The A’s followed through with exercising their $6 million club option Thursday on Jed Lowrie, ensuring the veteran returns as their second baseman to begin 2018.
However, you can’t really discuss Lowrie’s situation without addressing that of a much younger middle infielder.
Lowrie’s return means Franklin Barreto, Oakland’s top prospect, will begin next season at Triple-A Nashville. That’s probably in the best interests of Barreto, who will turn just 22 in February and could use a bit more seasoning.
But given the youthful direction this team has taken, it only makes sense that Barreto joins the A’s other young foundation pieces sooner rather than later in the majors. And it’ll be interesting to see how the team handles both Lowrie and Barreto in 2018. Their futures are intertwined.
Though Barreto has received equal time at shortstop and second base in the minors, the view from those around the game is that he’s best suited for second. That remains Lowrie’s territory, and after a healthy 2017 season in which he hit .277 with 14 homers, 69 RBI and set an Oakland record with 49 doubles, it’s easy to see why the A’s wanted the 33-year-old switch hitter back.
In a lineup that features many similar-style hitters — lots of homers, lots of strikeouts — Lowrie stands out as a veteran who knows how to handle the bat and deliver whatever the situation calls for. With better health than in past seasons, he also showed better range defensively.
And there’s a role for him in this young clubhouse. A particular snapshot stands out from late July: Lowrie and rookie third baseman Matt Chapman standing in the hallway of the visitors’ clubhouse at AT&T Park, mimicking batting stances and talking hitting.
This all sets up as a delicate situation for the A’s, who fully recognize Barreto’s talent but don’t want to just hand him a big league starting spot, particularly if it means unseating a respected veteran. Billy Beane, the A’s top baseball executive, addressed the topic in early October.
“I want a young player to sort of push, where his performance is so good that he sort of pushes himself in,” Beane said. “But Jed Lowrie had an absolutely amazing year, one of the best years probably this side of (Jose) Altuve, as good as any second baseman in baseball this year.”
The A’s are probably a year or two away from competing for the postseason. They watched other young players such as Chapman, Matt Olson and Chad Pinder emerge in 2017 when given a chance to play regularly. The big picture points to Barreto taking over second base the instant he shows he’s ready.
No doubt, that time probably isn’t Opening Day 2018. Barreto hit .197 in 25 games last season in his major league debut, striking out 33 times in 76 plate appearances. He also piled up 141 strikeouts last season at Triple-A, though that was accompanied by a .290 batting average, a solid .339 on-base percentage and 15 homers.
Confidence won’t be a problem. Barreto homered in his very first big league game and delivered a walk-off blast against the White Sox on the Fourth of July. There will be bumps in the road, but the A’s, at this stage, can afford to let young players stumble and learn while in the big leagues.
Which takes us back to Lowrie. The A’s have flexibility even after picking up his option. He’ll begin 2018 manning second base and the A’s can monitor Barreto’s progress. When they feel their top prospect is ready, Lowrie becomes an excellent trade chip as a productive veteran on a reasonably affordable $6 million salary.
It’ll be worth keeping an eye on both players as next season unfolds. The play of one can’t help but influence the future of the other.
The A's announced Mark Kotsay will serve as a major league quality control coach next season, assisting the coaching staff and consulting with the front office. Kotsay began last season as Oakland's bench coach but took a leave of absence in June for family reasons.