The Sacramento River Cats lost two pitchers over the weekend. Zach Neal joins the River Cats'…
A's Next Line Of Defense
The Oakland A's are off to a 10-4 start, but it hasn't been all smooth sailing thus far in 2014. The A's lost two starting pitchers during spring training – one for the year and another for at least two months. The A's have also endured minor injuries to outfielder Coco Crisp, reliever Ryan Cook and outfielder Craig Gentry and early season struggles by newly acquired closer Jim Johnson. All of those situations are resolving themselves, but they call to mind how important the A's organizational depth will be throughout this season. Over the past two seasons, the A's have relied heavily on their depth en route to two straight AL West titles. Given the injury history of many of the A's current 25-man roster members, chances are the A's will be relying heavily on that depth again in 2014. In fact, the team has already dipped into that depth, as fifth starter Tommy Milone and reliever Drew Pomeranz were expected to be in the Sacramento rotation before injuries struck the A's during spring training. Non-roster outfielder Sam Fuld made the Opening Day roster, but he was let go over the weekend when Gentry was activated off of the DL. Reliever Evan Scribner also made the Opening Day roster, and he was demoted to Triple-A when Cook was activated off the DL. So where will the A's turn next if another injury strikes the current roster? We take a look position-by-position. Catcher The A's entered spring training with a lot of depth at the catcher position, but this spot is probably their thinnest area right now. During spring training, the A's had four catchers on their 40-man roster – John Jaso, Derek Norris, Stephen Vogt and Chris Gimenez. Jaso and Norris made the A's Opening Day roster, while Vogt was sent back to Triple-A. Gimenez was out of options and he was designated for assignment towards the end of spring training. He was claimed by the Texas Rangers, later let go by Texas and ended up signing a minor league deal to remain with the Rangers for 2014. Vogt's presence on the A's Triple-A roster gave the A's three catchers in their system that spent a significant amount of time catching for them in 2013. Unfortunately for the A's, Vogt won't be available to them if he is needed for at least several more weeks. He strained an oblique while playing with Sacramento last week and strained obliques can take anywhere from three to six weeks to heal. With Vogt injured, the A's have exactly zero other catchers with major league experience on their active rosters in the minor leagues (A's third baseman Josh Donaldson DOES have MLB catching experience, but the A's aren't likely to have Donaldson move back behind the plate, even temporarily). Ryan Ortiz is Sacramento's current starting catcher, and he has only 42 games of Triple-A experience under his belt. His back-up catcher, Phil Pohl, was promoted from Low-A to take Vogt's spot on the Sacramento roster. Pohl, a 2012 draft pick, spent all of last season playing in Low-A and High-A. If either Norris or Jaso is hurt while Vogt is out, the A's will either call on Ortiz or have to go outside the organization to fill the second catcher spot. Ortiz has spent a decent amount of time in big league spring training camp over the past three seasons, so he has some familiarity with the A's big league staff. Middle Infield The A's middle infield was also an area where the team had a lot of depth going into spring training, but it is also an area that has been thinned somewhat by injuries. The A's current big league roster has plenty of middle infield depth with Jed Lowrie, Eric Sogard, Nick Punto and Alberto Callaspo all on the roster. Should one of those four be injured, it isn't clear that the A's would need to call up another middle infielder. However, if they do need another shortstop or second baseman, they will once again be choosing between players with no major league experience, at least for the moment. During spring training, the A's acquired middle infielder Jake Elmore off of waivers. Elmore originally was assigned to Triple-A to start the season, but it was revealed just before Opening Day that he was dealing with a strained quad that he injured during spring training. His optional assignment to Sacramento was voided and Elmore was placed on the A's 15-day disabled list. He is still in the active rehab process and isn't close to returning to the active roster. A's top prospect Addison Russell is a shortstop, but he, too, is on the disabled list (strained hamstring). Russell has only played a handful of games above the A-ball level, however, and wasn't likely to be called upon this early in the season even if he was healthy. With Elmore out, the A's have four middle infielders to choose from in Sacramento – Tyler Ladendorf, Jose Martinez, Alden Carrithers and Hiroyuki Nakajima. Of those four, only Ladendorf and Nakajima play shortstop. Martinez was a shortstop early in his career, but a shoulder injury moved him to second base. Carrithers has experience at second, third and left field. Of this group, Ladendorf is the best defender and the most versatile fielder. A natural shortstop, Ladendorf can also play second, third and all three outfield positions. Ladendorf hasn't had an easy road through the A's system. Acquired for Orlando Cabrera in 2009, Ladendorf had a solid first full season in the A's organization in 2010, but since 2011, he has spent the majority of his time at the Double-A level. Ladendorf was originally slated to return to Midland at the start of the 2014 season, but Elmore's injury opened the door for