coin, one of the biggest losers in this deal could be infielder Adam Rosales. With his guaranteed contract and major league experience, Rosales was the favorite to land the utility infielder role. But now – with Lowrie, Nakajima, Donaldson and either Weeks or Sizemore likely to make the roster – the A’s will have at least two available options at each infield position, making another spare infielder somewhat redundant. Both Weeks and Sizemore could both be losers in this deal too since whoever wins a roster spot will undoubtedly have his at-bats at second base reduced by Lowrie’s arrival. The deal doesn’t do anything to help Eric Sogard’s and Grant Green’s prospects either as it just pushes both of them further down the infield depth chart.
As far as position players on the major league roster go, this deal might just boil down to Lowrie and Barton replacing Carter and Rosales on the A’s 2013 roster. As far as the pitching end of things goes, Beane clearly likes Rodriguez, referring to him as “a real big arm” and saying that he was a key to getting the deal done. But the hard-throwing righty will have to compete for a roster spot with fellow right-handers Pat Neshek and Chris Resop in an already crowded A’s bullpen that’s also likely to include right-handers Grant Balfour and Ryan Cook along with left-handers Sean Doolittle, Jerry Blevins and Travis Blackley – with guys like Jordan Norberto, Pedro Figueroa, Evan Scribner, Arnold Leon and James Simmons waiting in the wings.
Another beneficiary of the deal could be former 1st-round draft pick Sonny Gray, who will no longer have to compete for attention with fellow prospect Brad Peacock at Sacramento this season. If he pitches well at Triple-A this year, the odds of Gray getting the opportunity to see some time in Oakland before the season’s through have just greatly increased with Peacock out of the equation.
Vying for time with Gray in the River Cats rotation this year will be last year’s phenom Dan Straily, new acquisition Andrew Werner, veteran lefty Garrett Olson, and long-time minor leaguers Jesse Chavez, Bruce Billings and Travis Banwart. It’s my guess that Straily will end up in the major league rotation before long, like most 6th starters do, due to injury, and Banwart will start the season in the Sacramento bullpen, leaving the River Cats with a rotation of Gray, Werner, Olson, Chavez and Billings.
But this deal clearly wasn’t about the minor league roster; it was all about the major league roster – increasing the A’s infield depth and versatility and having a solid backup plan in place just in case Nakajima doesn’t pan out at short, Donaldson regresses at third, or nothing else works out at second. It’s clearly a “WIN NOW” move, just like it was with the Jaso deal. Peacock, Cole and Treinen represent a lot of young arms to give up – not to mention Carter and Stassi – in the two deals. But the A’s focus is clearly on winning now while the window of contention is open. And Beane admitted as much in his conference call with reporters, saying “Given where the club finished last year and where we see it having a chance to compete this year, we wanted to do everything we could to help ourselves right now.”
And for the A’s, the future is clearly NOW!