There wasn’t supposed to be any major questions revolving around the Athletics infield this offseason.
Oakland finished 2017 with all five starting spots sewn up and key backups in place. Improving matters, four of the five players appear to be rising stars and under franchise control for the foreseeable future, and No. 1 minor league prospect Franklin Barreto is on the verge of busting onto the big league scene.
While the infield held as the one banked area for the A’s front office this winter, a massive question was introduced in late-October when projected No. 1 catcher Bruce Maxwell was arrested in Scottsdale, Arizona on gun charges. Maxwell has since pleaded not-guilty and reported to Mesa, Arizona where manager Bob Melvin expects the 27-year-old to earn the Opening Day starting spot behind the dish. He said, at FanFest:
“We plan on him being the No. 1 catcher, and until someone tells us different that’s the process that we’re going with.”
With his trial date set for Aug. 9, according to BANG’s Martin Gallegos, all signs point to Maxwell and the A’s keeping to that process for much of the season. Of course, there is at least a minimal chance that an internal investigation breeds cause for the club to take its own action.
Should Maxwell miss time, that would push back-up backstop Josh Phegley into a starting assignment, and Dustin Garneau from insurance policy to primary backup. Answers to the Maxwell questions will be answered when they are asked, though. For now, the starting job is his to lose.
The term “veteran” is very relative with this club, which could carry as many as 11 players aged 25 and under into Opening Day. For example, 27-year-old Marcus Semien has logged less than 3-1/2 years of big league experience yet he will be the third-most seasoned Athletics position player come April.
One of the two players with more big league service time than the shortstop is his double-play mate, second baseman Jed Lowrie.
Lowrie produced the most consistent season of any Oakland hitter in 2017, never allowing his average to dip below .260 after April 18 and slashing .277/.360/.448 with a franchise record 49 doubles in 153 games — he also slugged 14 home runs. Semien entered 2017 on the heels of a 27-homer, 10-steal season, but missed 2-1/2 months with a fractured right wrist.
Despite the extended absence, Semien reached the seats 10 times while setting a career-high with 12 stolen bases. He also raised his batting average 11 points, from .238 in 2016 to .249, and his on-base percentage from .300 to .325.
With health on their side, the A’s should get more than 30 homers from the middle infield — no small feat. And an improved average from Semien either in the bottom or top of the order will do wonders for the fluidity of the offense.
Oakland will also look for more than 50 bombs from the corners, where Matt Chapman and Matt Olson appear poised to take center stage on a national level. Olson, of course, demanded that attention last year when he and Phillies rookie Rhys Hoskins combined for 38 home runs over the season’s final two months — 20 from Olson — only to have the Oakland first baseman cap it with jacks in five consecutive contests, making himself at home with three in as many days in Philadelphia over that stretch.
Now, Olson and the Gold Glove-caliber third baseman Chapman, who hit 14 home runs of his own in 84 games, will enter 2018 as cinches at the corner infield positions and in the heart of the batting order, solidifying any question in all spots for years to come.
All told, expecting more than 100 home runs and 350 RBIs from the starting infield is far from out of the question for the A’s. The World Series champion Houston Astros got 103 and 373 from their infield in 2017.
Chad Pinder will continue to serve as the primary backup at both middle infield positions — he appeared in 15 games at second base and 21 at shortstop a year ago. Pinder’s light-tower power and cannon arm offer a very intriguing set of tools from a bench player, which is why he will also continue to see time in the outfield.
Mark Canha told SFBay that his offseason defensive work was geared toward improving at third base, meaning the club likely plans to have the San Jose native serve as the primary backup at first and third. While he did look to improve his infield footwork, the focus was offense. In particular, getting back to the basics, which he said made him successful:
“Just went back to the basics and back to my foundation as a hitter — what worked for me well in the past. I just kinda had to do some soul-searching and decide what’s my foundation, what makes me successful.
“some times that’s the best thing to do after a tough year: simplify.”
Those soul-searching sessions told him to keep his hands close to his body through the swing. Letting his hands get away from him caused his average to fall from .254 in 2015 (he missed nearly all of 2016 due to injury) to .208. His slugging ability nearly disappeared as well, dropping from .426 to .382.
Whether or not Canha’s search for consistency bears fruit will answer the lone remaining infield question for the A’s. His skill set and ability to play five different positions effectively make him a favorite for the seventh infield spot. But if he can’t rediscover the bat that made him a threat in 2015 the door will be left wide open for Renato Nunez, who is out of minor league options.
Nunez has logged 17 big league games over the past two seasons while slashing .262/.317/.469 with 130 home runs in 694 minor league games over seven years. He has never been able to find an average to go with his power, and he is far from a double-plus defender.
Still, he has 30-homer potential and experience at third and left field meaning the A’s will do all they can to make a roster spot for him. And that is really the only question that Melvin and the A’s braintrust will be looking to answer when it comes to infield this spring: is Nunez the backup third baseman, or is Canha.