The Athletics boast one of baseball’s best infield trios: third baseman Matt Chapman, shortstop Marcus Semien and first baseman Matt Olson are among the sport’s very best as their respective positions. It’s easy to argue that Oakland is 75 percent of the way to the best infield in the game — but it’s that remaining 25 percent that will be one of the key areas of focus for the organization this spring.
Oakland’s second base position is wide open, although that doesn’t mean that the club is short on candidates. Franklin Barreto, Jorge Mateo, Tony Kemp, Sheldon Neuse and Rule 5 pick Vimael Machin are among the candidates to join that all-world infield mix. If the Oakland organization isn’t content with the options already in house, they could look to a free-agent market that still includes veterans Brian Dozier, Scooter Gennett and Tim Beckham. The merits of further muddying an already crowded mix can be debated, but the A’s at least looked into Jason Kipnis before he signed with the Cubs, so perhaps a lefty bat like Gennett would be of some interest.
Complicating the matter for Oakland decision-makers is that four of the five incumbent possibilities are unable to be sent to the minors; each of Barreto, Mateo and Kemp is out of minor league options. Machin would have to be put on waivers and offered back to the Cubs upon clearing if he doesn’t win a spot on the roster. It’s a competition that’ll surely force the Athletics into some tough decisions, but that’s common this time of year.
Let’s take a look at the options…
- Barreto: Brett Lawrie is out of baseball. Sean Nolin hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2015. Kendall Graveman? He’ll spent the 2020 season with the division-rival Mariners after being non-tendered two years ago following Tommy John surgery. Some might question what those names have to do with Barreto, but A’s fans know: he’s the last vestige of the franchise-altering trade that sent Josh Donaldson to Toronto in November 2014. Still not even 24 years old, Barreto ranked among the game’s top 100 prospects in four straight offseasons but has season his prospect/rookie status expire without establishing himself in the big leagues. He curbed some strikeout issues in Triple-A last year and posted a strong .295/.374/.552 slash in Triple-A. Manager Bob Melvin tells MLB.com’s Martin Gallegos that 2020 camp represents Barreto’s “best shot” to date with the organization. “[I]f he has the type of Spring that he has had before, it’s going to be tough not to have him be part of that dynamic, whether it’s a left-right dynamic or an everyday role,” says Melvin. Assistant hitting coach Eric Martins calls the job “absolutely [Mateo’s] to lose.”
- Mateo: Another high-profile prospect at the time of acquisition (alongside Dustin Fowler and James Kaprielian in the trade that sent Sonny Gray to the Yankees), Mateo has yet to play in the Majors. He brings elite speed — 80-grade, on some reports — that can’t be matched by the rest of the participants in this competition. Mateo hit .289/.330/.504 in 566 Triple-A plate appearances last year — a slash that incredibly, by measure of wRC+ (96), ranked just below league average in the offensively supercharged Triple-A environment. He’s a shortstop by trade and has also played center field, so he could make the club as a super-utility option even if he doesn’t win the second base job.
- Kemp: The newest entrant into the Oakland second base derby, Kemp was acquired just last month in a trade that sent minor league infielder Alfonso Rivas to the Cubs. The 28-year-old Kemp has played in 283 games in the big leagues, mostly with the Astros, and put together a .233/.314/.367 slash through 749 plate appearances. His left-handed bat could theoretically pair well with the right-handed bats of Barreto, Kemp or Neuse, although he hasn’t displayed particularly significant platoon splits. He’s a .312/.373/.425 hitter in parts of four Triple-A seasons and brings some defensive versatility to the mix as well; Kemp has logged 1152 Major League innings in the outfield — including 321 frames in center.
- Neuse: The fact that Neuse has all three minor league option years remaining will surely work against him, but he’ll have the chance to outplay his out-of-options brethren in Oakland camp. Like everyone else on this list, the 25-year-old Neuse was originally part of another organization; he joined the A’s along with Jesus Luzardo and Blake Treinen in the trade that sent Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle to the Nationals. The 2019 season was a big one for Neuse, who ripped through Triple-A pitching with a .317/.389/.550 slash en route to making his Major League debut. He’s still only totaled 61 plate appearances in the bigs, but the former second-round pick will surely add to that total in some capacity in 2020.
- Machin: The 26-year-old Machin is — pardon the pun — an OBP machine who has walked nearly as often in his minor league career as he’s struck out (215 free passes to 258 punchouts). He’s fresh off a .295/.390/.412 slash between Double-A and Triple-A in 2019, and he’s hit at a .313/.345/.437 clip in winter ball this season. Machin has at least 650 plate appearances at all four infield positions but has spent the bulk of his minor league time at second base. His versatility, OBP skills and Rule 5 status could give him an opportunity to break camp as a utility option, and a strong early showing could net him larger looks as the season wears on.
Former Blue Jays and White Sox infielder Ryan Goins stands out as a notable non-roster option who’s in camp, although it’d certainly qualify as an upset if he beat out five 40-man players — including two out-of-options former top prospects who’ve yet to see an extended audition in the big leagues (Barreto, Mateo).
Regardless of the outcome, there’s some potential for a notable 40-man move or two here late in camp. It seems likeliest that the A’s will play things safe and keep both Barreto and Mateo on the roster, but they’ll be two of the more intriguing names to monitor on this year’s list of out-of-options players throughout Spring Training.