Camp Versatility could be key to A's season

Camp Versatility could be key to A's season
March 7, 2013, 9:45 pm
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The A's have a swiss-army-knife-type player in Eric Sogard, who can play second, third, and short. (AP)

Just to have that ability to play everywhere gives you a lot more opportunity to get in the game.
—Adam Rosales
It (versatility) allows us to give guys days off and keep them fresh over the course of the season.
—A's manager Bob Melvin

In the early 2000s the Oakland Athletics built a team designed to draw walks and have a high on-base percentage. Last season, the A's found success by using platoons.

This year, versatility is en vogue in Oakland.

In order to win now, the A's have assembled a team that is designed to survive down the stretch. They are doing so by stacking the roster with extra-depth and players that can play all over the field.

Last season's starting playoff roster featured an outfielder-turned-first baseman, a shortstop-turned-second baseman, a catcher-turned-third baseman, a first baseman-turned-pitcher, and a center fielder-turned-left fielder. Now the team is taking it a step further.

Welcome to Camp Versatility.

"That's part of what we're doing at this camp," A's manager Bob Melvin said. 'It allows us to withstand injury, I believe. It allows us to give guys days off and keep them fresh over the course of the season. I think our front office was very good in targeting that."

Oakland's roster is jam-packed with players that can play multiple positions. In fact, 15 of the 20 position players on the current 40-man roster have either played multiple positions or are expected to do so this upcoming season.

Even players that haven't had experience with other positions are learning how to be more versatile. Some by choice, some because they've been asked to do so. As a result, Melvin will have many options to chose from when filling out his daily lineup card. It's safe to say the league took notice of what the two-time manager of the year can do when given a good problem to handle.

"I've called him the magic man because every move he makes it comes off," former catcher now third baseman Josh Donaldson said. "He knows when to pull the strings and when to hold it back."

The hardest thing might be keeping track of each guy and working them into the games at each potential position.

"It's tough to watch everybody, but we've got a pretty good staff and we're all on the same page," third base coach Mike Gallego said. "From every coach that we've got, whatever their word is, it's like my own eyes are watching."

One guy the team will be watching closely is career center fielder Chris Young. The A's already had a solid core of outfielders when they acquired him. Young has played 851 games in center and has never played another position in a regular season game in his big league career. This year he is expected to play all three outfield positions, and will also find himself in the lineup as the designated hitter.

Young sees value in his soon-to -be-newfound versatility, and is up for the challenge.

"Every position has its quirks I guess, I don't know that one is easier than the other," Young said. "Being that I've been an outfielder so long I think I understand ball flight, and how it's different when you're in a corner position than it is when you're in center, so I'm just going to try and apply that when I'm playing those positions."

Last year Coco Crisp and Yoenis Cespedes combined to miss 75 games. The addition of an all-star outfielder like Young could prove to be a very effective insurance policy.

Much like Young in the outfield, infielder Jed Lowrie was added to bolster the team's infield. He has big league experience at first base, second base, shortstop, and third base. His ability to provide some pop from the middle infield positions makes him valuable. The fact that there's five different ways the A's skipper can get his bat into the lineup makes him an asset.

Just don't call him a super utility man.

"I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing," Lowrie said after reporting to camp. "I've played shortstop every day and that's what I think I am. I am an everyday shortstop that can play other positions."

The same can be said for Adam Rosales. Like Lowrie, he can play all of the infield positions and in a pinch he could even man left field, as well. Rosales recognizes that versatility is his ticket to the big leagues.

"Just to have that ability to play everywhere gives you a lot more opportunity to get in the game," Rosales said. "Any time I can help the team out that's the most important thing. Whether it's to give a guy the day off, or if my bat's hot, to find a place for me in the lineup."

Guys are taking notice of the versatility approach. Career outfielder Michael Taylor started learning how to play first base this spring. Shane Peterson, also an outfielder with past experience at first, is spending time taking grounders as well. After all, versatility is the entire reason the A's ended up with their likely staring corner infielders, Brandon Moss and Donaldson.

At the beginning of last season River Cats manager (now A's bullpen coach) Darren Bush called Moss into his office and asked what it would take to help him get back to the big leagues. Moss' then told Bush that he played first base in the past and thought he could possibly latch on there. Bush started hitting Moss grounders daily at first, and the rest is history.

In just 84 games in Oakland, Moss hit .291 with 21 home runs and 52 RBI. It's unlikely he would have found himself in Oakland if he stayed buried in the team's outfield depth chart. Now he is their starting first baseman.

"Anything you can do to get in the lineup, anything you can do to be an asset to the team is better," Moss said. "Why wouldn't you do it?"

The A's also have swiss army knife-type players like Eric Sogard, who can play second, third, and short. Andy Parrino, who can play second, third, short, left, and right field. And Grant Green, who has played all over the outfield and infield.

"It's definitely something the A's are getting into and they are liking the versatility players," Green said. "I played three outfield positions, I can play three infield positions, hopefully they see that as an asset."

The fact the A's have so many versatile players is a testament to the athleticism of the guys on the roster. It is also a sign they are a hungry and competitive bunch. Considering the fact that guys are looking to latch on wherever they can, the internal competition for playing time could serve as an additional motivational factor. If you can't perform, there's plenty of options to replace you.

The A's front office has put together an intriguing roster built to win. They have a manager in place that can pull all the right strings -- and there are many. This is their idea of a winning formula. Only time will tell if Versatilityball is the new Moneyball.

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