Earlier this spring, before a team workout at the A's facility in Phoenix, manager Bob Melvin began answering a simple question – Who's your second baseman? – and wound up delving into organizational philosophy.
The position, Melvin said, was totally "up in the air." Among a handful of candidates was Jed Lowrie, the Astros' shortstop in 2012. The A's had acquired Lowrie envisioning him as a kind of super utility infielder. He could shuttle between positions, spell regulars and give Melvin a switch-hitting option when writing out lineups.
But, Melvin said, Lowrie had already been making a case with his play to be in the lineup every day. "And," Melvin allowed, "he may not bounce around."
"Everything's open here," the 2012 American League Manager of the Year continued. "We're going to play the best players. And we're going to prepare on a particular day for the best lineup that day with the pieces we have."
Last year was all about juggling the pieces, as the surprising A's captured the A.L. West with a lineup featuring more moving parts than a Swiss watch. Rotating players to maximize matchups, the A's finished the season using platoons at as many as four lineup spots – catcher, first base, second base and designated hitter.
The platoons were mostly of the righty-lefty variety. As a result, the A's had the most plate appearances in the A.L. in 2012 against opposite-hand pitchers. With the dynamic established in the second half, an A's team that ranked 28th in runs before the All-Star break (319) led the league in scoring after the break (394).
"You're always trying to maximize production, and if you have a couple guys to do it like we did last year, then it made some sense," Melvin said. "It was just as much the front office bringing in these players to enhance it.
"Offensively in the second half we were a completely different team, and it had a lot to do with these platoons and getting the right lineup on a particular day."
The A's acquisitions this winter – John Jaso, a left-handed-hitting catcher to complement right-handed Derek Norris; Chris Young, a right-hander joining an outfield where only one of the four returning regulars hits solely right-handed; and Lowrie, a switch-hitting versatile defender – suggest more of the same in 2013.
Or maybe not.
Melvin and the A's seem content to keep things fluid as they embark on a follow-up to that improbable 2012 season. And in that way, at least, they're at it again.
Adding Young to the outfield is perhaps the epitome of the strategy. Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick – left to right – will start the season getting the most regular playing time. Young, a former All-Star and strong defender as a center fielder in Arizona, has played at both corner positions this spring so that he can start or enter in place of any of the other three.
That, in theory, protects the A's against injuries – both Cespedes and Crisp missed time last year – and allows them to give a regular a day off or put them at designated hitter. Otherwise, Young is a right-handed option (with a career on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .860 against left-handed pitching and .718 against right-handers) opposite left-hander Seth Smith (OPS of .865 against right-handers, .572 against left-handers) at DH.
That is, unless Young plays too well for Melvin to sit him. Lowrie may have already done so with a strong spring, especially with a late injury to shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, who was having a lackluster camp.
"If you have a hot hand, a lot of times you want to ride it," Melvin said. "But I'm hoping for anything. There's no strict things as far as platoons and so forth that I look at. It really is a day-to-day thing."
That can be a difficult sell in a major-league clubhouse. That it worked last season in Oakland required a certain amount of buying in from the players – something Melvin readily acknowledged. It helped soothe any bruised egos that the team was winning.
"Neither one of us, when we weren't playing, were saying that we should be in there," said Brandon Moss, who split time with Chris Carter at first base. "You can see something special happening – it's completely pointless to be selfish in that way and say, 'What about me?' "
Moss won't be platooning this year, at least right away. Around the infield, he and Josh Donaldson appear set at first and third base, respectively, while second, still nebulous, could see a platoon of Scott Sizemore and Eric Sogard to start.
Norris and Jaso may also share time behind the plate, handling a pitching staff that posted the second-lowest ERA in the A.L. last season (3.48) despite a dearth of experience. For all the mix-and-matching in the field, the A's will rely heavily on a rotation that features four starters 26 or younger and a bullpen that took shape around Grant Balfour in his first real stint as a closer in the majors.
"It's obviously going to be tough on guys, but it is what it is," Norris said of the lineup fluctuation. "It's part of the system we've got going right now. And it worked (last year), so why fix what ain't broke?"