A's sum is greater than their parts
American League West champs demand contributions up and down roster
PHOENIX -- The Oakland A's aren't afraid to try something different.
Right now, they are thriving on a time-share approach among the players on their roster.
It allows them to maximize the bang for their buck. The A's have won back-to-back American League West titles, negating the free-spending ways of the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels with an Opening Day roster that has ranked 29th and 27th in baseball's payrolls.
Oakland's moves may not always make sense, but they seem to work.
Many in the baseball world looked at the A's willingness to trade prime outfield prospect Michael Choice to the Rangers last December for journeyman outfielder Craig Gentry, and wondered why they would make that move. Choice was, after all, Oakland's No. 1 pick and the 10th player selected overall in 2010. He hit .302 at Triple-A last year, and he is ranked the 72nd-best prospect in baseball.
The A's responded very simply, "Why not?"
Gentry fits Oakland's approach. The A's have gone from building teams around on-base percentage and defense to a roster built around versatility. Gentry is a defensive asset in all three outfield spots, critical for a team that seems him as a versatile fourth outfielder.
"A guy like Gentry is used to playing that role," manager Bob Melvin said as the A's went through their morning workout on Thursday. "I think he understands what we are trying to do."
It's not about having an All-Star roster. Those games are played in mid-July. Oakland is building a roster designed to play games in October.
A year ago, Chris Young was the club's highest-paid player at $8.7 million, tied for 120th overall. Yoenis Cespedes ($8.5 million), Coco Crisp ($7 million) and Brett Anderson ($5.75 million) were the only other A's among the 225 big league players who had base salaries in excess of $4.5 million. Cespedes and Crisp are the only players among the top seven highest-paid A's of a year ago who are in green and gold this year.
In Oakland, it's about the team, not the individual.
The A's mix and match to such a point that a year ago Josh Donaldson, who started 155 games at third base, was the only player on the team to start as many as 108 games at the same position. Oakland didn't even have a player start 100 games at catcher, first base, second base or left field.
"It takes the ego out of it," said A's bench coach Chip Hale. "Our front office does a good job of finding out who is going to fit in the role. ... It can be a big problem for a young guy who comes up and doesn't play every day. Sometimes they can't handle it.
"But historically, in this system, each guy is going to get a lot of at-bats."
Donaldson finished 12th in the AL with a .301 average. The next best on the team was Crisp at .262, which ranked 47th in the AL. Donaldson led Oakland with 668 plate appearances, which tied him for 20th in the AL. Only four other A's reached the 502 plate appearances needed to quality for a batting title, but 10 A's had 300 or more plate appearances, 12 had 200 and 16 had at least 120.
The whole, however, is bigger than the sum of the parts in Oakland.
The A's second basemen combined to produce only 111 runs, which ranked 11th in the AL, and Oakland ranked seventh at first base with 165 runs produced. The A's, however, were fifth or better in the AL in run production at every other position, including ranking No. 5 at DH, where they used 11 players throughout the season. Seth Smith led the team with 55 DH starts.
Oakland ranked second in run production at third base, third at shortstop in left field and center field, fourth at catcher and fifth among right fielders.
Melvin said young players embrace the challenge to share time at a variety of positions because it is their ticket to the big leagues.
The adjustment comes for veterans acquired by the A's, like Young, who came over a year ago from Arizona, where he averaged 142 games and 648 plate appearances in his six full big league seasons. He made a career-low 71 starts in Oakland, but he did appear in 107 games, and had his best month of the season in September, hitting .255 when the A's put away the AL West.
"Chris Young was an everyday player, but once he got here, he bought into [our approach] and played better," said Hale. "What guys find out is they may not be in the lineup every day, but they have a chance to be in every game."
What they also know is the system has worked. No sense changing the approach right now.