A’s final roster: Nine players fight for four spots

With just two games remaining before final decisions must be made, the Athletics have four open roster spots. Of the nine players in competition for those jobs seven have a realistic shot.

Ryan Dull, a lock for one of Oakland’s seven bullpen slots, begins the season on the 10-day disabled list nursing shoulder discomfort. Renato Núñez, out of options heading into 2018, will be on the same list with a pulled hamstring. This means two of 25 spots are up for grabs, along with the starting and back-up center field jobs.

Manager Bob Melvin was talking about the center field battle, but his pregame comments Sunday can be applied to all remaining roster battles:

“The guys are just going out and they’re doing their thing. They know that at the end of the day the decision is going to made here … but all of them have played pretty well.”

One of the beauties of baseball is the importance of each spot on the 25-man roster, though none of the four open spots carries with it more importance than that starting center field role.

Jake Smolinski (.289/.358/.644 slash, four home runs and 13 RBIs this spring) has all but locked down the fifth outfielder spot. The lone remaining starting job, though, will go to either Boog Powell or Dustin Fowler.

Powell (.250/.340/.325, two RBIs) did an excellent job filling the role for 29 games last season, slashing .321/.380/.494 with three homers and 10 RBIs as an Athletic. But Fowler (.227/.255/.273, four RBIs) has fallen into a groove down the stretch of the spring schedule.

Said Melvin:

“He’s doing his best work right now. We look at these at-bats pretty closely and I think he’s had 13 good at-bats in his last 16, so he seems to really starting to be comfortable. … We feel like he’s kinda hitting his stride.”

With the A’s set to face right-handed starter Chris Stratton Tuesday in the final exhibition game before the decisions are made, both left-handed swingers should get one final audition. Barring something spectacular, expect Fowler to face the first right-handed starter come regular season.

Given his struggles last season (4-5, 4.27 ERA, 1.356 WHIP) and this spring (0-1, 12.71 ERA, 1.412 WHIP), Santiago Casilla has secured nothing. He could be dropped if the A’s feel he is not their best option, as Oakland owes him $5.5 million in 2018.

Emilio Pagán (0-1, 3.52 ERA, 0.522 WHIP this spring) is among the contenders for the closer spot. He brings one successful major league campaign and an equally impressive spring while also giving manager Melvin another option in long relief. Pagán should get an appearance Monday or Tuesday in San Francisco, but his Opening Day aspirations may be fallacy.

Like Pagán, Raúl Alcántara (1-1, 6.23 ERA, 1.38 WHIP) brings the ability to work multiple innings. Unlike Pagán, Alcántara is without minor league options, making him the favorite between the two.

Still, the measure is whether Alcántara has done enough, or offers enough promise, to urge a normally stingy Oakland front office into flushing Casilla’s money down the metaphorical drain.

Frankie Montas (2-1, 8.44 ERA, 2.250 WHIP) is a challenger, but without real history of success and minor league options, he is a clear odd man out — until he can harness his high-octane stuff.

The hopes of what Alcántara could blossom into is worth more to the A’s than cutting the 37-year-old Casilla.

A final infield bench spot will be held until the return of Núñez. Franklin Barreto (.291/.333/.545, three home runs, nine RBIs) has spoken loudly with his bat all spring, though Mark Canha (.302/.375/.558, three home runs, eight RBIs) has spoken louder. Plus, Canha has experience at first base, to which no other Oakland bench player can lay claim.

Of course, none of these decisions are guaranteed, though it is unlikely a young player like Barreto or Fowler would be sent down without a fair, extended shake. When Núñez returns he will take a spot. As will Dull. And infielder Sheldon Neuse may not be far from a call-up either.

Neuse, 23, was acquired by the A’s in the trade that sent Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to the Nationals, and got a non-roster invite to big league camp with little expectations. All he did was lead Oakland in home runs (5) and RBIs (15), earning acknowledgement from the skipper:

“Sheldon Neuse had an unbelievable spring for a kid that we thought he would get a few at-bats. … We knew he was a good player but we have a different opinion of him right now. He’s almost major league-ready as it is right now.”

There is an outside chance Melvin and the A’s open the season carrying an extra reliever, given their schedule and the 11 games scheduled in the first 11 days of the season. In that case, both Alcántara and Casilla will be there Thursday, with Canha in Nashville.

Decisions will be difficult, but for the right reasons. Melvin and the Oakland brass would much rather be forced to send a deserving youngsters down than retain someone who is not yet ready. Said Melvin:

“When we start, with the guys that we have, we’ll feel comfortable.”


Kalama Hines is SFBay 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.