OAKLAND -- The A’s wasted little time setting a tone for the second half, making one roster move Friday with wide reverberations.
Oakland called up infielder Ryon Healy from Triple-A Nashville and optioned outfielder Billy Burns to Nashville. They also designated minor-league pitcher Nick Tepesch for assignment to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Healy.
Healy, the top hitting minor-leaguer in the A’s system this season, is "going to play third base for us," manager Bob Melvin said. That means a reduction in playing time for Danny Valencia, the A’s everyday third baseman and cleanup hitter most of the first half.
With Burns gone, meanwhile, the A’s plan to take a long look at Jake Smolinski in center field -- rather than playing Coco Crisp more at his natural position. With Khris Davis in left field, Crisp is also poised to see less playing time, though he’s starting Friday at DH.
"It’s going to be more moving parts than usual," Melvin said. "It’s going to be tough on some of the guys. But we’ve put ourselves in this position as a team where, with our record, we have to look at some other guys and see if they’re going to be pieces for us in the future."
The A’s went 38-51 before the All-Star Break and Melvin’s quote there indicates they are beginning to shift their focus beyond this season. Another indication would be if the A’s start trading some of their veterans. Valencia has reportedly drawn interest from teams, as have Rich Hill and Ryan Madson. The non-waiver trade deadline this year is August 1.
For now, Melvin said that Valencia, who hit .304 with 12 homers in the first half, could play some first base against left-handed pitching, which would take at-bats from Yonder Alonso. The A’s could also use Valencia in left field and Crisp more at DH to get them into the lineup.
"If we were 10 games above .500 you probably wouldn’t be looking at this," Melvin said. "It presents its challenges … I’ve already had some conversations with some of these guys letting them know about these things. It’s just the way it is in baseball sometimes."
Smolinski is batting .301 overall and .359 against left-handers with all four of his homers. He has one career game - this year - in center field in the majors, and a handful in Triple-A. Melvin said he has "been happy with what I’ve seen so far" of Smolinski in center and that he’s "done a nice job moving around in the corners for us."
Crisp’s situation has an interesting subplot: The veteran has an option in his contract for 2017 that automatically vests if he plays in 130 games this year or totals 550 plate appearances. He’s currently at 304, meaning he would need to average 3.4 over the final 73 games for option to kick in. That seemed well within reach with how regularly he was playing in the first half, perhaps less so if the A’s do start limiting his appearances.
Healy, 24, was not even invited to big-league camp in spring training and started the year at Double-A Midland. He hit .338 with eight homers in 36 games there before being promoted to Triple-A Nashville, where he hit .318 with six homers in 49 games. He leads all A’s minor-leaguers in average, is second in RBIs and third in home runs.
Healy has played more first base (44 games) than third (22) this season but said he feels comfortable at both.
"Everybody raves about him in development," Melvin said. "He started hot in Double-A, took it right into Triple-A and basically played the same way. Being in the position that we’re in, we have to find out about some guys and this guy’s put himself in a position to where he’s going to be here."
Healy, the A’s third-round pick in the 2013 draft, said he found out he was getting called up after Nashville’s game Thursday. The Sounds’ coaching staff had some fun delivering the news.
"They convinced me that I wasn’t playing hard enough and I was going to get benched for a week because it looked like it was tired," Healy said. "I was sitting there arguing, saying I don’t even want a single day off, let alone a week.
"Our hitting coach came in and said, ‘If you do that in front of Bob Melvin tomorrow you’re going to have big issues.’ And I went, ‘Excuse me? Who?’"
Healy represented the A’s at the Futures Game during All-Star Week last Sunday, going 2-for-3 with a double for the U.S. team. He said he was not "surprised or overwhelmed" to be in Oakland so suddenly, and indicated his low-profile start to the season provided him with motivation.
"Let it light a fire under my rear end and put a chip on my shoulder, and really just prove everyone wrong," Healy said. "I think that benefited (me) so far. But like I said, I’m not done yet."
Burns had struggled in his second major-league season. He was batting .234 with a .270 on-base percentage -- down from .294 and .334 his rookie year and not enough from a player the A’s envisioned as their leadoff hitter. He hit just .184 in June and was batting .154 this month as his playing time started to dwindle.
"They made some adjustments against him," Melvin said, "and he was trying to do things a little differently, whether it’s take a few more pitches, get into some better counts, things he wasn’t used to doing … We felt like it was the right thing to get him down there and have him work on it in Triple-A."
So as the A’s open the second half against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday night, it’ll be Smolinski in center field, Healy at third base, Crisp at DH and Valencia on the bench. One more note: Melvin said Rich Hill, whose next start was TBA due to a blister, will pitch Sunday in the finale against the Blue Jays.