A's position outlook: Much different outfield look in 2017 than 2016

A's position outlook: Much different outfield look in 2017 than 2016

The A’s will arrive at spring training and greet two new pieces to their outfield mix, lending some intrigue as to how that position group shakes out by Opening Night.

Matt Joyce was signed in November to a two-year $11 million deal and provides a veteran left-handed hitter who can play either corner spot and be an effective pinch hitter. Just last week, Rajai Davis inked a one-year $6 million contract and is expected to be the everyday center fielder.

Beyond those two, there’s left fielder Khris Davis — coming off a 42-homer season — and a mix of others who could fit into the 25-man puzzle and perhaps factor in at designated hitter too.

A month’s worth of Cactus League games will help manager Bob Melvin and the front office sort things out, but here’s a look at how Oakland’s outfield currently shapes up.

STARRING CAST: Rajai Davis, who remains one of the major leagues’ most dangerous base runners at age 36, is a strong candidate to hit leadoff. His speed and base-stealing ability is needed because the A’s finished last in the American League last season in runs and slugging percentage, and as the roster currently stands, they still don’t look like a team that will be powered greatly by the long ball.

With Khris Davis expected to man left field most of the time (he’ll also get at-bats at DH), Joyce could form a platoon in right field with the right-handed hitting Mark Canha, who is a wild card as he returns from hip surgery that limited him to 16 games last year. Joyce, 32, hits righties well and posted a .403 on-base percentage in 293 plate appearances with Pittsburgh last season, and that was a big draw for an A’s team that ranked last in the league with a .304 OBP. He also led major league pinch hitters in RBI and walks and tied for the lead with four homers. Overall, he slashed .242/.403/.463 with 13 homers and 42 RBI.

CAMP COMPETITION: Lots of variables will factor into the makeup of the outfield. Do the A’s keep four outfielders or five? Do they sign a power hitter that can share first base with Yonder Alonso? If not, Canha may see significant time in a first-base platoon and that would open up an opportunity for another outfielder. It’s highly unlikely that Jake Smolinski and Brett Eibner, who hit right-handed, both make the roster. But one of them certainly could. Give Smolinski the edge entering camp as he’s done more in an A’s uniform to this point. Matt Olson, a combo first baseman/right fielder who the A’s hope blossoms into a bonafide big-league power hitter, probably needs a huge spring to break camp with the club as the roster stands right now.

A’s fans will get introduced to Jaycob Brugman this spring. A 17th round pick out of BYU in 2013, the left-handed hitting Brugman batted .285 with 12 homers and 87 RBI combined last season between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Nashville, and he provides a solid glove at all three outfield spots. The A’s added him to the 40-man roster this winter, and Brugman (who turns 25 later this month) will be in big league camp for the first time. Count him as the dark horse in the outfield competition.

PAY ATTENTION TO: Whether the A’s throw their hat in the ring for free agent Jose Bautista. With the six-time All Star still lingering on the open market, there’s thought that the 36-year-old Bautista may settle for a one-year contract. It doesn’t seem so far-fetched for Oakland to get involved in an offseason where the A’s already made an aggressive run at Edwin Encarnacion. Bautista, who’s primarily a right fielder, hit 40 homers for Toronto as recently as 2015.

A's position outlook: Healy emerges at third, but Chapman a factor


A's position outlook: Healy emerges at third, but Chapman a factor

Ryon Healy made his mark with the A’s as a rookie, and he did it the hard way.

Because he didn’t earn an invitation to big league spring training last season, he didn’t generate the hype or attention of some of Oakland’s other infield prospects. All he did was hit, posting numbers at Double-A and Triple-A that were impossible to ignore.

That earned Healy a major league promotion after the All-Star break, and you know how the story picks up from there. Healy crammed some impressive numbers into a half-season’s worth of playing time, and that sets him up as a key returner for the 2017 A’s.

He projects as the starter at third base entering the season, barring any surprise moves the rest of the winter. And it wouldn’t be a shock if he’s penciled in as the No. 3 hitter for manager Bob Melvin once the season begins. That decision will come closer to Opening Night, but Healy has emerged as one of the A’s key building blocks moving forward.

STARRING CAST: Confidence is one of Healy’s biggest strengths. From the time he arrived in the A’s clubhouse, he acted like he belonged, and that self-assuredness translated to his play on the field. He hit .305 in 73 games, the second-best average in Oakland history among rookies with at least 250 plate appearances. Healy also led AL rookies in post-All Star break hits and extra-base hits, and he was second in homers (13), RBI (37) and runs (36).

The challenge now will be whether Healy, who turns 25 next week, can build on what he did in 2016 and sustain it over a full major league season. He was drafted as a first baseman out of the University of Oregon, but gradually began getting time at third base in the minors. The A’s gave Healy a full-time shot as their third baseman last season, which bumped Danny Valencia off the hot corner, and Melvin was impressed with how Healy acquitted himself at the big league level.

CAMP COMPETITION: There’s been lots of speculation about whether Healy might eventually move back to first base. That shift could happen when Matt Chapman, a third baseman who is one of Oakland’s top prospects, graduates to the bigs. But A’s general manager David Forst has said the A’s won’t rush the 23-year-old Chapman, who has played just 18 games as high as Triple-A. Part of that patient approach has to do with their confidence in Healy handling third.

