August 4, 2016: Oakland Athletics right fielder Jake Smolinski (5) at bat during the MLB regular season game between the Oakland A's and Los Angeles Angles of Anaheim at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, Calif. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire)
Oakland Athletics

Athletics have options for outfield in 2017 and beyond

(Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire)
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The look of the Oakland Athletics’ outfield has changed quite a bit throughout the current season. It began with Khris Davis in left field, Billy Burns and Coco Crisp sharing time in center field and Josh Reddick in right field.

Upcoming free agent Reddick, a staple with the Athletics since 2012, has now been traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Burns suffered a big sophomore slump and, after being sent down to Triple-A Nashville, was eventually traded to the Kansas City Royals for another minor league outfielder, Brett Eibner. As for Crisp, at least as far as rumors go, the A’s are cutting back on his playing time so that his $13 million option for 2017 will not vest.

That has left the Athletics with Davis still in left, Jake Smolinksi spending the majority of the time in center field and Eibner spending time in right. Crisp is now considered the fourth outfielder and while he isn’t playing every day, he is getting some regular playing time. With the arrival of Ryon Healy from Double-A Midland to take over as the team’s everyday third baseman, Danny Valencia has also spent time in right field.

The outfield has already almost been completely overhauled, but what will it look like in 2017?

The only absolute in the Athletics outfield for 2017 is Khris Davis in left field. Davis doesn’t have the greatest arm, but his ability to hit for power will keep him at the position for as long as he keeps hitting home runs.

Davis is currently tied with reigning AL MVP and former Athletic Josh Donaldson for fifth in baseball and third in the American League in home runs with 34. While his .304 on-base percentage leaves a lot to be desired, his team-friendly contract (Davis will not be a free agent until 2020) and power numbers make it guaranteed he’ll be starting in left field on Opening Day 2017.

With the A’s moving quickly toward a youth movement all over the field, it’s unlikely that fan-favorite and long-time Athletic Coco Crisp, 36, will be back next season. As noted, he has a $13 million vesting option based on games played in his current contract. However, if the A’s keep him out of the lineup often enough that his option does not vest, as it appears they may already be doing, the team can use their $750,000 buyout option.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Crisp will not be on the Athletics in 2017. They could re-sign the soon-to-be 37-year-old veteran as a free agent after the season to a contract  worth (much) less than $13 million. Allowing his option to vest would guarantee Crisp would remain the highest paid player on the team and that kind of money is not something the A’s are just going to hand over when they have younger players with team-friendly contracts on their way up to the big leagues.

Smolinski and Eibner, both call-ups this season, have been splitting time at different places in the outfield with Khris Davis occasionally serving as the team’s designated hitter and Crisp not playing everyday. Both players are still young and have shown some promise.

Smolinski, 27, has shown his defensive skills off in center field coupled with decent production at the plate. In 73 big league games this season, Smolinski is hitting .264 with seven home runs and 25 RBI. He is currently still pre-arbitration eligible and will not see free agency until 2021, which is a good deal for the A’s as well as incentive to keep him in the outfield mix.

Eibner, also 27, hasn’t shown much promise at the plate in his 44 total career big league games. He is currently hitting just .209 on the year with five home runs and 14 RBI. To be fair though, it is a very small sample size and Eibner has been perfect this year in the outfield defensively. The A’s may opt to keep Eibner around next season depending on the development of three prospects, all of whom are just itching for their turn to prove themselves in the majors.

20 August 2016: Oakland Athletics Outfield Brett Eibner (39) [7427] at bat during a game between the Oakland Athletics and the Chicago White Sox at US Cellular Field in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

Three potential September call-ups will likely have the opportunity to fight for a spot in Oakland’s outfield in 2017. With a lot of young talent about to hit the majors in the next year, the Athletics have been experimenting with corner infielders Matt Olson and Renato Nunez in the outfield.

Olson began playing in the outfield for the first time last season and has seen the bulk of his playing time this year (88 out of 126 games) in right field with the team’s Triple-A affiliate Nashville Sounds.

The 22-year-old brings power and a left-handed bat to the table, but his average has suffered this season. He’s currently hitting just .229 with 16 home runs and 59 RBI. While 16 home runs doesn’t quite scream “power hitter,” he’s been considered to be capable of being a 30-home run hitter in the big leagues, but the downside is that his low batting average is not likely to change.

Twenty-two-year-old Nunez is another option for the A’s; however, the right-handed hitting infielder hasn’t spent nearly as much time practicing in the outfield as Olson, having played just nine games in left field for the Sounds this season. He is also hitting just .231 with a .280 OBP. However, he’s been able to generate more power than Olson in his 123 games this season. Nunez has hit 23 home runs and driven in 75, meaning the A’s will more than likely at least take a look at him this September.

The most likely prospect to make the Athletics outfield in 2017 is actually ranked below both Nunez (fifth) and Olson (16th) on the organization’s top prospect list, as constructed by MLB Pipeline. Jaycob Brugman, 22, is currently ranked 22nd on the A’s top prospect list, but he’s moved quickly through the team’s farm system. After just 38 games at the Double-A level in 2016, Brugman was promoted to Nashville, where he has spent the remainder of the season.

In 89 games with the Sounds, Brugman is hitting .308 with a .364 OBP. He shows better plate discipline than both Olson and Nunez and though he isn’t expected to be a perennial 20-homer threat in the majors, he does have the capability to hit the ball out of the yard. He’s hit 12 home runs between Double and Triple-A and has driven in a total of 87 runs this season.

Most importantly, besides batting left-handed, Brugman can play all three outfield positions well and is the only player of the three who started out his professional career playing in the outfield. He would be an excellent fourth outfielder for any team with those skills, but he could also end up playing every day at any one of the three positions.

With so many options, it’s hard to predict which players will end up in the A’s outfield next season. With Davis a virtual guarantee to stay and Crisp a virtual guarantee to be gone, it will likely depend upon the individual performances of the younger players, both this September and next spring, for the A’s to decide on who starts next season on the big league roster.

At this point, without having seen how the potential call-ups will perform in the coming months, it appears that beyond Davis, Smolinski and Brugman might have the best chances to make the Opening Day roster.

Beyond that, assuming the A’s don’t make a trade or an offseason signing, the fourth outfield spot remains up for grabs between Eibner and Olson. Nunez doesn’t quite have enough defensive experience to play in the outfield in the big leagues.

Right now anything is still possible; more will be known once the September call-ups are announced and once the season has come to an end.

Athletics have options for outfield in 2017 and beyond

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