Around the Horn: Designated hitter, bench
Jaso, Callaspo likely to lead DH rotation as A's utilize quality of depth
This is the fifth of a seven-part Around the Horn series that features a position-by-position look at the A's projected starters and backup options heading into the 2014 season. Up next: Designated hitter and bench.
OAKLAND -- Few permanent designated hitters reside in baseball these days.
Not since 2006, when Frank Thomas and his 39 homers and 114 RBIs led the A's to the playoffs, has the club employed one, though Jack Cust assumed most DH duties over the next three seasons with fair results.
Under manager Bob Melvin, the A's platoon system has extended to the DH, with Melvin often utilizing it to give one of his position players a sort of half day off -- particularly those, like Coco Crisp and Yoenis Cespedes, who are prone to injury.
In 2013, A's designated hitters batted just .231 yet managed 20 homers and 79 RBIs. But they also reached base at just a .309 rate, which was the lowest mark posted by Oakland designated hitters since 1987 (.281).
This is expected to change for the better in 2014, with on-base machine John Jaso expected to garner the majority of DH at-bats. Still, the DH shuffle will likely continue, as Alberto Callaspo is a top option on days that draw left-handed starters. Together, they combined for a .360 OBP last year.
Crisp and Cespedes, who collectively made 46 starts at DH in 2013 -- totaling the since-departed Seth Smith's starts there -- will still get their DH at-bats, too.
"I don't think there's a set DH," Melvin said in December. "And I think we're probably better off being able to rotate it to give some guys days off. Whether it's Cespedes or Coco, guys that get nicked up and play hard, if you can give them days off DHing, I think that works better for us than having a full-time DH."
Cespedes and Crisp both boast much more power than Jaso, who will also get his time behind the plate. But starting him at DH makes sense for a few reasons, other than his ability to get on base at a consistent rate.
Jaso endured a season-ending concussion last July and was still feeling its effects as late as September. He didn't resume baseball activity until October, and even then, he only took at-bats at DH in instructional league, never once getting work as a backstop.
Playing him behind the plate too much could very well risk the chance of this happening again, and the A's can't afford to lose him altogether. Moreover, the A's already have a solid catching platoon in Derek Norris and Stephen Vogt, with newcomer Chris Gimenez also available, and would be best suited to keep Jaso's bat in the lineup without exposing his below-average defensive skills.
The average MLB team faced only 48 left-handed starters last season, even though the A's came across 54, so the left-handed-hitting Jaso's presence would remain immense.
This also allows Oakland to keep Jaso, Norris and Vogt all on the team, in addition to four outfielders and six infielders: Callaspo, Brandon Moss, Jed Lowrie, Josh Donaldson, Nick Punto and Eric Sogard.
Jaso's single greatest attribute, anyway, is his ability to hit right-handers. In 1,117 career plate appearances spanning 366 games, he's hit .272 off them with a .792 OPS, drawing far more walks (154) than strikeouts (136). Of his 23 home runs, 22 are against righties. And in exclusively looking at the last two seasons combined, he turned in a .293 average and .413 OBP with a right-hander on the mound.
His on-base ways make up for his lack of power, and the A's should be able to find plenty power elsewhere. They ranked third in the AL and the Majors with 186 home runs last year, marking the first time they finished in the top three since 2000, when they were second with 239.
With Jaso presumably drawing most starts at DH against right-handers, having Callaspo take a bulk of the at-bats vs. lefties could form a productive platoon. He boasts a .300 average and .766 OPS in 925 career plate appearances vs. southpaws.
Oakland's many platoons obviously affect its bench. As the roster is shaped now, there really aren't any true bench guys on the team, since the players who aren't delegated to an everyday role are in a platoon. This keeps everyone involved.
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.