The A’s part ways with a big hitter – now what?

Shifting Sands In Oakland’s Infield
by Jim Silva
    Well, that didn’t take long. The A’s made a trade, this time moving arguably their best hitter from last season in Danny Valencia to Seattle for a minor league pitcher, Paul Blackburn. This is a move designed to give the A’s more pitching depth, and improve their defense. Valencia didn’t really have a spot anymore as the A’s had promoted his replacements near the end of last season. The move was timed to get something valuable for Valencia before he became expensive – a pretty typical A’s move. Let’s take a look at what it means for the A’s infield.
    Danny Valencia came to the A’s as a waiver claim from the Blue Jays late in the 2015 season. Valencia was crushing the ball at the time he was waived with a slash line of  .296/.331/.506 so it was surprising that Toronto would just let him go like that. Primarily a third baseman before the 2015 season, Valencia has also played both outfield corners, as well as first and second base, albeit none of them particularly well if you believe in defensive metrics. What Valencia has done well is hit baseballs really hard. 81.6% of the balls he hit were classified as hit with medium or hard (as opposed to soft) speed. His exit velocity is quite something. What he doesn’t do is control the strike zone – he doesn’t take kindly to that free base-on-balls claptrap – but his batting average mostly makes up for it. So Valencia is a pretty solid number five hitter and that is nothing to be sneezed at. That said, the Blue Jays sneezed and then so did the A’s in a way, although the A’s got back something of value in return. Why? Why does a guy who can hit and hit for power, and play the corners of the infield and outfield without turning it into a dumpster fire get moved around so much? Up until a couple seasons ago Valencia was pretty strictly a platoon player unable to hit righties, but that changed. The past two seasons Valencia has shown, and pretty clearly, that he can now not only hit righties, but hit them with power. Here is a wee graph showing his hitting against righties each of the last two seasons.
Not bad, eh? And that’s his “bad” side!
    Valencia’s glove is not his best tool, but again, he plays a clean corner without a ton of range or flash. So put him at DH or first base or left field and leave him in everyday and you are in pretty good shape. He was certainly better with the bat than anyone else the A’s have played at first base in either of the last two seasons. There were rumors about him as a clubhouse problem – don’t forget his fight with Billy Butler – but the guy can hit (including Billy Butler’s head) and the A’s certainly need bats. That ship has sailed to Seattle, and everyone pretty much knew it would sail sooner rather than later because of the usage patterns Valencia saw at the end of the season. The A’s were auditioning youngsters to take over at the corners. “What youngsters”, you ask?   
    Down on the farm are two men who can hit the ball very, very far when they actually hit the ball – and that “when” is a key qualifier, because Matt Chapman and Renato Nunez struck out a lot last season. Chapman draws more walks than Nunez but strikes out more often, but both men have legit power combining for 59 home runs in 2016. Nunez is only 22 and has a better hit tool than Chapman so with a full season at triple-A there is hope that he could be ready by 2018. Matt Olson also played first base (mostly an outfielder) and could be in the mix. Olson also has power, like Chapman and Nunez, but his plate discipline is much more advanced than the other two young corner men. Even though Olson is only 22 and hasn’t hit for average as he has moved up the organizational ladder, he appears to be more ready to play in the majors than either of the other youngsters. He will draw walks and hit with power even if his average is low, and that would be an improvement over what Bob Melvin wrote in to the A’s lineup last year. It will be interesting to see if they give him another year to grow in the tough hitting environment of Nashville to see if he can improve his average, or just take a shot with him at first or in a corner outfield spot right out of spring training. None of the three minor leaguers is a can’t miss prospect. Chapman is blocked by Ryon Healy (more on him later) at third for the time being, but he is only 23 with only 18 games at triple-A so what’s the rush? Nunez is coming off his first full season at triple-A where he hit .228 and he is only 22(you already said his age, just fyi), and Olson, also 22, hasn’t convinced the A’s yet that he is the answer (and he might be an answer in the outfield). So spring training should be fascinating as Oakland tries to figure out what to do to put a more viable team on the field at the big league level while still trying to develop some really interesting power hitting prospects.
