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A’s young infield offers pathway to promising future

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Houston Astros vs Oakland Athletics
Oakland Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman (26) rounds the bases after a second inning home run as the Houston Astros face the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, September 8, 2017.

The Oakland offense was the American League’s fifth-highest scoring in the second half of 2017.

It had the eighth-highest batting average, fifth-highest on-base percentage and second-most extra-base hits after the All-Star break.

All that following a youth movement that dropped the starting infield’s average age to 26, prompting manager Bob Melvin to offer, in his post-season comments, assurances in his offense moving forward:

“I think the position player group looks pretty good. … I’m pretty happy with the guys we finished the season with.”

It’s easy to understand the skipper’s sentiment. Bolstered by its youngsters, most notably Matt Olson and Matt Chapman at the corners of the infield, the Athletics went 17-13 (T-8th best in MLB) over the final 30 games of the season, including baseball’s fifth-best record (13-7) over the final 20. The second-half rush also gave Oakland its first winning record (46-35) at home — tying the Baltimore Orioles for the best mark among non-postseason qualifiers — and a 24-25 record against teams with a winning record — second-best among non-postseason qualifiers.

Like the outfield, the starting spots on the infield are all but spoken for heading into the offseason. Perhaps the only spot destined for some fluidity in the near future is that of Jed Lowrie‘s second base.

Lowrie, who set a franchise record with 49 doubles in 2017, enjoyed his greatest run of health since 2013, playing 153 games — fewer only than his 10-year career high of 154 games played four years prior. Statistically, the 33-year-old nearly matched the numbers of his 29-year-old season as well, slashing .277/.360/.448 with 14 home runs, 69 RBIs and a career-best 86 runs scored.

The success, and health, bred constant praised from his manager and teammates as the club’s most consistent offensive producer throughout the season.

Said Melvin:

“Jed’s the guy. He had a great year for us. I don’t want to say (we’re) surprised but he was great with our younger guys. I think, as the season went along, he enjoyed being here more and more, knowing that he was instrumental with these guys and that they looked up to him and that he was a resource for them.”

Should injury issues return to Lowrie, or success continue to evade the club itself, top prospect Franklin Barreto would supplant the A’s 2017 batting leader. Should Barreto, a career .292 hitter in 456 minor league games, continue to surge the way he did last season — slashing .290/.339/.456 with 15 homers and 15 stolen bases for Triple-A Nashville — he could do so anyway.

That is the only position at which Oakland would see any change on the infield.

With Olson and Chapman emerging and two-way stars, both showing stellar defensive abilities (Chapman a bit more so) and astonishing batting power, the Matts have joined shortstop Marcus Semien as Oakland infield mainstays for the foreseeable future.

The 27-year-old Semien, who led all AL shortstops with 27 homers in 2016, slugged just 10 in an injury-shortened 2017 campaign that saw him steal a career-high 12 bags in just 85 games. Now Semien, a career .246 hitter, is a legitimate 20-20 (20-homer, 20-steal) candidate, while Chapman, 24, and Olson, 23, combined for 38 home runs, 85 RBIs and 72 runs scored in 133 total games played.

Pepper in Ryon Healy, 25, and his newfound confidence in the designated hitter role and the A’s boast a 162-game average of 145 home runs and 400 RBIs in the aggregate of five players, among whom just Lowrie is perhaps beyond his prime.

Healy is not only the first to have emerged among this young Athletic wave, batting .305 with 13 homers as a rookie in the second half of the 2016 season, he is a key to this group’s success. At home at either third or first base, but not nearly the defender of Chapman of Olson, it was of great importance for Healy to find comfort in the DH spot — he did.

Admitting that he often struggled to fill his time when upon first taking up the position in April, Healy said he found himself going so far as to disappear into the clubhouse tunnel for games of wall-ball — bouncing a ball off the tunnel wall, catching it, and repeating. Over his final 48 games, though, he pushed his season average from .256 to .271, batting at a .300 clip over the stretch.

His power did fall off, hitting six of his 25 homers over the final two months, giving him room for growth.

Beyond the starting four, and Healy who will serve as the primary back-up at the corners, Chad Pinder will serve as Melvin’s No. 1 bench option up the middle. After the super-utility man, however, the bench gets a bit foggy, offering a roster spot at which the A’s can improve this offseason. A veteran like Cliff Pennington or J.J. Hardy could fill that gap, allowing the organization to keep Barreto and Joey Wendle in the minor for further seasoning — at least at the start of the season.

The final position in the infield is in definite flux.

Catcher Bruce Maxwell, who was arrested on Oct. 28 in Arizona for drunkenly wielding a firearm and allegedly pointing it at a food delivery woman, has been charged and pleaded not-guilty Tuesday. As the case unfolds and punishment is handed down, it is unclear if the catcher will be available to the A’s in 2018 or moving forward.

Should Maxwell be unavailable, that would leave Oakland with Josh Phegley and Dustin Garneau as the catcher duo. Both are capable defenders, but Garneau is limited offensively, particularly in comparison to Maxwell, a .251 hitter with 23 extra-base hits in 109 MLB games.

But, alas, with the production of which the other five infielder are able to produce production may should not be of high necessity from the catcher position, rather a strong arm and stronger support system for a young, up-and-coming pitching staff.

A pitching staff that will get a healthy boost from a healthier offense, led by Olson, Healy, Chapman and Khris Davis. Said Melvin:

“We should be a better team. We should be more like the team you saw in the second half, the last couple months, than what you saw in the first half.”


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.

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