Will Johnson have a big impact on A's?
Last season, Brandon Moss hit a team-high 30 homers with 87 RBI, while Nate Freiman hit .274 with four home runs. (USATSI)
For years the first-base position epitomized the dysfunction of the A’s offensively.
Three times over a four-season stretch from 2008-11, Oakland’s first basemen finished last or second-to-last in the American League in home runs, RBI and OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).
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At a position traditionally looked upon for run production, the A’s were getting woefully little. But that changed with the 2012 season. The A’s have gotten more homers from their first basemen over the past two years (58) than they got in the previous four combined (46). They finished in the top half of the A.L. in homers, RBI and OPS for the position in each of the past two seasons.
It’s no coincidence that Oakland’s run production in general has increased, which has helped vault the A’s to the top of the American League West.
Here’s a closer look at how things shape up for Oakland at first base heading into 2014:
STARRING CAST: Credit the late-blooming Brandon Moss for providing an offensive jolt. Moss, 30, converted from the outfield to first base and joined the big league club in June 2012 . Since then, he’s hit 51 homers and driven in 139 runs and helped anchor the middle of the order.
Moss, who bounced between three different organizations before landing with the A’s, hit a team-high 30 homers with 87 RBI last season. Amazingly, he posted those numbers without being the everyday first baseman. The left-handed hitting Moss started against right-handers and hit .268 with 26 of his 30 homers. He collected just 80 at-bats against lefties and hit .200, striking out in nearly half of those at-bats.
That’s a small sample size on which to judge Moss against lefties. Could he produce bigger overall numbers were he in the lineup every day? Or are the A’s maximizing Moss’ effectiveness by platooning him with a right-handed hitter?
A’s manager Bob Melvin was asked in October if he envisioned Moss as an everyday player moving forward.
“I think he has the ability to play every day,” Melvin said. “Some days he struggled some against left-handers and Nate Freiman did great in the role we had for him. He gave Brandon some time off. It just depends who we have to match up with him.”
As a rookie last season, Freiman hit .274 with four homers and 24 RBI before he suffered a strained abdomen muscle that limited his playing time in September. Freiman hit .304 (45-for-148) against lefties, complementing Moss in a similar way that Chris Carter did in 2012.
CAMP COMPETITION: Moss obviously will start at first base against right-handers, and how much he plays against lefties remains to be seen. But given the rest of the infield composition, there may not be room for a true backup first baseman such as Freiman or Daric Barton.
Five infielders seem assured of breaking spring training with the club – third baseman Josh Donaldson, shortstop Jed Lowrie, second baseman Alberto Callaspo, Moss and switch-hitting utility infielder Nick Punto, who was signed to a one-year contract in November. If the A’s also want to carry Eric Sogard, a part-time starter at second base last season, it seems they won’t have room for another pure first baseman besides Moss.
Melvin mentioned during the winter meetings that the switch-hitting Callaspo could also see some time at first base, presumably against left-handers. If that’s the case, it seems unlikely that Freiman would land a roster spot.
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PAY ATTENTION TO: How much time, if any, that Moss gets in the outfield during spring training. He shifted to the outfield on occasion last season, notably during a late-season stretch when right fielder Josh Reddick was hurt. That allowed Barton, who hits left-handed like Moss, to play first base as he was swinging a hot bat at the time.
But if Reddick bounces back offensively after a down season in 2013, there would seem little need to play Moss in the outfield. That would limit the opportunity to crack the roster for a player such as Barton, who seems to have nine lives when it comes to sticking with the A’s.