    Another corner man who was down on the farm but came up for about half a season is third baseman, Ryon Healy. At 6’5, 225 Healy is a very large third baseman and hits the ball like one would expect from such a large man. Healy’s home run power just kicked in last season with 14 home runs in the minors and 13 with the big club – that’s 27 for those of you who are too tired to do the addition. The A’s young third baseman has hit at least .285 at every stop since 2014 – the only knock on his hitting is that he doesn’t walk often. His minor league slash line is .293/.332/.452, so until balls started leaving the park the knock on Healy was that a lot of offensive value was tied up in his batting average. Now the profile has changed a bit. He still needs to get on base, but his ability to score himself takes some of the pressure off his walk numbers. If Healy’s batting average drops below .270 then his value starts to fall off quickly. The young corner infielder succeeds, at this point in his short career, by making contact when he swings the bat, whether the pitch is in or out of the strike zone. He actually takes pitches at a slightly above average rate, so all this indicates that Healy’s swing is pretty tight and he can adjust quickly to pitches when he is fooled. Healy’s glove is just ok. It isn’t that he can’t make the plays at third, just that his range is limited. He has a strong arm, but ultimately might be best suited to first base. Healy is already the answer to one question the A’s had moving forward. They have a starting third baseman who will hit in the middle of the order. Looking at how Healy profiles, it looks a bit like how Valencia profiles, the difference being that Healy has room to grow and Valencia is getting more expensive. It would have been easy for the A’s to move Valencia to first or DH with some time in the corner outfield spots, allowing them to keep both players. Alas, the lure of a young pitcher and a smaller payroll appears to have been too much for the A’s to pass up.
    The other infield corner was handled mainly by Yonder Alonso in 2016. Many a fan and a couple GM’s have hoped that Yonder would finally figure it out and at least become a poor man’s Mark Grace pounding out 40 doubles a year while getting on base at a .350 clip. Uh, nope – hasn’t happened, and last season, while he managed 34 doubles, he also made a lot of outs. His wRC+ of 88 in 534 plate appearances means he hurt the A’s offense at a position that needs to be productive. The least he could have done was provide his normal excellent level of defense at first, but it just didn’t happen. According to UZR he was 1.1 runs below average while DRS had him at -3, not horrible marks – close to average in fact, but when you aren’t producing with the bat then you need to produce with the glove and Yonder did neither. At 29, one must wonder if it is too late to hope that Alonso turns into a league average starter someday. The A’s have Mark Canha coming back from a mostly lost season. Canha amassed only 44 at bats due to a hip injury, but in 2015 he showed power, and the ability to get on base while playing clean if unspectacular defense at first. The question is whether the A’s want to see ONE MORE TIME if Alonso can hit his projections, or perhaps play Canha in a corner outfield spot and give first to one of the youngsters.
    The middle of the A’s infield hasn’t been a strength for the A’s for a while. With Franklin Barreto, the man wearing the crown as the best A’s prospect, finishing the 2016 season with a taste of triple-A, the A’s might be close to having their best middle infield since 2005 when Bobby Crosby and Mark Ellis manned shortstop and second respectively, contributing a total of 8.4 WAR to a second place A’s team. The A’s are optimistic because Barreto profiles to be the best of the organization’s infielders when he is ready, and Marcus Semien, the incumbent, has turned himself into a valuable, if flawed, shortstop. Currently, the A’s have Marcus Semien blocking Barreto, but could easily move Semien to second if Barreto proves to be superior defensively (and ready). But lest we get ahead of ourselves here, young Franklin is only 20 and it is highly unlikely that the A’s will rush to install him in the majors until they are sure he can experience success. Right now, Marcus Semien is the shortstop and he hit 27 long balls in 2016 so he is unlikely to go anywhere. In his first season with the A’s, it looked like the young shortstop was overmatched in the field. Enter Ron Washington, infield coach spectacular, to work with Semien, and the young shortstop turns it around and has a solid second half greatly reducing his error totals. Much of the credit goes to Washington, but from all accounts Semien worked his butt off to improve. His second year as starting shortstop with Oakland was a mixed bag. His error totals went way down in more innings played so his fielding percentage increased 24 points from .947 to .971. At the same time his range numbers dropped – he didn’t get to quite as many balls, so depending on your defensive metric of choice, Semien either improved a bit or dropped off some. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) had him costing the A’s 3.7 runs with his glove – an improvement over 2015 when he cost them 10.0 runs. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) had Semien costing his team 6 runs this year after saving them 5 runs in 2015. Both metrics are measured in runs saved/cost so they are easy to compare and the bottom line is that he was adequate with the glove, especially in light of his power numbers. Right now the question is at second base where the A’s auditioned two youngsters in the second half of last year.
    Chad Pinder, who can play second or short, and Joey Wendle, who is a second baseman exclusively, both took a shot at showing the big club who should be the starter in 2017. But before we look at the kids, let’s remember who held down the position most of the season, Jed Lowrie. Lowrie, who mainly played second for the A’s, will play the season as a 33 year old, gets hurt a lot, is defensively challenged, and isn’t the hitter he used to be. In the recent past, teams could put up with his subpar defense because Jed would hit a bunch of doubles, pop double-digit home runs and hit for a decent average – not so much anymore. His career slugging percentage is at .400, but he only managed an anemic .322 mark last season, so it is hard to imagine why the A’s would want to use him much when they have multiple options who carry better gloves and are more interesting going forward. It would be surprising if Lowrie started the season on the A’s major league roster.
