At the start of the 2017 season, the Oakland Athletics centerfield situation was dire. Just six months later, the A’s centerfield situation is much more promising. What steps did the A’s take to rebuild their depth chart in centerfield, and how does that depth chart look heading into 2018?
On Opening Day, the A’s everyday option in center was 40-year-old veteran Rajai Davis, and the A’s had no back-ups with significant major league experience in center on their Opening Day roster. That lack of depth was felt early when Davis injured his hamstring and was placed on the disabled list on April 25. The A’s didn’t have any viable back-ups on their Opening Day roster to take on the everyday centerfield role, so Oakland turned to minor league veteran Jaff Decker. The A’s also acquired minor league veteran Ryan LaMarre from the Los Angeles Angels to help fill the void from Davis’ injury. Decker and LaMarre would appear in a combined 20 games for the A’s, collecting 10 hits in 57 at-bats.
Davis eventually returned to the A’s active roster, but he hit only .210 for the first half of the season before picking up the pace during the second half of the year. The A’s traded Davis on August 23 to the Boston Red Sox for a minor league outfielder.
Davis’ struggles during the first half and the lack of depth on the A’s Opening Day roster has left Oakland with below-average production from the centerfield position in 2017. According to Baseball-Reference, MLB centerfielders are hitting, on average, .266/.335/.435. Through Sunday, A’s centerfielders had hit .245/.316/.372. Only catcher and shortstop have been less productive offensive positions for the A’s this season. Defensively, A’s centerfielders have combined for -12 Defensive Runs Saved this year, according to FanGraphs. While the numbers aren’t good for the A’s in center this season, their future at the position is much more promising thanks to two mid-season trades.
The first trade came on July 31, when the A’s acquired Dustin Fowler from the New York Yankees in the Sonny Gray trade. The A’s have yet to see Fowler in action as a member of their organization because his 2017 season ended abruptly on June 29 when he sustained a gruesome knee injury in the first inning of his major league debut. Fowler is two months into a 4-to-6 month recovery from a torn patella.
When healthy, Fowler is a high-upside, major-league ready talent. In his first season in Triple-A, Fowler batted .293/.329/.542 with 13 homers and 13 stolen bases in 70 games. The 22-year-old has a smooth swing and an above-average hit tool. His power was starting to emerge this season and he is an above-average runner. At his peak, he could post 20-homer, 20-stolen base seasons. Fowler is also considered a strong defensive centerfielder.
The biggest wild card with Fowler is his recovery from what is an unusual injury for baseball players. Since his legs are an important part of his game, Fowler will need to regain his full pre-injury speed to maintain his high ceiling. Thus far, Fowler’s rehab has gone well, but the big test will come this spring. Fowler may not begin the season on the A’s Opening Day roster given the timing of his rehab, but he should receive an opportunity at the big league level at some point in 2018.
The A’s current centerfielder, Boog Powell, should get the first crack at the A’s everyday centerfield job next spring. Acquired in a trade with the Seattle Mariners on August 6, Powell has been a revelation since joining the A’s roster on August 11. At the time of the deal, Powell was in Triple-A with the Mariners and he had had an unremarkable 23-game stint with the Mariners earlier in the season when he hit .194/.310/.194. Since joining the A’s big league roster on August 11, Powell is batting .321/.380/.494 with three homers in 29 games. Perhaps most importantly, Powell has played well defensively in center.
Although never considered a top prospect, Powell has a strong minor league track record of hitting for average and getting on base at an above-average clip. In 419 career minor league games, Powell has hit .305 with a .390 OBP. Power hasn’t been a big part of his game, so he isn’t likely to sustain his .494 SLG. And despite his above-average speed, Powell has never been a prolific base-stealer. Nonetheless, Powell has stabilized the A’s outfield defensively and served as an igniter in the line-up since his arrival. Powell will be 25 throughout next season.
While Powell and Fowler currently represent the top two spots on the A’s 2018 centerfield depth chart, Oakland has a few other options, as well.
Rookie Jaycob Brugman spent two months as the A’s everyday centerfielder from June 11-August 11. He held his own at the plate (.266/.346/.343 in 143 at-bats), but Brugman struggled defensively in centerfield. When the A’s recalled Powell, they sent Brugman down to Triple-A to work on his assertiveness in center. Unfortunately for Brugman, he broke his foot on a foul ball a week later and was sidelined for the rest of the season, costing him a chance to show improvement in September.
Brugman is a solid all-around player who doesn’t have one standout tool, but he has a broad range of average tools. He doesn’t have as much raw speed as Fowler or Powell, but Brugman covered a lot of ground in center in Triple-A when he was playing with more confidence. He is a tough at-bat because he sees – and can spoil off – a lot of pitches. Because he doesn’t have plus speed or above-average power, Brugman is a bit of a tweener and likely profiles best as a fourth outfielder. Now that he has gotten his feet wet in the big leagues, Brugman represents a decent fallback option for the A’s should both Powell and Fowler falter.
One area to consider with the A’s centerfield situation is that Powell, Fowler and Brugman are all left-handed hitters. Under manager Bob Melvin, the A’s have favored platoons. The A’s have a few right-handed options for centerfield who could develop into platoon partners.
Chad Pinder has earned a reputation as a jack-of-all-trades with the A’s this season, as he has played at every defensive position except for first base, catcher and pitcher. Despite playing in the infield exclusively during his minor league career, Pinder has been above-average defensively in right and left field for the A’s this season. Pinder is an excellent athlete and he has an above-average throwing arm. He is a favorite to receive the bulk of the right field at-bats for the A’s next year, but he may also see some time in center when there is a left-handed starter on the mound. Pinder has played 15 innings in center this year and he figures to see more time there next spring. He doesn’t have the pure speed of most centerfielders, but Pinder runs well and has shown good instincts in the outfield.
Mark Canha may also be an option for the A’s as a right-handed hitting centerfielder next year. A corner infielder/outfielder for most of his career, Canha was pushed into a centerfield role this spring when the A’s were thin on bodies to man the position. FanGraphs has Canha as below-average defensively at all three outfield positions this season, but Canha may improve in center with time. Canha missed most of the 2016 season with a hip injury and has been up-and-down all season at the plate. Still, he is only two seasons removed from his rookie campaign, when he hit .254/.315/.426 with 16 homers in 124 games.
Jake Smolinski missed most of the 2017 season with a right shoulder injury, but he is back on the A’s active roster and should be 100% for spring training. Smolinski hasn’t hit well overall in his two stints with the A’s in 2015 and 2016, but he is a career .290 hitter against left-handed pitching in the big leagues. Smolinski has some speed and he is a decent defender in center. He doesn’t project as an everyday player, but he offers some value in a platoon.
The biggest sleeper in the A’s 2018 centerfield depth chart is Triple-A utilityman Yairo Munoz. Like Pinder, Munoz was exclusively an infielder until this season, when the A’s began moving him around the outfield. One of the A’s top prospects, Munoz hit .300/.330/.464 with 13 homers and 22 stolen bases in 112 games in Double-A and Triple-A as a 22-year-old. He appeared in 20 games in center this season. While he is still learning the angles and routes of the position, Munoz held his own and he figures to improve with more time there given his raw athleticism.
Like Pinder, Munoz is an outstanding athlete, with power and a good feel for the barrel of the bat. Munoz has one of the strongest throwing arms in the A’s system and he is one of their better base-runners. Although he is still finding his way in center, Munoz may ultimately be better suited for center than Pinder given his pure speed.
The A’s centerfield situation has, in many ways, gone a complete 180 from where it was at this time last year. The A’s now have several candidates to play the position next year that have upside and several years of team control.