However, despite that success, the outfield is once again an area of great change for the A’s going into the 2005 season. Rightfielder Jermaine Dye, after four injury-filled seasons with Oakland that never saw him achieve the greatness the A’s expected of him, has departed for Chicago. Although Dye was not the line-up presence that the A’s expected when they signed him to a large contract after the end of the 2001 season, he still was a decent middle-of-the-order power bat and an above-average glove in rightfield. The A’s will be looking to replace his production going into the 2005 season.
It has been widely speculated that rookie outfielder Nick Swisher will get the first crack at replacing Dye in rightfield. The switch-hitting power hitter made his debut with Oakland in September of last season and impressed a lot of people with his power, patience at the plate and his hard-nosed style of play. Swisher, who hit a combined 31 HR between AAA and the major leagues last season and posted a .406 OBP in AAA and .352 OBP in the majors, could very well match Dye’s 23 homeruns and should post a better on-base percentage than Dye’s .329 mark from last season. Swisher is coming off of surgery on his thumb, but is expected to be 100% by the start of spring training.
Swisher is not Dye’s equal in the field, but he should be able to hold his own with the glove. A centerfielder in the minor leagues, Swisher has above-average range for a corner outfielder. His throwing arm is average and he may eventually be better suited for leftfield. In any case, he should make almost all of the routine plays and a few spectacular plays. If Swisher plays every day, he should have a good chance of being the A’s second consecutive Rookie of the Year.
In centerfield, incumbent Mark Kotsay returns as the A’s most effective and experienced outfielder. Kotsay was a bit of a question-mark when he was acquired from the San Diego Padres last off-season. He was coming off of an injury-marred season and there were questions about his long-term durability. However, after a slow first six weeks of the season, there were few top-of-the-order hitters who were more effective then Kotsay in the American League. He posted career-highs in batting average and runs batted in and gave the A’s stability on the top of their line-up that they hadn’t had since Terrance Long’s rookie season in 2000.
Kotsay’s bat alone would have been enough to make him the A’s most valuable outfielder last season, but his glove thrust him heads and shoulders above the rest of the A’s outfielders. Kotsay thrilled A’s fans and teammates all season with his graceful outfield play. He routinely robbed hitters of extra-base hits and did so while barely breaking stride. Kotsay’s throwing arm also kept many an opposing baserunner from going from first to third on a single or taking second on a hit to the alleys.
Despite his great success last season, Kotsay still struggled with a sore knee for much of the season. In 2004, Eric Byrnes was called upon to fill in for Kotsay when the everyday centerfielder needed a day off. Barring any last minute trades, Byrnes will once again be available to fill in for Kotsay, but he won’t be alone in that role this season. In December, the A’s acquired outfielder Charles Thomas from the Atlanta Braves as part of the package for pitcher Tim Hudson. Thomas, a lefthanded swinger, is a superb defensive outfielder. While he primarily played leftfield for the Braves last season, Thomas can play center as well, and will be an excellent defensive back-up for Kotsay. Swisher will also be able to fill in as a centerfielder, if need be.
The leftfield position will be the most hotly contested outfield position during spring training. Byrnes, if he isn’t traded, will be returning as the “incumbent” in leftfield. He is coming off of his best season as a major leaguer, in which he posted an OPS of more than .800 and hit 20 homeruns. Byrnes brings great energy and speed to the A’s line-up. He destroys lefthanded pitching to the tune of a .344 batting average and a 1.000+ OPS. Byrnes is merely average against righthanded pitching, however, which could make him a good candidate for a platoon with the lefthanded swinging Thomas. Byrnes has improved defensively, but still struggles with taking proper routes to the ball and is better suited in leftfield than center, despite his speed. If he is still with the team at the start of the season, Byrnes figures to get a good percentage of the at-bats in left.
As was mentioned earlier, the newly acquired Charles Thomas might be a good fit as a platoon partner with Byrnes in leftfield. Thomas surprised everyone in the Atlanta Braves organization with his strong 2004 season, which saw him hit over .350 in AAA and then hit a solid .283 after a mid-season call-up for Atlanta. Like Byrnes, Thomas is a high-energy player with plus speed. He has excellent defensive range and can play all three outfield positions with considerable skill. The A’s are reportedly very high on Thomas’ abilities at the plate, although some experts remain wary of his hitting ability due to his mediocre statistics in his first few seasons in the minors. At the very least, however, Thomas should be a very valuable outfield defensive replacement and late-inning baserunner in the Dave Roberts mold. At best, he could develop into a solid starting leftfielder for the A’s.
