Franklin Barreto’s Short Stop in Oakland

On July 8, the Oakland A’s sent Franklin Barreto back to AAA. In his major-league cup of chai latte (just 46 plate appearances), Barreto slashed a relatively unimpressive .190/.261/.381. He struck out at a horrific 39%, though he did pop two homers on the way to an ISO of .190, pretty robust for a middle infielder. Word is that his stay on the farm will be a short one, and there is reason to believe that given the collection of very movable objects that stands in his way.

The A’s almost certainly won’t pick up second baseman Jed Lowrie’s team option for 2018, and may well shop him before the trade deadline now that they are firmly in win-then mode. (Did you know that Jed Lowrie leads the A’s in WAR, regardless of which brand of WAR you use?) At short, the A’s have a have a variety of players who have trouble either hitting (Richie Martin) or fielding (Marcus Semien). For Barreto, it must look a bit like an E-Z Pass lane.

But the most fearsome demons we confront are often our own, and Barreto still has work to do before he’s fit for purpose. Here are three guys:

_____       K%        ISO         wRC+

Guy A       29.8        .147           91

Guy B       28.9        .160          83

Guy C       28.7        .158           83

No points for guessing that one of these guys is Franklin Barreto. That would be Guy A, and those are his numbers from AAA this season. Guy B is Javier Baez, and those are his career numbers. We’ll get to guy C in a minute.

Baez, like Barreto, hits the ball hard but misses the ball often. The approach seemed to work for him in the minors; he slugged a merciless .638 even while whiffing nearly 30% of the time at AA in 2014. The approach worked, that is, until it didn’t. In 2015, those crafty AAA pitchers still struck Javy out 30% of the time while feeding him a lot fewer cookies. And then the Cubs called him up. He proceeded to slash .169/.227/.324 while striking out at a horrific 42%. He did pop 9 homers on the way to a .155 ISO, which is fair to middlin’ for a middle infielder. Barreto did not repeat Javy’s first call up, but he did rhyme with it.

The Cubs responded to Baez’s 2014 by sending him back down to AAA in 2015. For a while. Quite a long while, actually: over 300 PAs among the Iowa cornfields and endless bus rides over the featureless Midwestern steppe. That was how Baez spent the first part of 2015, and when he came up again … he hit the ball less hard and missed it less often, shaving his strikeout rate to 30% whilst shaving his ISO to an unthreatening .118. A .412 BABIP softened the blow, superficially making him look like a useful offensive player. It wasn’t a breakthrough, but it was kind of like progress.

Baez held his gains in 2016, dropping his K rate to 24% while ramping up the power. His 95 wRC+ that year was well-earned. This year the numbers aren’t quite there, but the K rate has only inched upward — while the power is rising. The kid might be learning to hit. This represents a hopeful comp for Barreto. He’s three years younger than Baez, so he still has plenty of time to learn. If, that is, the A’s will let him.

The A’s trail back to the post-season is not well-marked, at least on publicly available maps. They currently have four of the MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects, but just one in the top 50 (Barreto, at #42). Baseball America thought little of the system at the beginning of the year, ranking it 17th, just behind the then-recently depleted Cubs system. Two of the four (Barreto and third baseman Matt Chapman) graduated this year, with Barreto now sent back and Chapman still searching for answers in The Show. The other two top prospects, pitchers A.J. Puk and Grant Holmes, are both struggling at AA this year, though Puk pitched quite well at hitter-friendly Stockton, from which he was only recently promoted.

These are good players, but Beane will need more if he wants to bring a pennant to San Jose (er — I mean — oh, nevermind). Accordingly, Beane went against form in the 2017 draft by selecting a high-school bat, outfielder Austin Beck, with the 6th overall pick. Beck had helium before the draft, although the MLB Pipeline crew worried about his complex swing. Next year, Oakland will likely have a top-five pick, allowing Beane to grab another high-ceiling bat. Beck and this unmet friend will have a large say in determining when Oakland next plays October baseball.

But that won’t be soon, likely not in 2018 and probably not in 2019. So from a baseball standpoint, there is very little reason to rush Barreto. Oakland’s long-suffering and very knowledgeable fans are probably aching to see the future, given the bleakness of the present. And I suspect the front-office types share that yearning more than they would ever dare admit publicly. But Oakland plays in a land of giants (no, that’s not another San Jose joke): The two Texas teams are well-run and well-resourced, and the Angels brains will eventually match their wallets. And the Mariners … well … it’s complicated. The point is that the AL West contains a number of wily and dangerous opponents, and the A’s being generally well-run and perpetually under-resourced, need to build a roster that will be explosively good for a handful of years, rather than modestly successful for many. They can’t afford too many talent misses.

Which brings us to Guy C. That’s Danny Espinosa, and those are his career stats. Now 30, Espinosa is entering the twilight of a career that never really caught fire. And that’s because the strikeouts ate it.

At least by the numbers, you wouldn’t have seen it coming. Espinosa’s highest strikeout rate in the minors was 22.6%, and over his three years on the farm he hit with power and solid plate discipline. In the majors, he never had a K rate less than 25.2%. When he could keep it near there, he was a solid starting middle infielder (mostly at second, with a healthy helping of short). But when the K% slid upward, Espinosa was doomed, a bench bat at best. This year, he has a .513 OPS with the aforementioned Angels, and a staggering 35.8% strikeout rate. He is by no means a close comp with Barreto since the Ks only began to plague him at the major-league level, but his failure to bring the strike zone under control once there is a cautionary tale.

It’s easy to criticize Espinosa, and a bit unfair; he’s had a better career than the overwhelming majority of players in professional ball, most of whom will never set foot on a major-league field unless they’re taking the guided tour. Espinosa is a good defender at the two toughest infield positions, and for much of his career made pitchers all too cognizant that the wall behind them wasn’t nearly behind enough.

That said, the Oakland A’s can ill afford to produce many Danny Espinosas, at least from their top prospects, of whom (for now, at least) Barreto is the toppiest. Javier Baez hasn’t figured it out yet, but the Cubs gave him extra time in AAA to help that process along. While the jury is out, the signs are at least guardedly encouraging. The A’s should consider doing the same for Barreto, to ensure that his development, and theirs, isn’t stopped short.

I'm a recovering lawyer and unrecovered Cubs fan who writes about baseball from time to time.

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