OAKLAND — When the Oakland A’s Gold Glove first baseman, Matt Olson, shook out his right hand after fouling off an 0-1 pitch in the fifth inning against the Seattle Mariners this week in Tokyo, both Bob Melvin and Mark Canha had a feeling something was wrong. After Olson fouled off the next pitch, he did it again.
When Olson, after eventually hitting a single to right off Yusei Kikuchi, went down into the clubhouse tunnel to see the trainer at the end of the fifth, they knew there was something wrong.
“When Olly comes out of the game, it’s probably something pretty serious,” said Canha, who replaced Olson at first in the top of the sixth, and will be one of Olson’s stand-ins when the season begins this coming week against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
With Olson undergoing excision of his broken right hamate bone on Friday, Canha — who was primarily a first baseman in college at Cal, and in the professional ranks before he joined the A’s — will be a part of a platoon that not only involves newly-acquired Jurickson Profar, but will allow Franklin Barreto — who had a superb spring — to make the (second) Opening Day roster.
“It’s tough,” manager Bob Melvin said on Saturday, during the team’s workout at the Oakland Coliseum before the start of the Bay Bridge Series. “There’s guys that are irreplaceable. It’s going to be tough … there are ones that are hard, ones that are real hard, and this is going to be tough, but it’s going to give some guys some opportunities.”
Barreto was already a part of the contingent that opened the season earlier this week in Japan, and while Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Billy Beane said the final-final roster for Wednesday’s home opener against the Angels is still undecided, Melvin said that Barreto would get a long look.
“If we don’t make some sort of another move, that’s what it looks like, at this point,” Melvin said. “We’re happy with that.”
This spring, Barreto hit .375, playing shortstop, second base and all three outfield spots. He was flawless in 18 chances in the outfield, his first experience there in his professional career.
While Melvin didn’t give a timetable for Olson’s return, he’s likely out between six and eight weeks, which is the standard recovery time for a hamate bone excision. It may take closer to eight, given that it was his right (bottom) hand that was operated on.
“This guy’s a 30-home run, left-handed bat, he’s a Gold Glover on his own, and he makes everybody else better … you look at him and you think he’s indestructible,” Melvin said. “I talked to him yesterday. He’s not happy about it, but he knows we have some guys who can hold down the fort.”
Meanwhile, against right-handers, Melvin said, Profar will play first (as he will in Sunday’s Bay Bridge Series opener in Oakland), while Barreto or Chad Pinder will play second. Against left-handers, Pinder will play left field, Profar second base and Canha will get the bulk of the time at first base.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Melvin said. “Barreto will get some time too. It allows us to rest some guys, and try to get Pinder a little more time and get Barreto a little more time.”
Barreto, a right-handed hitter, has a .250 career big league average against righties, versus .146 against lefties. Pinder hits righties at a .230 clip, compared to .274 against lefties.
Canha has the most experience on the roster at first base outside of Olson, having played 98 games (633 innings) there in the Majors, where he has a .992 fielding percentage. His defensive runs saved above average for his career at first is -3. He will focus on first base during infield work, but will also still take batting practice reps in the outfield to stay sharp.
“It’s like riding a bike,” said Canha, who played five errorless games at first (25 innings) this spring. “I may take a few extra reps headed into Opening Day at first, and I’ll be ready when I’m called upon. Last year, I didn’t play a single defensive inning in center field, and I ended up being our everyday center fielder during the season. That’s kind of why I’m here, right? I’m here for this situation.”
Profar doesn’t even have a first baseman’s mitt, and didn’t take any reps there during spring training.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Profar. “I don’t have to. I’ll just step in there and play.”
A second baseman by trade, Profar has played 43 error-free games (278 2/3 innings) at first base in his career, with a -1 defensive runs saved above average, but an extrapolated 19 defensive runs saved above average per 1,200 innings. On a per-inning basis, it’s arguably his best position. He took reps there with Canha during the A’s workout day on Saturday.
“Things like this happen all the time, and I’m ready for it,” Profar said. “I played there before, and I’ll do anything to help the team.”
Pinder, too, could play first base. Beane noted that it was his best position last season.
Olson, 24, who won his first career Gold Glove in his first full season in the Major Leagues, had a .995 fielding percentage, and was 12th in the big leagues in defensive runs saved (14), first among first basemen.
“I think he’s the best first baseman in the game,” Melvin said. “He’s only going to get better, too … He’s a Gold Glover on his own right, and he makes everyone else that much better, too. His position, everything kind of goes through him.”
Olson played all 162 games at first last season, hitting .247 with 29 home runs, 84 RBIs, 33 doubles and 85 runs scored.
While Melvin couldn’t say whether the A’s will miss Olson’s bat or glove more, the absence of his left-handed power will certainly hurt, as all of his replacements, save Profar, are right-handed hitters in a lineup that’s already starting to lean right-handed heavy. Oakland did, however, add switch-hitting outfielder Robbie Grossman in the offseason,
“There are going to be some days where we’re very right-handed,” said Beane, who coincidentally got to make his Oakland debut as a player in 1989 because of a broken hamate bone suffered by Jose Canseco. “That makes Grossman’s signing and Profar all that much more important. We should be able to get through it, short-term.”