The 2012 American League West Champion Oakland A's were a puzzle, one that entered the playoffs employing a trio of platoons having turned over half its lineup over the course of the season. Bob Melvin's ability to solve that puzzle, thereby leading a team many expected to lose 90 games past the powerhouse Rangers and Angels, was a large part of the reason that he beat out Buck Showalter of the similarly surprising Baltimore Orioles for the AL Manager of the Year award. The 2013 A's promise to present a similar challenge for Melvin, who was just given a two-year contract extension, one that comes with the added pressure of greatly increased expectations. Heading into Spring Training, the A's catching platoon remains intact, Jemile Weeks and Scott Sizemore are poised to battle for the second-base job, and there are six pitchers with a legitimate chance to earn a spot in the starting rotation. However, Melvin's biggest challenge will be how to squeeze seven men -- five outfielders and two first basemen -- into five lineup spots -- first base, designated hitter, and the three outfield positions.
The 2012 team had a similar glut at those positions heading into camp, but by early June pre-season first-base candidates Brandon Allen, Kila Ka'aihue, and Daric Barton had given way to the Chris Carter/Brandon Moss platoon that remains in play for the coming season, and outfielders Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes fell into a natural lefty/righty platoon at designated hitter as both have historically been platoon players in their careers and both (Gomes especially) are poor fielders. Gomes thrived in that role, hitting .299/.413/.561 against lefties and emerging as one of the team's emotional leaders. However, facing the Tigers' all-righty rotation in the Division Series, Gomes managed just one plate appearance, which didn't arrive until the eighth inning of Game 5.
This year, Gomes, who departed for Boston via free agency, has been replaced by former Diamondbacks center fielder Chris Young. Young is also a right-handed hitter with a pronounced platoon split, but he's also one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball and arguably the best fielding outfielder on this team. He's due $8.5 million for the coming season compared to the $1 million the low-budget A's paid Gomes last year. That complicates things considerably, as does the fact that, based on their performances last year, Moss and Carter both deserve to play every day.
Before I go any further, I'll admit that Moss's break-out age-28 season screams "fluke!" In 749 previous major league plate appearances for the Red Sox, Pirates, and Phillies from 2007 to 2011, Moss had hit .236/.300/.382 with 15 home runs. Last year, playing his home games in the Coliseum, he hit .291/.358/.596 with 21 home runs in 296 plate appearances. Moss isn't without ability at the plate; he's a career .276/.354/.497 hitter in Triple-A over more than 2000 plate appearances, but his 2012 performance blew even that line away. Regression is coming. The only question is if it will strip away all of his value or just some.
That said, Moss was a huge part of the A's success last year, and I can't blame them for wanting to give him a chance to continue to produce early in 2013. I'll only fault them if he struggles and they're slow to limit his playing time, starting with sitting him against lefties (which they just may do that outset anyway). Thus, for the purposes of formulating a plan going into Spring Training, I'm going to treat Moss's 2012 performance and splits as legitimate.
The easy place to start here is with an arrangement against left-handed pitching, which would look like this:
If you want to argue that Moss and Carter should switch positions, go right ahead. I have Carter in the field primarily because he's four inches taller, thus providing a bigger target for the A's infielders, and because he's more than three years younger than Moss and on the right side of his peak, making him a player it's easier to project as the A's full-time first baseman in the coming years.
With a lefty on the mound, the righties Carter, Cespedes, and Young are givens, as is benching the left-handed Smith. Reddick is an outstanding fielder who hasn't had a particularly large platoon split over the last two years. He walks less against his fellow lefties, but hits for more power against them, resulting in a .242/.287/.466 line against southpaws over the last two seasons that easily trumps the switch-hitting Coco Crisp's .225/.286/.342 over the same period. The surprising thing here is that Moss is a rather easy choice over Crisp as well as, even prior to last year, Moss hit .245/.321/.377 against lefties in his career, easily superior to Crisp's recent performance against southpaws. Last year Moss hit .293/.339/.431 against lefties.
Things get trickier against righties. Against lefties, Reddick, Young, and Cespedes give the A's a strong outfield defense (even if advanced metrics didn't like Cespedes's performance last year), but against righties Melvin may have to choose between his best hitting lineup and his best fielding lineup, as there's far less overlap between the two.
Once again, the easy choices here are leaving in Cespedes, who hit .289/.358/.506 against his fellow righties last year, lefties Reddick (.258/.322/.459 against righties over the last two seasons) and Moss (.290/.363/.643 against righties in 2012), and inserting lefty Seth Smith, who hit .259/.352/.454 against righties last year in his first season outside of Coors Field. However, in doing that we've already filled four of the five spots, leaving the switch-hitting Crisp, and righties Young and Carter to battle over the final spot.
Here's how those three have performed against right-handed pitching in recent seasons:
Chris Young: .258/.298/.428 in 2010 and 2011, his two best offensive seasons (a separated shoulder last April largely undermined his performance at the plate thereafter last season)
Chris Carter: .237/.311/.526 in 2012, his first productive major league season
Coco Crisp: .274/.333/.413 in his three seasons with the A's, .278/.335/.421 over the last two years.
Young is rather easily eliminated here, leaving Melvin with a choice, he can go with Carter's power, which would force one of Moss or Smith into an outfield corner and one of Cespedes or Reddick into center (I'd prefer the latter in both cases), resulting in this offense-minded arrangement:
1B: Chris Carter
RF: Yoenis Cespedes
CF: Josh Reddick
LF: Seth Smith
DH: Brandon Moss
Or he can go with Crisp's moderately higher on-base percentage, vastly superior baserunning, and take the significant upgrade on defense with this arrangement:
1B: Brandon Moss
RF: Josh Reddick
CF: Coco Crisp
LF: Yoenis Cespsdes
DH: Seth Smith
That decision will likely depend on game-specific details such as the repertoires and tendencies of the specific starting pitchers for both teams (for example, Brett Anderson's ability to induce ground balls should allow Melvin to go with the former, but the fly ball tendencies of several of the other rotation candidates might necessitate the latter), the ballpark (Carter's right-handed power would play up in Texas and Houston, but Crisp's speed and defense might be preferable at home and in Anaheim), and, of course, the general performance of the players in question.
The other issue here is that we're still limiting the team's best defensive outfielder, one earning a cool $8.5 million for the coming season, to short-side platoon work. The good news is that a at least 40 percent of the Opening Day rotations of Oakland's primary rivals for the division title will be left-handed in the form of Rangers lefties Derek Holland and Matt Harrison and Angels southpaws C.J. Wilson and Jason Vargas, and the Rangers could have lefty Martin Perez in their rotation for part of the season as well, making it a even 50 percent. That gives Young ample opportunity to make an impact in the AL West race. However, the Mariners and Astros have just one projected left-handed starter between the two of them in Houston's Dallas Keuchel (though the M's might add rookie Danny Hultzen at some point during the season), and that suggests a lot of time riding pine against weak teams for Young.
Of course, the reality of these sorts of situations is that injuries always create opportunities. Not all seven of these men are going to stay healthy all season, and a couple of them just might crater and play their way off the team, or at least out of the lineup entirely. That almost certainly will create extra playing time for Young, or will make his lack of playing time moot due to a disabled list stay of his own. Whatever the ultimate reality, the A's depth at these positions is not a problem, but a strength, one made all the more so by the fact that Melvin will be the man managing it.