PHOENIX – In a game filled with booted groundballs and pop-ups lost in the sun, it was a defensive…
Oakland A's Camp Notes: Offensive Explosion
Eric Chavez has been one of the A's hottest hitters, posting a .406 spring average with a .500 OBP and a .604 SLG. Non-roster invitee Hiram Bocachica has been on fire since he began receiving more regular playing time last Friday. He has raised his average from the low .200s to .379. He has also scored a team-high nine runs and has a reached base at a .500 clip. Rookie Dan Johnson has impressed with the bat, showing a remarkable ability to make contact. The reigning PCL MVP has yet to strike out this spring and is currently hitting .364.
Rookie Nick Swisher struggled during the first two weeks of the spring, but he has heated up this past week, posting a .400 batting average over the last eight games. Swisher is leading the team with nine walks this spring. On the flip side, Mark Ellis and Marco Scutaro have cooled off considerably after a red-hot starts to their springs.
Position Battle Updates
The pitching staff is starting to take shape. Rookie Joe Blanton has staked his claim to the fourth starter spot. He has shown good poise and command on the mound, striking out eight against only two walks over 13 innings pitched. At this point, likely only an injury will prevent Blanton from starting the season in the A's pitching rotation.
Fellow rookie Huston Street has also moved closer to inking his name onto the 25-man roster. The 2004 draft pick has impressed everyone this spring with his poise and his stuff. Street has limited opposing batters to a .179 clip and has posted a 2.25 ERA. He has also struck out eight batters in eight innings pitched. Perhaps most impressive has been Street's work with runners in scoring position. Street has allowed only one hit with runners in scoring position and twice has frozen hitters for a strike out with two runners on and two outs. On Monday, Street won an 11-pitch battle with the veteran Moises Alou with two runners on and two outs, striking him out on a 3-2 breaking ball to end the inning.
The A's have narrowed down the choices for the fifth starter spot and the 12th reliever role. On Sunday, the A's re-assigned Jim Serrano to minor league camp. Serrano was a competitor for the A's fifth starter spot, but he struggled during his last two appearances. However, his major league experience will make him an attractive candidate for a spot start during the season should injuries strike. Serrano is expected to start the season in AAA-Sacramento. Minor league veteran John Rheinecker was also sent back to Sacramento on Sunday. Rheneicker had a solid spring, posting a 1.50 ERA, and he will also be considered as an emergency starter during the season.
The A's also cut Rule V pick Tyler Johnson this week. Oakland liked the left-handed reliever but felt his command wasn't up to major league standards just yet. Because he was a Rule V selection, Johnson had to be offered back to his original club, the St. Louis Cardinals. The A's had hoped to keep Johnson by working out a trade for his rights with the Cardinals, but, as of Tuesday evening, Oakland was unable to entice the Cardinals to make a deal. Johnson, who sports a Barry Zito-esque curveball, has a bright future ahead of him if he can find the strike zone more consistently.
Pitchers still battling for a spot on the A's pitching staff include reliever Tim Harikkala, starter Seth Etherton, starter/reliever Kirk Saarloos and starter Dan Meyer. Starter/reliever Keiichi Yabu is guaranteed a spot on the A's pitching staff, but it has yet to be determined whether the Japanese rookie will be in the starting rotation or the bullpen.
Harikkala's chances of making the 25-man roster are tied closely to the fates of Street and Yabu. If Yabu fails to win a starting rotation spot, he will most assuredly be in the bullpen, leaving only one open spot. That spot is likely to go to Street, putting Harikkala in Sacramento to start the season, where he would provide veteran depth to guard against injuries or ineffectiveness.
The biggest decision the A's will have to make this spring will be whether or not to carry 11 or 12 pitchers. If the A's do carry an extra pitcher, it is likely that the Oakland bullpen will look like this: Octavio Dotel (closer), Kiko Calero (set-up man), Juan Cruz (set-up man), Ricardo Rincon (lefty specialist), Keiichi Yabu (middle relief), Huston Street (middle relief) and Justin Duchscherer (long-man). If they choose to carry 11 pitchers, it is most likely that Street would begin the season in Sacramento to get more seasoning.
The fifth starter decision is coming down to the wire. Eventually the spot will belong to prospect Dan Meyer, but the A's might not be ready to hand the rookie that role at the start of the season. The left-hander has struggled with inconsistency this spring season. At times, he has looked brilliant, but at other times he has appeared apprehensive.
The other three candidates have struggled with inconsistency, as well. Yabu has not had good command yet this spring, falling behind most batters. He has also appeared to labor at times, and may adjust better to American baseball from the bullpen where he won't have to face the same hitters three times in one game.
Seth Etherton had thrown the ball well until a disastrous outing against the Giants on Monday. Etherton has struck out 10 in 12 innings, although he has walked six. Etherton is signed to a major league contract and would have to pass through waivers if the A's don't keep him on the 25-man roster. He is likely the front-runner for the fifth spot at this point.
The wild-card candidate is Kirk Saarloos, who was the A's emergency starter last season when Tim Hudson went down with a mid-season injury. Saarloos has displayed the best control of the group (6:1 K:BB) and has been effective in all but one outing. However, he is coming off of an elbow injury and the A's might not trust a starting work-load on Saarloos for a full season. Although Saarloos can also relieve, it is believed that the A's are primarily considering him for a starting role at this point.
The second base battle is also starting to clear up. Mark Ellis began the spring swinging a red-hot bat, but he has since cooled off considerably. However, Ellis has passed all of the physical tests with his right shoulder and should see considerable playing time at second this season. Newly acquired Keith Ginter has struggled with his bat and his glove at times this spring, but has recently begun to heat up with both. He hit his first spring homerun on Tuesday and has been swinging much better lately. He also made a spectacular play on a groundball on Sunday and has looked more relaxed in the field of late. Both he and Ellis should share playing time at second and should also see time elsewhere in the infield this season.
On the outside looking in is last year's starter Marco Scutaro. Scutaro has played well this spring, but he has failed to improve his on-base percentage and likely doesn't have as many skills to offer the A's as do Ellis and Ginter. "Scooter" will probably only have a chance to make the A's roster if Oakland chooses to carry only 11 pitchers.
If the A's do choose to carry 11 pitchers, Scutaro will have competition for that 25th and final roster spot. Non-roster invitees Hiram Bocachica, Jermaine Clark and Bobby Smith remain in the running. Prospect Dan Johnson also stands an outside chance of claiming that last spot, although it is remote.
Bocachica has been one of the A's hottest hitters of late and he has shown good dexterity in the outfield. However, Bocachica has yet to play in the infield, and the A's are already carrying five major league-level outfielders. The Puerto Rican utilityman does have the advantage being right-handed and of having the most recent significant major league experience of the three.
Clark has also had a nice spring both at the plate and in the field. He has shown good versatility, playing both in the infield and the outfield and he has flashed good speed on the basepaths. Smith is probably the least likely of the three to make the team, as he has played almost exclusively at third base and with the A's carrying both Chavez and Ginter, they aren't likely to need another third baseman on the roster.
Johnson would be a good left-handed bat off of the bench and he has certainly earned a roster spot with his outstanding play this spring. However, his future is as a starting first baseman and his development will be better served playing every day in Sacramento than playing scarcely at the major league level. Johnson will be the first player recalled if there is an injury to Scott Hatteberg or Erubiel Durazo and should see time with Oakland in September.
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