With rumors flying regarding their potential plans, the Oakland A’s created some legitimate news Wednesday with the signing of infielder Nick Punto to a one-year $2.75 million contract.
The move didn’t rock the baseball world, but Punto’s addition marked the A’s first significant offseason acquisition. The 36-year-old switch hitter adds more versatility to a team that relies on a fluid roster and players shuffling in and out of the lineup.
Punto has seen significant time at third base, shortstop and second base over his 13-year career, and he figures to assume a utility role backing up any or all of those positions. He’s earned a reputation as an excellent defender, which helps off-set his .248 career batting average and limited power.
“Something we’ve had success with is giving (manager) Bob (Melvin) options,” A’s assistant GM David Forst said. “He’s a very good defender up the middle. Whether he comes in to pinch-run for someone or match up left- or right-handed, he’s a good guy to have.”
Punto’s contract includes a $2.75 million vesting option for 2015 that hinges on many factors, including how many days he spends on the active roster. If it doesn’t vest, it turns into a club option for the same amount, with a $250,000 buyout.
If Punto were in the NFL, he’d be tagged a “high motor” guy. He became a YouTube hit last season when he sprinted down the first-base line and dove into the bag – unaware that his single had shot through the infield and safely into center field.
And his etiquette in walk-off celebrations should fit nicely with the A’s. Punto was given the nickname “Shredder” because he races out of the dugout after a walk-off win and tries to tear the jersey off the teammate who delivered the game-winning hit.
Punto, who hit .255 with two home runs and 21 RBI this past season for the Dodgers, chose to sign early in the free agency period.
“There was other interest, but I think it’s a really good fit for him all the way around,” said Punto’s agent, Jeff Caulfield.
However, his presence creates an infield logjam, leading to the question of whether the A’s could unload someone in a future move. The St. Louis Cardinals reportedly have interest in shortstop Jed Lowrie, but Forst addressed that issue directly:
“Jed is our starting shortstop.”
Forst added that the A’s liked what they got from the platoon of Eric Sogard and Alberto Callaspo at second base last season. But like Punto, Callaspo is a switch hitter who can play multiple positions, and he’s due to make roughly $4.9 million next season. It would seem redundant to keep both players unless Callaspo gets a lion’s share of the playing time at second.
At any rate, the A’s have other areas to address. Forst acknowledged that a late-inning reliever is on the shopping list since last year’s closer, Grant Balfour, is expected to sign elsewhere. Whether that addition will be a closer or set-up type remains to be seen -- the A’s also have Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook available as ninth-inning options.
“We feel really good about them,” Forst said. “That said, yes, bullpen depth is very much on our radar.”
The A’s reportedly were set to talk with right-hander Bartolo Colon’s agent this week to discuss a one-year contract. Forst would only confirm that the team is seeking out rotation depth.
And what about speculation that one of Oakland’s starters, left-hander Brett Anderson, could be on the trading block? Anderson’s past three seasons have been sabotaged by injuries and he’s due $8 million in 2014. But he’s still a great talent, meaning Anderson could fetch a nice return in a trade.
Forst shed no light on the interest Anderson is garnering or whether the A’s are seriously considering dealing him.
“It’s Nov. 13 -- he’s in our rotation,” Forst said, a statement that certainly leaves the door open for a trade.
Cbssports.com’s Jon Heyman reported Wednesday that the A’s are a “dark horse” in the battle to sign free agent outfielder Nelson Cruz. Oakland would like to add a right-handed hitting outfielder with Chris Young’s departure. But Cruz is expected to land a multi-year contract of more than $10 million annually (despite being suspended last season for performance-enhancing drug use). That would be a huge splurge for the small-payroll A’s.
Team officials, as a policy, don’t comment on free-agent pursuits. But Forst did say the A’s won’t rule out signing a free agent who costs a draft pick, which is the case with Cruz.