In a league in which some teams don’t have one decent designated hitter — hello, Seattle Mariners — the A’s have a glut of them.
A’s general manager Billy Beane originally brought in Mike Sweeney to provide some right-handed punch, which had been mostly missing in recent seasons, while alternating with Jack Cust as DH. Sweeney would occasionally play first base. Cust, for whom every fly ball is an adventure, would play some left field.
Then, Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi decided that Frank Thomas, who had signed a large, three-year contract before the 2007 season, was expendable because he had gotten off to his usual slow start.
Beane quickly signed Thomas. It was a dream deal for the A’s, getting a future Hall of Famer who had hit 39 homers for them in 2006 for only the pro-rated major-league minimum part of his salary (Toronto is on the hook for the rest). But it created a logjam at DH.
Thomas has to play every day, or close to it, to be effective and he can no longer play first base. Rookie Daric Barton has been carefully brought through the minor-league system and is a Beane favorite, so he has to play first most of the time. Sweeney has occasionally played there and Cust has played left field, with manager Bob Geren rushing a defensive replacement out in later innings.
This situation can’t go on indefinitely. Beane wanted to make sure that Thomas was just off to a slow start and not at the end of his career. Thomas erased any doubts when he hit three home runs in back-to-back games this week, one a monster shot to center, almost on the anniversary of his first home run with the A’s — May 22, 2006.
The A’s numbers problem will get worse when Travis Buck comes back from a rehab stint with the Sacramento River Cats. Buck has to play on a regular basis because he’s projected as an outfield starter, along with Ryan Sweeney and Carlos Gonzalez, now at Sacramento, for the extended postseason run Beane plans for in the near-future.
The odd man out is Mike Sweeney, who might be a candidate for a trade with Seattle. The Mariners are using Jose Vidro, who is hitting only .208. Vidro has averaged only 12 homers a season in 10 years in the majors and he has only two home runs this season.
Thomas will remain at DH for the A’s because, as he warms up with the weather, he can supply the right-handed power the team needs to have a chance at the postseason. Cust’s playing time will be reduced when Buck returns, but he will stay because Beane likes his plate discipline. Cust strikes out a lot — 44 times in 43 games this season — but he also has been the league leader in walks and second in on-base percentage.
It’s been a constant juggling act for the A’s, as Beane has tried to strengthen this year’s team for a possible postseason run while keeping his eye on the goal of a team that will have an extended run of success starting in 2009. The complicated DH situation is just part of the equation.