Switch-hitting outfielder Bobby Kielty is the ‘X’-factor in the A’s outfield going into the 2005 season. When Kielty was acquired for Ted Lilly in the 2003-2004 off-season, he was expected to be the starting left-fielder. However, he was involved in a violent collision with shortstop Bobby Crosby three weeks into the 2004 season and sustained a rib injury that hampered him for much of the rest of the season. Although he played through the rib injuries, the pain caused him to alter his swing and he soon found himself getting under everything. Although he managed to get his swing back in September (he hit over .350 in September and October), he was out of the A’s playing rotation by that point and didn’t have a chance to get many at-bats.
If healthy, Kielty could be the A’s best power option in the outfield. He has good plate patience and hits for power from both side of the plate, although his best side (even when healthy) is the right-side. With a great spring training, he still has an outside chance of winning a starting corner outfield job outright. However, barring that, he could still get a number of at-bats both in the outfield and as a righthanded designated hitter and pinch-hitter.
Sacramento RiverCat standout Matt Watson will be another outfielder pushing for a spot on the A’s 25-man roster in spring training. Watson, a lefthanded batter, has done nothing but impress at the AAA level over the past two seasons for the A’s and the Mets organizations. In 2004, Watson hit .305 with 19 HR and 96 RBI for the RiverCats. If Byrnes is traded, there is a chance that Watson could stick as a fifth outfielder, although his chances to make the A’s roster out of spring camp are slim if a current 25-man roster spot holder isn’t dealt before then. He is deserving of a chance in the major leagues, however, and could draw attention from other teams if he doesn’t make the A’s roster.
The A’s will have two other intriguing outfield options to consider during spring training, as well. Oakland signed utilitymen Hiram Bocachica and Jermaine Clark as minor league free agents this off-season. Both players are capable of playing both the outfield and the middle infield spots and could be valuable additions to the bench.
Bocachica, in particular, is someone who could bring valuable flexibility to the A’s bench. He is a gifted defensive player both in the outfield and infield and has decent hitting stroke from the right-side of the plate. Bocachica was a member of the Seattle Mariners’ organization last season and hit .244 with a .337 on-base percentage in 50 major league games. He hit .287 in AAA-Tacoma last season, as well. Bocachica is coming off of a strong showing in the Puerto Rican winter leagues, where he finished second in the league in homeruns and runs batted in. The A’s haven’t had a true utilityman on their roster in a number of years and, at times, certainly could have used the flexibility of having someone who could play multiple positions.
The A’s also signed leftfielder/DH Jack Cust as a minor league free agent this off-season; however, he is a long-shot to make the roster. Cust was one of the top power hitting prospects in all of baseball as lately as 2002, but he has never found a defensive position that suits him and since he hits lefthanded, he isn’t likely to make the team as a back-up out of spring training. However, he could be an option during the season if someone gets hurt and will be closely watched at the plate in Sacramento.
Infielder Keith Ginter has some experience as a corner outfielder, as well, and he could find himself out there occasionally. However, the bulk of his playing time will likely come out at secondbase. If firstbaseman/DH Dan Johnson makes the 25-man roster, he would also be available to play leftfield, but mostly in an emergency basis.
So what is the outlook for the A’s outfield heading into the 2005 season? Surprisingly good. Although the A’s don’t have any big name sluggers roaming their outfield, they do have good power hitters. With regular playing time, Kotsay should be good for 15-20 homeruns, as should Eric Byrnes. And if Bobby Kielty and Nick Swisher play every day, both are capable of hitting 25 homeruns. Thomas showed good power in his time with Atlanta (8 homeruns in 83 games), and could bring surprising punch, as well. Byrnes is the only true righthanded hitter in the group, but both Kielty and Swisher are switch-hitters, so there will be a good balance of righties and lefties in the A’s outfield. This should give Manager Ken Macha the ability to mix and match his line-ups a little bit more then he did last season.
The A’s outfield, unlike in year’s past, will be athletic and speedy, with Byrnes and Thomas capable of stealing 20 bases each and all of the outfielders being at least average defensively. Speaking of defensively, the A’s should have an above-average defensive outfield unit, especially when Thomas, Kotsay and Swisher are out there.
However, what is most impressive about the A’s outfield is its depth. The A’s have five players capable of being quality starting major league outfielders, which is a vast improvement over 2003, when the A’s barely had three outfielders who deserved to be called starters. In addition, with players like Watson, Bocachica, Clark, and Cust also fighting for roster spots, the A’s will have a quality layer of depth in Sacramento that can help them during the season if anyone gets hurt. This depth should insulate them from the wear and tear which caused the A’s outfield to slump or be unavailable for much of the playoff stretch-run last season.