“He's a tough kid,” Melvin said during the winter meetings. “And to take to third base, which is not an easy position, as well as he did, you know, speaks to how hard he works. If Chapman ends up being there at some point in time, (Healy’s) natural position is first base. We also have the DH spot. We'll find a place for his bat.”

It will be worth watching Chapman’s progress in his second major league spring training. He was the talk of camp last spring after he led the team with six homers and 14 RBI in Cactus League play. Chapman proceeded to win Texas League Player of the Year honors with Double-A Midland, and combined he clubbed 36 homers with 96 RBI between Midland and Triple-A Nashville. He projects as a stronger defender at third than Healy, but the A’s would like Chapman to gain a bit more Triple-A seasoning. He hit just .237 last season and struck out a whopping 173 times.

PAY ATTENTION TO: How another highly regarded third base prospect fares during spring training. Renato Nunez, who appeared in nine games after a September call-up last season, has enjoyed a strong showing in the Venezuelan Winter League. Nunez’s power at the plate is his biggest strength, and it’s possible he eventually gets a look at first base or settles in as a DH. Chad Pinder has the versatility to play third in a pinch, and Jed Lowrie could even see a bit of time there if he’s not starting at second base.

A's aren't done looking for hitters after signing Davis

A's aren't done looking for hitters after signing Davis

Having added some speed to their lineup, the A’s would like to complement it with some thump.

While discussing the signing of center fielder and potential leadoff man Rajai Davis, Oakland general manager David Forst said Wednesday that he hopes to keep adding to the offense, preferably in the form of a right-handed hitter.

“I think we’re looking sort of all over,” Forst said on a media conference call. “We could probably use a right-handed bat, as reports (have suggested). We’re certainly looking at right-handed hitters, but I think we have a handful of spots we could put guys right now.”

A morning report from Fan Rag’s Jon Heyman suggested the A’s have interest in free agent slugger Mark Trumbo, who led the majors with 47 home runs last season. Whether he’s a real possibility remains to be seen — the Baltimore Orioles are interested in re-signing him and the Colorado Rockies have also been linked to Trumbo, who can play first base, both corner outfield spots or serve as designated hitter.

But the upshot here is that the A’s are looking to keep upgrading offensively, and a right-handed power bat remains on their wish list after they missed out on Edwin Encarnacion. A surprising number of free agent right-handed sluggers remain on the market for this deep into the offseason, including Trumbo, Mike Napoli (who’s been linked to the Texas Rangers), Chris Carter and outfielder Jose Bautista.

All but Bautista are best suited for first base/DH type roles. As the roster currently stands, Oakland could conceivably look to add either a first baseman or corner outfielder who also could see some DH duty. Second base also remains somewhat of a concern, A’s officials have said, because of inexperience and health issues with veteran Jed Lowrie.

Addressing the idea of adding another veteran to a club that seems to be building around younger players, Forst said: “I think what’s important to remember is that part of developing players is making sure they’re ready when they get here, and not forcing them to the major leagues too soon.”

Center field is one area the A’s no longer have to worry about after signing Davis to a one-year $6 million contract, which was finalized Tuesday. Forst said the A’s examined both the trade and free agent markets for center fielders and eventually came back to Davis, who they know well from his three-year stint with Oakland from 2008-10.

Forst confirmed Davis will be the primary center fielder and is likely to hit atop the batting order. At age 36, he remains one of the majors’ fastest players and led the American League with 43 steals in 2016. The A’s believe his speed still benefits him greatly in center too. But Forst also mentioned Davis’ positive clubhouse demeanor and personality as a selling point in bringing him back.

That’s no small detail for a club that suffered from poor clubhouse vibes over the past two seasons, culminating with a fight between teammates Billy Butler and Danny Valencia last season. Butler, a free agent signee, was released in September with one year left on his contract, and Valencia was traded to Seattle in November. “Part of the challenge of free agency is bringing in a new personality and guys you’re not as familiar with,” Forst said. “We were able to eliminate that variable, bring someone in that’s a great person and will influence the clubhouse positively as well as what he does on the field. It’s a big part of the equation. I spent time with him yesterday. He looks great and is excited to be back here.”

Davis, who slashed .249/.306/.388 with the Cleveland Indians last year, said the Bay Area is a great and comfortable fit for his family.

“This is the place where I really established myself as a big leaguer,” he said Wednesday.

He also likes this A’s team, despite the assumptions that Oakland will be challenged to contend in 2017.

“Before I went to Cleveland, they were a .500 team. Then we won the Central and went on to Game 7 of the World Series.”

That’s where Davis took center stage, hitting a two-run game-tying homer in Game 7 off the Cubs’ Aroldis Chapman.

Forst said he was home with his young son, “begging him to go to sleep,” when Davis mashed that memorable blast.

“It’s one of those moments in World Series history I think everyone will remember,” Forst said. “The sheer surprise of it. You didn’t expect Raj to be the guy to hit a homer. I asked him a little at lunch about the experience, and he just said what an amazing ride the World Series was.”