Joey Wendle

A's outlook: Options at second base 'a concern' for 2017 season

A's outlook: Options at second base 'a concern' for 2017 season

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 .

Wendle's active winter takes him from Mexico to CBA meetings

Wendle's active winter takes him from Mexico to CBA meetings

As if Joey Wendle’s offseason wasn’t busy enough, he flew to Dallas this week to attend the Collective Bargaining Agreement meetings between the players’ association and Major League Baseball owners.

Wendle was one of five Athletics who were at the meetings, along with Yonder Alonso, John Axford, Daniel Coulombe and Andrew Triggs. That quintet didn’t play an active part in negotiations. But Wendle, a second baseman who received his first big league call-up in September, said it was time well spent as he made the effort to educate himself about baseball’s labor issues.

“It peaked my interest and I decided to come on out for a couple of days,” Wendle said while waiting to catch a flight back home to Pennsylvania. “I’m aware that we have probably the best sports union of any in the world. I just wanted to come see what it was all about.”

Wendle declined to discuss any of the major details in the CBA, saying he didn’t feel it was his position to comment as a player with so little service time. But he was proud that five A’s showed up, estimating it was among the largest contingent of players from any team.

Wendle, who used an impressive September to play his way into the second base picture, has been on the go since the regular season wrapped. He quickly went to Mexico to play winter ball with Yaquis de Obregon of the Mexican League. Wendle played mostly second base, but, to his surprise, he also made a string of starts at shortstop early in the season. A shortstop who was originally in the team’s plans didn’t pan out, so Wendle found himself logging innings at a position he hadn’t played since high school.

That was OK with Wendle, who volunteered to play winter ball because he wanted to gain experience at another position besides second.

“When I went initially, I thought I’d play some third base,” Wendle said. “I showed up and they told me I’d be playing some shortstop. It’s something I got more familiar with as the games went on. I’m still most comfortable at second base. But anytime you can add a position and play the left side of the infield, it can help you as a player.”

A’s officials are happy with Wendle’s improvement defensively. His offensive numbers in his September call-up don’t jump off the page — .260, one homer, 11 RBI in 28 games — but he provided a spark for a stretch as the A’s leadoff hitter.

Wendle swung a hot bat during winter ball, hitting .307 with three homers and 25 RBI in 34 games. His 18 extra-base hits stand out for a player who had just two in his 28 games with Oakland.

“In that environment, I was able to focus on some areas I wanted to work on. I was able to take it on as a learning experience,” Wendle said.

Now, after an extended season that began back in February — plus a quick lesson in baseball labor relations — he’ll enjoy a well-deserved break.

Targeting outfield help key for A's entering the offseason

Targeting outfield help key for A's entering the offseason

OAKLAND — A record number of injuries provide the A’s a very legitimate excuse for why things went so wrong this season.

To a degree, however, the A’s made their own bed when it came to a second consecutive finish in the American League West cellar. Too many breakdowns, in too many facets of the game, helped them dig a hole that by mid-summer was too big to climb out of.

Reflecting on a 69-93 season during his end-of-year media session, A’s manager Bob Melvin cited many positives that he thinks can lead to a turnaround in 2017. But the A’s fifth-year skipper also acknowledged what a bumpy road that 2016 was to endure.

“I’m not happy about what’s happened the past couple of years,” Melvin said. “Not just this year but the last couple years. And we look to improve. And we’re going to probably commit to some of our younger guys, and we’ll see how we go as a team going forward. But I’m happy to get this year over.”

The emergence of several young impact players during the second half is a big bright spot. The key for Oakland’s front office heading into the offseason is judging how many veteran pieces to add to complement that young talent.

Billy Beane, the A’s executive vice president of baseball operations, said he thinks the team has a key building block in place with young, quality starting pitching depth. Offensively, he cited considerable room for improvement after Oakland finished last in the AL in runs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.

One area that the A’s definitely will look to upgrade is the outfield, which Beane described as a weakness throughout the organization.

“There’s no question center field, short and long-term, is a concern,” he said. “It’s an area that we don’t necessarily have an answer.”

Beane said the A’s may look to sign a center fielder in free agency. A big-ticket target like Ian Desmond figures to cost more than the A’s are willing to spend. A player such as Austin Jackson would be a more affordable target, though he’s coming off knee surgery and hasn’t played since June.

“Let’s be frank, we’ve got a lot of ground to make up,” Beane said. “If you’re just looking at simply where we are at the end of the season — again, it’s not necessarily a fair barometer because a lot of guys were out — but if you just look at run differential and look at what you need to quantitatively make up … we’ve got a lot of ground to catch up on.”

Beane and Melvin both mentioned Mark Canha, a player who spent most of this season recovering from hip surgery, as a candidate for right field if he’s healthy.

The A’s saw several rookies — including third baseman Ryon Healy, second baseman Joey Wendle and catcher Bruce Maxwell — make an impact. But interestingly, Beane and general manager David Forst said some of the team’s other highly touted prospects may not take the express route to the bigs, including third baseman Matt Chapman and middle infielder Franklin Barreto.

Both are “guys we like and who are coming, but we don’t know if they’re gonna be ready to start next year (in the majors),” Forst said. “Obviously both have gone to Triple-A, which is great, and performed well in their short time there. But here on Day 1 of the offseason, I don’t think anybody can say where players land on Opening Day next year.”

That points to Healy beginning next year as Oakland’s third baseman, though Melvin and Forst both mentioned his ability to play first. It would also suggest Yonder Alonso, eligible for arbitration this winter, is likely to stick at first base to begin next season.

The status of another arbitration-eligible position player, Danny Valencia, appears more in doubt after neither Beane, Forst nor Melvin spoke specifically about his potential role when asked about him.

What happens when a healthy Jed Lowrie returns from foot surgery in the spring? Melvin referred to the veteran switch hitter as “probably the prime option” at second base but he and Forst also talked up Lowrie’s ability to play multiple positions.

That speaks to the strong impression Wendle made, playing solid defense at second and providing an offensive spark despite overall numbers (.260, 1 HR, 11 RBI in 28 games) that didn’t jump off the page.