Heading into the off-season, it seemed like Danny Valencia was a lock to return. But given the reports that Valencia contributed to some clubhouse chemistry issues, and Billy Beane‘s assertion that the team’s goal this winter is to eliminate those problems, will the A’s be in search of a third baseman for 2016?
The infield is most certainly in flux at the moment, as Ike Davis is a candidate to be non-tendered, rookies Mark Canha and Max Muncy haven’t been promised a position, and shortstop Marcus Semien struggled with both defense and offense during 2015. Eric Sogard and Brett Lawrie can both play multiple positions, leaving a lot of questions for the A’s position players.
There are plenty of possible solutions – for one, the A’s could tender a contract to Valencia, who is certainly valuable with a bat, if allegedly not with his actions in the dugout. But what if Valencia finds himself on the free agent market, and the A’s find themselves without a utility man?
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There are two primary directions the A’s could head in. One is to stick with the players they have, both in the minors and on the current roster. Max Muncy is set to get some reps at second base during winter ball this off-season, which would make him versatile enough off of the bench to allow Lawrie to move back to third, with Sogard remaining at second and Semien at shortstop. This would give them backup players in the event of in-game injuries or occasional days off, but if anyone were to get seriously hurt and needed to be place on the disabled list, the A’s would be forced to rely on prospects from the minor league system.
Rushing position players to the majors is rarely a good idea, so this would be the most risky plan, although certainly the cheapest. However, there is one prospect who could be ready sooner than later in Joey Wendle. Wendle spent last season at Triple-A, and was named the All-Pacific Coast League second baseman after batting .289/.323/.442 for the Nashville Sounds. If Wendle puts on a show in Spring Training, it’s possible that he could join the major league team right away. This would free up Sogard, sending him back to the bench where he is most useful to the team. Again, while cost-effective, this relies on the gamble that Wendle’s bat will play at the major league level,
Perhaps the best option for the A’s is to look outside of the organization for help, giving their prospects more time to develop without the added pressure of knowing the big league club is desperate for an infielder, and picking up a utility man that’s a bit more reliable than the current bench crew. In that case, the A’s should look to a veteran like free agent Mike Aviles, who isn’t exactly going to set the world on fire with his bat, but is a much more well-balanced player than someone like Sam Fuld or even Sogard.
In 2015, Aviles batted .231 – the second-worst season of his career, meaning he should be available at a relative discount. He isn’t really on the decline – he missed significant time while dealing with the cancer diagnosis and treatment of one of his four-year-old twin daughters, Adriana. The Cleveland Indians vowed to let him ride out his contract with the Tribe, rather than trade him in the midst of her treatment by the nearby Cleveland Clinic – a very compassionate, non-baseball move. A major question is whether Aviles would even come to Oakland, given the not-so-compassionate stories of Billy Beane’s treatment of Pat Neshak and others.
But from a baseball standpoint, Aviles is one of the top lower-level free agents. While it’s nice to dream about the A’s suddenly shelling out plenty of cash for a player like Ben Zobrist, the reality is that they aren’t going to. The front office is not going to suddenly turn into the Angels after years of being a small-market team, so let’s be realistic. Aviles can play every position except first base or catcher, giving him an added boost on the field, and his career average of .265/.297/.385 is significantly better than a player like Sogard, who has a lifetime slash line of .239/.295/.313.
Aviles has some speed and decent power, as well as a reputation as one of the best teammates in the league. Since his personal issues had an impact on his 2015 stats, let’s look at his numbers from the previous two years. In 2014, he picked up 344 at-bats, hit five home runs, and swiped 14 bases, batting .247/.273/.343. In 2013, he hit .252/.282/.368 in 361 at-bats, but his speed and power were reversed. That season, he had nine homers and eight stolen bases.
For those expecting the A’s to make a big free agent splash, Aviles is not the guy. But for those who want to be realistic, he probably should be. His defensive versatility and his offensive improvement over Sogard and Fuld would make him a great everyday option for the A’s, and they should seriously consider adding him to the team if they aren’t planning on re-signing Valencia.