First Base Mess in Oakland

The As are, to put it mildly, not having the season for which they were hoping. Brian Fuentes is reported to be in the doldrums after the firing of Bob Geren, but the clubhouse’s general sadness at the departure of their beloved leader is almost matched by the futility of the offense. You’ve heard this song before. One could point in a number of directions, but the production of first baseman Daric Barton is particularly troubling after a good season in 2010. The problem is magnified because the As lack real options if they want to replace him.

Barton hit well in both his short 2009 stint and his full season in 2010. He didn’t show stereotypical first-baseman power, but more than made up for it during 2010 with a tremendous eye at the plate (16% walk rate, 18.3% strikeout rate) which enabled him put up a 127 wRC+ despite having only a .273 batting average and .131 isolated power. A good chunk of his 2010 Wins Above Replacement came from a +12 UZR, which should have been expected to regress, but even as only an average-fielding first baseman, his 2010 hitting performance would have been enough to make him nearly a four-win player.

As noted, however, 2011 has been awful so far for Barton at the plate. He’s hitting just .217/.329/.274 (75 wRC+). Part of that is probably random variation in his performance on balls in play (only .266 this season as opposed to .316 last season), but a player without much power, even if he has a good walk rate, is going to be more dependent on a decent BABIP than “sluggers.” Moreover, Barton’s never-impressive isolated power has also dropped down all the way to .057 — he seemingly just hasn’t hit the ball all that hard this season.

This isn’t to say things are hopeless. As one might expect to read, 252 plate appearances, while not completely insignificant, still constitute less than half of a typical season. There’s a pretty good chance that BABIP could take a positive swing in Barton’s direction. Perhaps most importantly, his good plate discipline is intact (13.9% walk rate, 19.8% strikeout rate are still very good), so he hasn’t turned himself into a complete hacker in desparation. Finally, Barton is still only 25, and given his past performance, there is still some room for growth. However, the ZiPS RoS projection of .331, while not the final word, is hardly encouraging for a first baseman, even in this run environment.

The could consider moving outfielder Josh Willingham to first base. However, they aren’t exactly deep in the outfield at the moment, either (Ryan Sweeney is a decent player, but like Willingham, has had injury issues). Given Willingham’s age and Oakland’s need to rebuild, that would only be a stopgap solution, anyway.

The minor leagues don’t offer good options, either. The only “first baseman” theoretically close to the majors is Chris Carter. The As have made a half-hearted attempt to move Carter, formerly a defensively questionable first baseman, to the outfield. Due to injuries, he’s only played 14 games in AAA this season. He’s also played both first and left field in the minors this season. But even assuming that he can field adequately enough to avoid being a career DH, in the small sample we have from this season at AAA Carter’s offensive performance he has been awful: .173/.323/.345. Batting average is perhaps over-used as a basis for call-ups, but in Carter’s case, even beyond BABIP issues it indicates that his contact problems are serious. This becomes obvious from his strikeout rate: 29.7% in AAA last season, 38.5% [!] in the minors this season. Again, the issue is not that strikeouts are significantly worse than other outs, but they do indicate a problem making contact. It’s pretty tough to hit home runs without putting the bat on the ball (and it’s not as if Carter’s power has been all that impressive in the minors this year, either). Carter obviously needs more time in the minors.

It ha been a while since Oakland made one of their classic second-half surges, and I’m not expecting one this season, either. They need to be playing for next year and the years after. A short-term trade or something like moving Willingham to first would be a bad idea. Right now, Chris Carter isn’t showing that he should be in the majors even if they could stomach his glove at first base. That leaves Barton, who, given his age, plate discipline, and past performance, is currently the best option to play out the season despite legitimate concerns about what his future holds. Given the As’ lack of better options, for they should stick with Barton and hope for the best.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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might have been good to include that Carter has only played 14 games this year. He has been on the DL for most of the year with a thumb injury. While that is not, in and of itself, a good thing, it does bear mentioning. Merely flashing his triple slash numbers without mentioning they occurred during 65 injured plate appearances does not do Carter justice.