Among many questions Billy Beane addressed with reporters during the recent winter meetings, one in particular generated an honest and straightforward response from the A’s top baseball official.
It pertained to second base, and how that position sets up for Oakland in 2017.
“It’s a concern,” Beane said. “Long term, I think we feel like we have some options that probably aren’t quite ready yet. I think we prefer not to rush those options.”
The second base mystery revolves around the health of veteran Jed Lowrie, who is recovering from August surgery on his left foot to remedy a number of ailments, including ligament damage and a bunion on his big toe that sidelined him for the final two-plus months of 2016.
In his absence, Joey Wendle showed some promise at second during his first major league exposure in September. Chad Pinder, who also got his first taste of the bigs late in the season, returns to the picture as well. And it might just be that the A’s true long-term answer at second isn’t even playing there regularly yet.
Shortstop Franklin Barreto, Oakland’s top overall prospect, has logged some time on the right side of the bag in the minors and most recently in the Arizona Fall League. The 20-year-old Barreto figures to begin this season with Triple-A Nashville but will likely make his big league debut sometime in 2017.
Unlike center field — where the A’s lack both a short and long-term answer — team officials at least like their future options at second. The question is whether they seek immediate help via free agency or trade.
The Twins’ Brian Dozier is available but Minnesota is setting a high price for him and doesn’t necessarily have to unload him. Chase Utley, who makes the Bay Area his offseason home, is an intriguing name on the free agent front, though he’ll play this season at age 38.
STARRING CAST: All indications are that Lowrie, 32, is recovering well from foot surgery and that his timetable should have him ready for the start of spring training in February.
At full strength, Lowrie offers the A’s an experienced switch-hitter that manager Bob Melvin feels can bat anywhere in the order. But Lowrie also is three seasons removed from his last truly solid campaign — in 2013 he slashed .290/.344/.446 with 15 homers and 75 RBI for Oakland. His offensive production is key because Lowrie doesn’t offer great defensive range at second. The value comes with his bat.
“Jed certainly is an option,” Beane said. “We have to wait until he’s out there and playing and fully recovered from his surgery. … With guys who come off surgery, and when the timeline (to return) puts them right around spring training, if you bank on that you can find yourself in trouble.”
Keep that health factor in mind as you ponder whether the A’s could find a taker for Lowrie. It’s believed they’ve at least gauged trade interest for him this winter, though his physical status could make it tougher to pull off a deal. He’s in the final season of a three-year deal that will pay him $6.5 million in 2017. That’s not an outrageous amount, and Lowrie does offer the versatility to play shortstop or third if needed.
CAMP COMPETITION: Wendle hit .260 with a homer and 11 RBI in 28 games of his big league debut last season. Not eye-popping numbers, but he impressed those within the organization with his defense, an area in which he's improved by leaps and bounds since coming over from Cleveland in the Brandon Moss trade of December 2014. He also plays with a fire that the box score doesn’t account for. And if Wendle can improve his patience at the plate and work deeper into counts, the A’s could give him a longer look as their leadoff man.
Should the A’s not be convinced Lowrie is the everyday solution at second, Wendle and the right-handed hitting Pinder could form a second base platoon, though there’s not a guarantee that both (or either) even make the Opening Night roster.
Another prospect whose name is worth stashing away is Max Schrock, a non-roster invitee to spring training. Acquired from the Nationals for reliever Marc Rzepczynski and cash in August, the 22-year-old Schrock is a bat-first second baseman who has played as high as Double-A to this point.
PAY ATTENTION TO: Whether Wendle and Pinder get a look during the spring as true utility-type infielders. The A’s will need to identify a backup infielder. Pinder has experience playing second, short and third. And Wendle, though he’s primarily a second baseman, played a substantial amount of shortstop during winter ball in Mexico .