Ladendorf in Triple-A. He has taken full advantage of his opportunity with the River Cats. In 11 games, he is 12-for-30 with three doubles and eight walks (1026 OPS). Although not a prolific base-stealer, Ladendorf does have good speed. He isn't on the 40-man roster and has never been a non-roster invitee to big league spring training, but that hasn't prevented the A's from calling on a player before. Nakajima is the highest-paid member of the River Cats' roster, having signed a lucrative two-year free agent deal with the A's before last season. His struggles during spring training last year were well documented and Nakajima never played well enough with Sacramento last season to warrant a promotion to the big leagues. He wasn't invited to big league spring training this year, but he did have a solid minor league camp and showed improvement during limited major league camp opportunities. Nakajima's defense at shortstop still hasn't improved enough to net him regular playing time at the position, and he has logged most of his time at third this year. He is off to a slow start at the plate (.156/.222/.219 in 32 at-bats). Martinez and Carrithers are more limited defensively, but both provide some upside with the bat. Martinez can play some short in a pinch, but his arm strength isn't where it was before his shoulder surgery and profiles best at second base. He has an excellent eye and has already walked 11 times in 12 games (.429 OBP). Carrithers is off to a red-hot start, and he is third on the team in OPS (966) behind Jake Goebbert and Ladendorf. Carrithers has a .522 OBP. He doesn't have any power to speak of, but he has been a tough out for most of his career. Corner Infield The A's have plenty of corner infield depth at the big league level, so even if a starter like Josh Donaldson or Brandon Moss were to land on the DL, the A's may not need to recall another first or third baseman. That being said, the A's do have some options in the corner spots should the need arise. Oakland is especially deep at first base. Not only do they have three players capable of manning the position on the current 25-man roster (Moss, Daric Barton and Alberto Callaspo), they also have Nate Freiman available in Triple-A. Freiman spent all of last season on the A's 25-man roster and is likely to see some time with the A's at some point this season, as well. Freiman is off to a bit of a slow start (732 OPS), but he did hit a grand slam for Sacramento over the weekend and he leads the team with 12 RBI. Outfielder Shane Peterson hasn't played first base that often since coming to the A's in 2009, but he has played the position well when asked and he brings the added versatility of being able to play in the outfield and run the bases well, not traits normally associated with first basemen. Peterson, who like Freiman is on the 40-man roster, is off to a solid start (894 OPS, mostly as the River Cats' lead-off hitter). The A's could also turn to first baseman Anthony Aliotti, who profiles similarly to current A's first baseman Barton (excellent fielder; above-average on-base skills). Aliotti isn't on the 40-man roster, however, and he is off to a slow start (513 OPS), so he isn't likely to get the call if the A's need a first baseman within the next few weeks. At third, the A's would likely turn to one of their current 25-man roster members should Donaldson land on the DL (Callaspo, Nick Punto and Eric Sogard can all play third). However, Oakland could also turn to either Carrithers or Ladendorf should they want another infielder in the event of an injury to Donaldson or one of their back-up infielders. Outfield The A's outfield depth has already been tested this season. Craig Gentry began the year on the DL with a back strain and Coco Crisp has missed time with a sore wrist and a tight hamstring. Gentry was activated over the weekend and he has started in place of Crisp each of the past two games. While Gentry was out, the A's turned to Sam Fuld, who had been in A's camp as a non-roster invitee. Fuld was out-of-options, however, so when the A's removed Fuld from their active roster to bring back Gentry, he had to be exposed to waivers. Fuld is still in waivers limbo (the process can take up to 10 days), but the A's aren't expected to be able to retain him when the waiver process completes. With Fuld likely out of the picture, the A's have only two 40-man roster outfielders in Sacramento – Peterson and Kent Matthes. Peterson has played centerfield for most of his minor league career, although he may not have the pure speed to be a regular centerfielder in the big leagues. Still, he provides the most versatility of any A's outfielder in Sacramento. Peterson has an excellent eye at the plate and, as was mentioned earlier, is off to a good start for the River Cats. Matthes was added to the A's 40-man roster late in spring training after he was waived by the Colorado Rockies. He is a powerful right-handed hitter who has some speed and a good arm in the outfield. Matthes is off to a slow start with Sacramento, however, as he has a .214/.283/.238 line with 18 strike-outs in 10 games. When the A's added Matthes, they did so likely believing that Michael Taylor would no longer be part of the organization come Opening Day. Taylor had a strong spring with the A's, but he was out-of-options and wasn't able to crack Oakland's Opening Day roster. He was expected to be picked up off waivers, but he surprisingly went unclaimed and is now a non-roster player in Triple-A with the A's. Taylor is batting only .222 in 10 games with Sacramento, but he has six doubles, two homers and nine walks, bringing his OPS up to an impressive 