The A’s brass head to San Diego next week with a straightforward offseason wish list in hand for these Winter Meetings. The priority might strike two needs with one find: the A’s hope to land a left-handed middle infielder.
“We do continue to look for a left-handed option in the infield,” general manager David Forst said in a conference call. “Expecting the 26th man to be on the roster, there is another opportunity for a position player, and ideally someone who can play other positions and ideally left handed, but we have to find that other person.”
The A’s thought that person was Jurickson Profar, who was acquired last offseason with potential to spice up the second base lineup spot with athleticism and crucial switch-hitting this team otherwise lacked. But Profar is gone in a trade with the San Diego Padres, so the hunt resumes.
So, let’s give in to first instinct and index those versatile free agent possibilities. There’s Brock Holt, a longtime infielder and outfielder for the Boston Red Sox. And, hey, a left-handed hitter. He was a 1 WAR player in 2019 — projected to fall to a .7 WAR in 2020 — slashing .297/.369/.402 with a .771 OPS in 87 games with just three home runs. Plus, he has a 3.4 defensive WAR and fits the versatility mold, having played 183 career games in the outfield — including nine last year for the Red Sox.
But, we know how the A’s value plate discipline, and 31-year-old Holt is projected to have a 20.7 K% and 9.7 BB%, which is about average these days. But his splits stand out. Against right-handed pitchers in 2019 he had a 119 wRC+ with an .832 OPS and .318 average (against lefties, he has a 45 wRC+) — not too shabby defensively, and clearly a guy the A’s could platoon against right-handed pitchers.
The A’s could also bring back old friend, left-handed hitter Eric Sogard, who could be pricy after recording a 2.6 WAR, one of the highest at his position in this free agent class Sogard slashed .290/.353/.457 with a .810 OPS with the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays in 2019. But his defensive metrics falter — he had a -1 defensive WAR playing mostly second base and designated hitting.
But the 33-year-old is behind the ball analytically, he ranks in the bottom percentiles in exit velocity (84 mph), barrel percentage (2.1%) and hard hit percentage (20%). But Sogard’s plate discipline and splits stands out. In 2019 he had a 14.3 K% and 8.6 BB%. He’s compiling a 122 wRC+ against lefties and 112 wRC+ against righties.
And if switch hitting versatility is in order, what about Ben Zobrist? What about César Hernández? There are free agent options to fill that middle infield, left-handed hitting void that gapes. And filling that void isn’t snap-of-the-fingers simple.
“It takes two to make a deal,” Forst said.
And, perhaps more importantly, the A’s separation from Profar allows more breathing room for the middle infielders on the cusp. Franklin Barreto and Jorge Mateo are out of options and, with the 26th roster spot providing more breathing room, each should be expected to compete for a starting second base job in spring training.
“We have two guys in Franklin and Jorge that are out of options and will have an opportunity to show their stuff in spring training,” Forst said.
Let’s focus first on Barreto, who’s major league numbers indicate that he’s struggled to adjust under big league lights. In 58 plate appearances in 2019, he slashed .123/.138/.263 with a .401 OPS. Not great. Time, it seems, might be the key.
“He’s still young and he hasn’t had a chance to play every single day,” new farm director Ed Sprague said in a phone conversation. “Whereas, some of these guys got that opportunity. (Marcus) Semien got the chance to play every day and really develop into the player he is today. Frankie has a lot of ability, he was blocked by (Jed) Lowry all those years and last year by Profar, so he’s really a great young player, a lot of ability, and proved to be versatile. Great in the clubhouse.”
Manager Bob Melvin noted throughout Barreto’s struggles that the young infielder was pressing, pressured by the snowballing effects of trying to produce.
But focus on the positives that emerged from the cracks. Not only is Barreto quick on the base paths, he has incredible bat speed. Though he got few hits, those he did came off the bat lightening quick, and he didn’t discriminate with pitches he attacked.
Take, for instance, this pulled double off Angels’ closer Hansel Robles’ 96 mph two-seam fastball, hit with a 110 mph exit velocity.
Or this opposite field single off Houston’s Framber Valdez with a 106 mph exit velocity.
He was all over the curveball against the Chicago White Sox, singling on a chopper hit 104 mph.
This home run came off the bat at 107 mph off Ross Detwiler’s curveball.
“We undersell him because we’ve had him for so long, but he’s still young. That’s probably the biggest thing with him, but he does hit the ball hard,” Sprague said, but there’s room to improve, of course.
“Chase rate has to improve a little bit. Plate discipline is one area where he needs to improve and become more consistent. But at the top end of his game, he can run, he can defend, he can hit for power.”
True, Barreto was practically a walking strikeout. He has a 40.7% strikeout rate in 116 big league games. Playing time should even that out; Barreto’s transformation needs the cushion of growing space. And — unless he is traded, which is a possibility — 2020 should provide that space to grow.
Mateo, an enigmatic No. 4 prospect, is struggling through similar woes.
“Another guy who is a game changing type tools, he can run, just comes down to consistency,” Sprague said. “That’s really the biggest thing. He has these streaks where he’s really good then he goes on streaks where he can chase a lot of pitches out of the zone, swing at everything and not really have a game plan.”
On its face, Mateo had a strong year with the Triple-A Las Vegas Aviators, slashing .289/.330/.504
and a .834 OPS. But he struck out 145 times in 532 at bats, walking just 29 times.
“The concern is the walk rate,” Sprague said. “Being five percent, and the strikeout rate being 26 percent. We need to pinch those a little bit closer together, which would be the difference for him.
Sprauge noted that Mateo made great strides defensively, though. Which proved his versatility — something that Barreto has, too. He has all the tools, but discipline is everything.
“When you jump to the next level, those pitchers are going to take advantage of holes or chase. Sometimes that just takes a little bit of time,” Sprague said.
Second base is open, and it’s a clear path to insert a much-needed left-handed bat. But it will also unclog the enigmatic potential stirring.