Plenty To Be Interested In On The Oakland Infield

There’s a lot of moving parts in the Oakland infield, and I suppose that’s what makes them fun. Let’s go around the horn….

C: Derek Norris, Stephen Vogt, and, for our purposes, John Jaso

This is fantasy, so you can stop thinking about Vogt right now. He’s not likely to get a lot of playing time, he’s 29 without much of a career behind him or projection in front of him, and he’s best known — if he’s known at all — for going approximately a million plate appearances without a hit to start his career.

Norris came to the big leagues with a reputation as an on-base machine, but in 540 plate appearances (approximately one full season) over 2012-13, his line sits at just .226/.315/.383. That’s disappointing, but it’s also a bit misleading, because much of that came from his lousy debut season:

2012: .276 OBP, 9.1 BB%, 28.4%, .255 BABIP, .275 wOBA
2013: .345 OBP, 12.0BB%, 23.1%, .301 BABIP, .335 wOBA

Despite the poor 2012, his “full season” still has 16 homers and 10 steals, and that’s a rare combination. Since 2005, only four catcher seasons have had double digits in both homers and steals, and three of those were Russell Martin between 2006-08. Norris isn’t a star, but he is someone who can help you in multiple ways at a thin position, and mark him up a bit more if your league counts OBP rather than batting average.

Jaso might be more of a designated hitter than a catcher these days, but he caught more than enough in 2013 to retain his eligibility there, so we can consider him a backstop. He’s somewhat like Norris in that he’s an on-base machine (.391 over the last two years), though he doesn’t add a lot of pop or speed, and he’s best served in daily leagues rather than weekly, since his giant career platoon splits (126 wRC+ v RH, 55 wRC+ v LH) mean that he’ll see his share of bench time.

1B: Brandon Moss, Daric Barton, and Nate Freiman

Like Jaso, Moss has an enormous platoon split, so he plays almost exclusively against righties. That hasn’t stopped him from quietly putting up the 11th-best wRC+in baseball over the last two years, just ahead of Robinson Cano, Chris Davis, and Giancarlo Stanton. I know. I couldn’t believe it either. That makes him valuable, though not without his warts. His 2013 wRC+ (137), while still very good, was considerably worse than his excellent 2012 mark (160), and since 2012 featured a .359 BABIP, I think I know which one seems more likely to be repeated. Also, if you owned him in 2013, you either loved his hot streaks or died during his cold streaks; on the plus side, he does retain outfield eligibility, which is nice.

The shine has long since worn off Barton and I’m shocked he’s even still in the organization at this point, and the massive Freiman hit only four homers while attempting to serve as Moss’ platoon caddy last year. He still put up a roughly league-average season, but a first baseman limited to the short side of a platoon is limited in value immediately.

2B: Alberto Callaspo, Nick Punto, and Eric Sogard

Let’s be honest: not a whole lot here. Callaspo is fine, I guess, and his dual eligibility at second and third helps, as does the fact that he’s hit 10 homers in each of the last two years, but he’s only really interesting in AL-only leagues. He offers nothing on the bases, a .250-ish batting average isn’t all that intriguing, and there’s not a lot of upside. There’s not a huge risk of total collapse, either, so he’s not the worst guy in the world to round out an AL-only bench with, there’s just no excitement here.

Punto actually was somewhat useful for the Dodgers last year, filling in ably at shortstop when Hanley Ramirez was injured, and he’ll have eligibility at second, short, and third. But the solid defense he brings to those spots is more useful in real life than in fantasy, where no power, few steals, a sub-par batting average, and a merely decent OBP isn’t going to win you a lot of games.

Sogard won the “Face of the A’s” competition, improbably, and for his reward I imagine the team will do whatever they can to avoid having him get 410 plate appearances again. You should do the same when it comes to your roster.

SS: Jed Lowrie, for now

I say for now, because top prospect Addison Russell made it to Triple-A for a cameo at 19 last year, and it’s not completely out of the question that he arrives in Oakland by the end of 2014. If he does, then Lowrie might shift over to second base and taking playing time away from Callaspo and the others.

In the meantime, the job is unquestionably Lowrie’s, and since he managed to finally stay healthy in 2013, he put together quite the nice season in his Oakland debut, making him arguably a top-five shortstop. I’m not comfortable putting that on him in 2014, but when Eno Sarris looked at him in November, he noted that nothing was entirely out of the ordinary, either:

And yet, nothing Lowrie did last year was out of the norm. He walked a little less (7.6% in 2013, 9.2% career) and struck out a little less (13.7% in 2013, 16.7% career), but those are still within range of his career numbers. He had a .156 isolated slugging percentage last year. His career number is .163. He hit 15 homers. His career high is 16. He had a .319 batting average on balls in play. His career BABIP is .296. He stole one base. His career high is two.

Basically, he’s a doubles hitter with a good batting average at a tough position at the top of a lineup on a good team. Matt Carpenter rode a similar equation to greatness last year.

That’s high praise, and Lowrie is headed only into his age-30 season, so it’s not like he’s past his prime yet. The fact that he’s rarely healthy for a full season doesn’t help, nor does the looming presence of Russell. Then again, the top players at the position, like Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki, also have battled injury concerns, and Lowrie did also hit 16 homers in fewer than 100 games for Houston in 2012. There’s risk here, but risk worth taking.

3B: Josh Donaldson

Last year’s breakout star is still going to have to deal with the obvious question: Can he do it again? We won’t know until the season gets going, but the simple uncertainty makes him risky, especially when there’s a decent amount of big names a third, from Miguel Cabrera and David Wright to Edwin Encarnacion and Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre.

Working in Donaldson’s favor is a solid walk rate (11.4%) and a BABIP that’s a bit high at .333, but not insanely so. While the power seems like it should stay — and it’s not like 24 homers is an obscenely high number anyway — there may be reason to think the batting average won’t, as Jeff Zimmerman indicated:

Going back to his 2014 Steamer projection, here are his projections: 24 HR, 151 R +RBI,  .273 AVG, 5 SB. I think those numbers will be pretty close to his output, with the exception of his AVG maybe going a bit lower. A lower AVG would lead to a lower R+ RBI total.

Steamer isn’t perfect, but I do find it to be among the best projection systems, and those numbers pass the sniff test. If he gets something near that, Donaldson will be a very good fantasy third baseman, but not an elite one. Yet I do think that because of his big 2013 splash, he’s going to get somewhat overvalued, so while he’s obviously worth going after, tread carefully.

We hoped you liked reading Plenty To Be Interested In On The Oakland Infield by Mike Petriello!

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Paul Singman
Guest

I understand Barton doesn’t have much fantasy value, but saying “I’m shocked he’s even still in the organization at this point” is certainly unnecessarily dismissive. The dude plays excellent defense and is an OBP machine when healthy. He didn’t just stay in the organization last year, he made the playoff roster and started Game 1. Barton is a positive WAR player, and one the A’s should be happy to have.

Rainmaker
Member
Member
Rainmaker

Yeah, the DFA’d and no takers thing is pretty damning.