    Pinder didn’t show much with the bat at triple-A, but Nashville depresses batting average, home runs, and mediocre singers like few parks in existence, so it makes more sense to look at his career numbers to evaluate him. He didn’t cement himself as the starter during his 22 game tryout in Oakland, but he carries a career slash line of .280/.331/.450 in his minor league career. He doesn’t walk much so he has to get on base by way of the hit. He showed some doubles power in his 55 at bats in Oakland with four two-baggers. Pinder settled in during the last two months of the season hitting .276/.344/.517 keeping small sample size caveats in mind. Three errors led to a .914 fielding percentage at second base, but he is actually a decent middle infielder who can hang at second or short so again, beware of small sample sizes.
    Wendle is hard to pin down. He was a 6th round pick by the Indians in 2012 and the A’s traded for him before the 2015 season, sending Brandon Moss straight up for Wendle. He raked until he got to double-A and then his progress appeared to slow down. He has hit for a decent average for the majority of his minor league career although his strikeout rate increased and his walk rate decreased as he progressed through the system – career minor league slash line of .288/.340/.459. He shows some power, thumping 30 to 40 doubles and adding 10 to 15 homers a season. Playing in Nashville half the time likely depressed his stats so .279/.324/.452 looks better in that context. Wendle managed to not look completely overmatched in his first taste of the majors last season ending with a .260/.298/.302 slash line over 104 plate appearances, although he showed absolutely no power with 23 of his 25 hits being of the single variety. It’s difficult to figure out what he is like at this point. Is he a guy who will hit in the .260 to .275 range, who strikes out 100 times a season, and maybe pop a few long balls while getting on base at a .320 clip or will he be a doubles machine who gets on base at a .340 clip and drives 15 balls out of the park? Those are two different profiles with two greatly different values and the A’s hope they can figure out who Wendle is soon because he is 26 and running out of prospect status. If he turns out to be “Joey the Lesser” that’s not a bad placeholder to have, but Wendle isn’t likely to hang on to the starting position if that is his peak, even if you throw in his solid glove. Right now if forced to choose, the A’s should give Wendle a shot to hold onto the job, keep Pinder as the utility guy and give him regular at bats between second and shortstop and see what comes out in the wash. Wendle is two years older at 26 and can only play second, so the A’s need to find out what they have in him. Pinder can play both middle infield positions and did better than Wendle in his audition, so Pinder would give the A’s more flexibility if he doesn’t start the season as the starting second baseman.
    Max Shrock was acquired in a mid-season trade with the Nationals. The A’s gave up Marc Rzepczynski and cash to get the 2015 13th round pick. Shrock is a second baseman only and is 5’8 so why give up a useful bullpen arm and money to get him? The guy has done nothing but hit since his pro debut and is now at double-A. His career minor league stats so far are a slash line of .326/.369/.449. In 2016 spanning single-A and double-A he hit .331/.373/.449 with 43 extra-base hits and 22 steals in 28 attempts over 534 at bats. Shock only plays second base and at 22 has to keep up his current pace to push people out of the way, but so far he looks like he is up to the job and will likely crash the A’s top 10 prospects list this season.
    The A’s organization has a lot of middle infield prospects who look like they might pan out as big-leaguers. Richie Martin is an athletic shortstop who was a first round pick in 2015 and is already at double-A Midland where even I can hit. After a season that was mostly a mixed bag, Martin could move quickly if he can put it together at Midland. Yairo Munoz is another toolsy shortstop already at double-A – they just added him to the 40 man roster. He has shown power and speed, but not a lot of patience. It will be interesting to watch how the A’s handle having both him and Martin at double-A. Munoz and Martin will push Barreto, who will in turn push Semien, possibly to second, which would in turn push Wendle and Pinder to figure it out quickly. And then there is Shrock. The A’s have a lot of good options and tough decisions to come in the middle of the infield – sounds like a nice problem to have. The corner infield spots have options too – if Healy can just repeat what he did in half of 2016 for an entire season, and it looks like he just might, then the A’s are set at the hot corner for a while. First base is more problematic. I recently dismantled my Yonder Alonso shine and have moved on emotionally. I suggest the A’s do the same and try Canha there to start the season while the wait for one of Chapman, Olson, and Nunez to break away from the pack and push Canha to the outfield. The sun will shine again in Oakland Alameda County Coliseum one day soon  – well at least on the infield.

Author: elfuego25

When I'm not writing about baseball (or shoving kettle corn into my mouth at the ballpark), I am probably walking Daisy, who is a very good dog, researching my Portuguese-Irish roots, or wondering when my lovely wife will return from her latest fabulous trip. Yes, life is good!

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