947. If the A's do lose an outfielder in the next few weeks, it is likely that they will choose between Peterson or Taylor for the big league promotion. Jake Goebbert should not be left out of the outfield conversation, although he has the least Triple-A experience of any of the River Cats' outfielders. Goebbert made several appearances in big league camp as a minor league fill-in this spring and played well. He had a strong first season in the A's organization last year and he is off to a good start with Sacramento this year, leading the team with a 1084 OPS through nine games played. Centerfielder Billy Burns had a big spring training with the A's, but he is in Double-A and the A's likely want to see him get more seasoning before bringing him into a big league situation. Starting Pitchers Going into spring training, the A's had arguably the most major league starting pitching depth of any organization. Oakland came to camp with six starters with a shot at a spot in the A's rotation – Sonny Gray, Jarrod Parker, Scott Kazmir, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone – as well as pitchers such as Jesse Chavez, Josh Lindblom and Drew Pomeranz competing for both a starting role and a long relief role. Injuries to Parker and Griffin changed the dynamics of the A's starting rotation, however. Chavez slid into Parker's spot and Milone took Griffin's turn in the rotation. Pomeranz then moved into the long-relief role that Chavez had been slated to fill. In the end, the A's were left with just Lindblom in Triple-A amongst the pitchers who had been part of that spring competition for a spot in the A's Opening Day rotation. Just before the start of the regular season, the A's signed veteran Joe Blanton to a minor league deal. Blanton had struggled the past two seasons, but the A's were hopeful that they could fix whatever ailed him and that he could serve as legitimate depth for their starting rotation. Unfortunately, Blanton elected to retire after just two starts with the River Cats, leaving the A's once again thin in MLB-experienced starting pitching at the Triple-A level. Lindblom is the only member of the River Cats' current starting rotation with any major league starting experience. In fact, he made a start for the A's already this season when they needed an extra starter because of rainouts during the first week of the season. He was roughed up in his first start back with Sacramento, but he had a decent outing in his last turn (four runs allowed on six hits and one walk in seven innings with five strike-outs), and he is still option 1A if the A's need another starter, at least until Griffin returns. Arnold Leon is the only other member of the River Cats' starting rotation who is on the A's 40-man roster. He had a strong spring, but he doesn't have any major-league experience. Leon has made three starts, but he has yet to pitch five full innings in any outing this season. His last start was his best one of the year (one run allowed in 4.2 innings). Leon and Lindblom are also both experienced relievers and either could step into a long-relief role with Oakland should the A's decide to move Pomeranz into the starting rotation (or if Pomeranz is hurt). The River Cats recently placed starter Matt Buschmann on the DL and it hasn't been announced who is taking Buschmann's place in the rotation just yet. One option could be veteran Philip Humber, who has been used as a reliever thus far. Humber has significant major league experience as a starter, and could move back into that type of role if need be. His pitch count isn't at a point where he could jump into the A's rotation next week, however. The other Sacramento starters are Sean Murphy and Zach Neal, both of whom are making their Triple-A debuts this season (Neal makes his River Cats' debut on Wednesday after starting the year in Double-A). Both would need a lot more time in the Sacramento rotation before they would be considered viable options should the A's have any injuries to their rotation. Bullpen The A's bullpen is deep at the major-league level and it is deep in Triple-A, as well. Several Sacramento relievers have major-league experience and the A's should have plenty of options to choose from should they need another reliever. The first option will be right-hander Evan Scribner, who began the year on the A's roster but was optioned to Triple-A when Ryan Cook was activated. Scribner spent most of the 2012 season with the A's and parts of last year. He has three scoreless appearances for the River Cats already and tossed 1.1 scoreless innings for the A's before his demotion. Beyond Scribner, the A's have several relievers to choose from with big league experience – Philip Humber, Fernando Nieve and Joe Savery. Right-hander Fernando Rodriguez is also pitching with Sacramento on a rehab assignment. He had Tommy John surgery last spring. Rodriguez will have 30 days to rehab with Sacramento before he has to be activated by the A's. He appears to be healthy and he has already made four appearances for the River Cats (one earned run allowed in four innings with four strike-outs and one walk). Fellow River Cats' relievers Deryk Hooker, Jose Flores and Jeremy McBryde spent much of spring training in the A's camp as non-roster invitees. All three are off to slow starts, but all three could be considered options for the A's down-the-road. Paul Smyth wasn't a non-roster invitee, but he has been in the A's organization a long time and pitched well in limited big league spring appearances. Smyth has yet to allow a run for the River Cats in 5.2 innings this season.
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