Around the Horn: Middle infield
Sogard, Callaspo, Punto vying to be Lowrie's double-play partner
A seven-part Around the Horn series, which features a position-by-position look at Oakland's projected starters and backup options heading into the season, turns its focus to the middle infield for part three.
OAKLAND -- Last year, the A's entered Spring Training with a bevy of candidates looking to fill their middle-infield positions. Jed Lowrie won the shortstop job outright, and that's where he'll be again. The second-base picture remains less clear.
Consider it the most interesting position battle to watch when camp opens.
Holdovers Eric Sogard and Alberto Callaspo are back for more, but the offseason addition of Nick Punto adds some definite intrigue. In an ideal world, all three will make the team. But if the A's are sold on keeping two true first basemen on their roster, Sogard likely is the odd man out.
However, Sogard could just as easily stay on board if Callaspo can prove capable at first base, where he's expected to pick up playing time against left-handers this spring. That would allow Punto and Sogard to share the majority of starts at second base.
Not coincidentally, all three can play multiple positions. Two -- Punto and Callaspo -- can switch-hit in an extremely versatile Oakland lineup.
Bringing in Punto on a one-year contract with a vesting option for 2015 was the first move made by the club this offseason, and it was at that time, in mid-November, when they made it clear that the 13-year veteran was not here to make way for a Lowrie trade.
Assistant general manager David Forst deemed Lowrie "our starting shortstop" and said of Punto, "Whether it's his ability to give Josh Donaldson or Jed a day, play second base against lefties, come in late for defense or pinch-hit or pinch-run, there's a lot of things he can do, and it's nice to give Bob [Melvin, manager] those options."
Punto, 36, brings with him a career .248 average and .680 OPS. But what the platoon-driven A's see is his .309 average and .723 OPS against southpaws in 2013, which raised his career clip vs. them to .263.
Then there's Sogard, who made 104 of his 110 starts against right-handers in his first full professional season last year. He hit .274 off them, compared to .230 when facing a lefty. In all, Sogard amassed 410 plate appearances, finishing with a .266 average, .322 on-base percentage, two home runs and 35 RBIs.
Sogard's defensive metrics are solid, and there's thought that Oakland might be better served with him at shortstop and Lowrie, with less range and arm strength, at second base, though they're expected to stay put.
Defense is where Sogard has the edge over Callaspo, who often seems to be making up for miscues in the field with a surprising dose of pop at the plate. He hit just .258 last year but sparked the A's with a hot streak in the final two months of play, proving to be a go-to late-game option off the bench.
Lowrie, meanwhile, could indeed be forced to second base as soon as this season, but only if shortstop prospect Addison Russell proves to be more than big league ready at some point.
The A's won't rush Russell to The Show, and they don't have to so long as Lowrie stays healthy. The fact he was able to do so in 2013 was a pleasant surprise, with Lowrie having never played more than 97 games in his five previous big league seasons before appearing in 154 in his first season with Oakland.
Much was made of Donaldson's contributions to the division-winning club, and rightfully so, but Lowrie's role was also significant. He hit .290 with 15 home runs and 75 RBIs, along with a team-leading 45 doubles, for the A's, who relied on him to bat third in the lineup nearly half of the season. Lowrie's .472 slugging percentage led AL shortstops.
A repeat performance from Lowrie will only strengthen a resume he'll take into free agency at season's end. For Oakland, it's a necessity in a win-now year.
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.