Despite winning the American League West in 2012, the Oakland A's arrived in Phoenix for spring training with plenty of questions regarding the Opening Day roster.
Manager Bob Melvin hoped to have some clarity regarding the second base and shortstop positions with less than two weeks left until Opening Day, but that has not been the case.
Coming into the spring, the A's proclaimed the second base job as an open tryout. But to this point, the familiar names haven't earned the starting spot outright.
Former first round pick Jemile Weeks appeared to have the inside track on the job when he got off to a hot start this spring, but he suffered a shoulder injury that caused him to miss nearly two weeks of Cactus League games. Weeks was the A's starter at second base for much of last season. He lost his hold on the job, however, when he followed up an outstanding rookie campaign by hitting .303/.340/.421 by struggling with just a .221/.305/.304 slash line last year.
Weeks' numbers this spring have been encouraging. He has hit .409/.444/.636 in a small sample of nine games. But regardless of the sample size, that type of production had to improve his much-needed confidence at the plate after constantly tinkering with his approach last year. The timing of the shoulder injury was terrible for Weeks, who has to overcome a reputation for being injury-prone after a considerable injury history during his minor league career.
In five games since returning from the injury, Weeks has gone 3-for-11 at the plate with a pair of walks. Overall, it's tough to use spring numbers as an indicator for the switch-hitting second baseman as he's a career .376 hitter in Cactus League play.
Scott Sizemore came into camp as one of the favorites to earn the second base starting spot, but he has struggled this spring after missing the entirety of 2012 with a torn ACL. Sizemore's perhaps predictably slow start (2-for-22 in his first 10 games) has turned around slightly. He has gone 3-for-9 with a pair of extra-base hits in the last three games. Sizemore, like Weeks, has a significant injury history and has had to overcome another spring injury (this time a bruised hand).
Sizemore's numbers still don't appear very good on paper, but he's still working on tracking pitches and regaining the feel for the batter's box after missing an entire year of action. The A's have been forced to juggle the ideas of letting Sizemore ease back into the routine of playing every day while evaluating his case for the starting second base job, or even a utility role given his ability to also play third base.
Sizemore was one of the A's better hitters in 2011 after coming over from Detroit. He hit 11 homers in 93 games, proving his considerable advantage in the power department over Weeks. But he doesn't have the same versatility as a switch hitter, nor the ability to steal bases like Weeks can. Whether at the top or bottom of the lineup, Weeks' potential as a true base stealer is second on the A's only to Coco Crisp. In recent seasons the A's have become increasingly reliant on the stolen base - an area where success could be easier to replicate than some of the big home run numbers Oakland saw last season.
Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales have had solid springs as well, but both players might have to do more than Weeks and Sizemore to shed their labels as utility players. Sogard has hit a gaudy .531/.571/.750 with seven doubles and has seen about equal time at third, short and second. While his spring has been better than any other infielder's in camp, his career righty-lefty splits are still heavily slanted to making him a platoon option. If he's able to carry over his approach this spring to the regular season, he could be the A's surprise starting second baseman this season. Sogard's best defensive position is second base.
Rosales is having a similarly great camp, hitting .407/.568/.704 and is coming off of a two-home run performance on Sunday against the Cubs. Rosales has the ability to play every infield position and could even play left field in a pinch. He has value both on the field and in the clubhouse with the energy he brings earning praise from the A's coaching staff.
Rosales is out-of-options, which could aid in his case to make the A's Opening Day roster. Given his versatility, Rosales isn't likely to clear waivers.
If Rosales and Sogard continue to have hot springs, there's a chance the two could be platooned at second should Weeks and Sizemore not emerge as spring training winds down. Grant Green came into camp as part of the discussion, but still has a long way to go defensively and has been optioned to minor league camp.
Then there's the issue at shortstop. Reports from spring training have indicated Hiroyuki Nakajima's adjustment to the Major League game has come slower than anticipated. With so many adjustments needed for such an important defensive position, Nakajima's struggles are understandable, but also put him in a place where the starting shortstop gig for Opening Day might not be a sure thing.
Nakajima's .176/.300/.206 line is less worrisome than his 10 strikeouts to just three walks in 40 plate appearances. Nakajima's defensive struggles have been equally apparent, as he has displayed limited range and has committed four errors in 14 games.
Nakajima's situation stands as one of the more unique in recent memory. Aside from Yoenis Cespedes – who made it clear early on he was talented enough to earn a big league spot – the A's haven't recently dealt with imported players facing a steep learning curve. The last such player other than Cespedes was Japanese right-hander Keiichi Yabu, who was never as effective with the A's as he had been in Japan.
Nakajima's $1.25 million signing bonus wasn't given to him to play in the minor leagues, but if his spring struggles continue, it could be tough for the A's to justify trotting him out on Opening Day. Nakajima might be best off getting an extra month to adjust to the American game in a low-pressure situation in the minors, but it's unknown how a possible demotion could affect his psyche and confidence level.
The A's did insulate themselves from the possibility of Nakajima's struggles with the acquisition of Jed Lowrie, whose bat will need to be in the lineup on a regular basis. Although the A's have said he will play all over the diamond, Lowrie is a natural shortstop who could easily assume the every day role. Lowrie has durability questions, however, so the A's may want to limit Lowrie's playing time somewhat even if he is the starting shortstop.
With versatility being the theme of the A's offseason, there is no clear-cut answer at either middle-infield position at this point in spring training. But the A's find themselves in a favorable position of having too many options, rather than not enough.