The A’s have shaken things up personnel-wise at first base, but the philosophy remains the same.
They envision a platoon at a position which needs a jolt in offensive production relative to the 2015 numbers. Oakland’s first basemen ranked in the bottom half of the American League in home runs, RBI, OPS and slugging percentage last season. That was due in part to the struggles and health of Ike Davis, who was non-tendered earlier this month after just one season in green and gold.
In his place the A’s acquired another left-handed hitter, Yonder Alonso, in a Dec. 2 trade from San Diego. He’s slated to start against right-handers as the roster currently stands, with Mark Canha handling first against lefties and probably seeing time in left field as well.
We begin a position-by-position preview of the A’s for 2016, starting with a spot where, when it comes to playing time, Oakland always seems to believe the more, the merrier.
STARRING CAST: Canha was a terrific find last season, as the Rule 5 draft pick stuck on the 25-man roster all season and hit .254 with 16 homers and 70 RBI, which led AL rookies. That suggested that the A’s might just make the San Jose native the everyday guy at first. Instead, they traded for the slick-fielding Alonso in a five-player deal that cost them left-hander Drew Pomeranz.
A one-time stud prospect, the 28-year-old Alonso has been hampered by multiple injuries over the last three seasons. Given how poorly the A’s played defensively last season, it’s understandable why they valued Alonso’s excellent glove skills. But how often is a first baseman a difference-maker primarily because of his defense? The A’s need this guy to swing the bat. He’s a .282 career hitter against right-handers (compared to .245 vs. lefties). Alonso’s best offensive season to date came in 2012, when he hit .273 with nine homers and 62 RBI. Modest numbers, indeed. But he did have 39 doubles that season, and driving the ball to the gaps is his strength.
CAMP COMPETITION: A’s general manager David Forst has hinted at another trade potentially involving position players, so it’s possible that future moves could bring some clarity on playing time before spring training even arrives. Right now, the question is at which position Canha gets most of his innings. With Coco Crisp’s availability still a bit hazy due to his chronic neck injury, Canha could see a lot of time in left field.
Beyond Alonso and Canha, it’s tough to envision anyone making the 25-man roster primarily as a first base option. Max Muncy has done well to expand his versatility and make himself a serviceable option at third base. He’s a solid backup at either corner infield spot.
Stephen Vogt may play some first when Josh Phegley is behind the plate. Interestingly, manager Bob Melvin mentioned Danny Valencia’s ability to play second or first. But unless the A’s get a trade offer for a third baseman that they can’t pass up, Valencia figures to anchor the hot corner. The idea of playing Billy Butler some at first never took off last season.
In the wildest of scenarios, could the A’s find a taker for Butler if they ate a large portion of his remaining contract (two years, $20 million), thus opening up at-bats for Canha at designated hitter?
PAY ATTENTION TO: How power-hitting first base prospect Matt Olson looks during spring training. A storyline to follow in 2016 is the timeframe with which some of the A’s top prospects show they’re ready for the majors. Olson figures to move up to Triple-A Nashville this season after some expected challenges in the tough hitting ballparks of the Double-A Texas League. His homers and RBI fell drastically last season (17 and 75) compared to 2014 and he hit just .249. But Olson drew 100-plus walks for the second consecutive season. He’s ranked as Oakland’s No. 2 prospect by Baseball America and mlb.com, and it’s possible he could make his big league debut sometime in 2016.