If there was one guy who the Oakland Athletics probably couldn’t afford to lose right now, it was Ben Zobrist, so getting the news that he needs surgery on his left knee and will miss 4 to 6 weeks is pretty grim as developments go.
That timetable might put Zobrist on the mend and back in action at about the same time that starting left fielder Coco Crisp is also ready to rejoin the A’s, the end of May into early June. But in their absence, it leaves them simultaneously short-handed in the outfield and the infield, and short of roster spots to easily fit in all of the alternatives.
In the outfield, more playing time than expected has been going to Rule 5 pick Mark Canha, but he’s beginning to struggle with making consistent contact as the league gets familiar with his aggressive approach at the plate. The best alternative they might have in the minors is Alden Carrithers, but he's not a power guy, either. But there's not enough room for Carrithers and an infielder to replace Zobrist there, and with Brett Lawrie's knee hurting from an injury sustained Friday night, the first call went to cornerman Max Muncy. It's a decision that reflects the impossibility of finding a good fit to readily replace a moving part like Zobrist on defense.
On the plus side, Muncy is more of an offense-minded replacement, hitting .293/.408/.466 from the left side of the plate for Nashville in the first two weeks of the Triple-A season. That’s essentially Muncy’s bag: He’s a good OBP guy whose best position might be first base and who will be stretched a bit as a third baseman. As a guy whose over-the-fence power took a hit since he graduated from the Cal League, he’ll need to show he can stick at the hot corner to be more than a bit part, but you can see how his patience at the plate will help the A’s get men on base if he’s given time to settle in.
The problem is that Muncy's call-up still leaves the A’s thin in the middle infield. Absent Zobrist, Eric Sogard might have to play second every day, and Marcus Semien has to do the same at shortstop. Sogard's bat isn't something you want to see daily, and while Lawrie has experience at second base from the Blue Jays’ past experiments with moving him around the diamond, that’s a less-than-ideal solution.
Was there an alternative? I would have thought bringing back utilityman Tyler Ladendorf would have given the A’s some of the flexibility that Zobrist provides; he can hurt a lefty, has decent on-base skills and plays short, second, third and the outfield well. As a complementary piece to spot for Sogard at second in particular, it made a certain kind of sense.
But with Zobrist gone for longer than a month, I’m also wondering if this doesn’t mean that the A’s are simply buying time for a more substantive fix. Muncy is on the 40-man roster, after all, while the guy in the organization who’s the best alternative to Sogard at second, Joey Wendle, is not -- yet. Wendle was the prospect picked up from the Indians in the Brandon Moss trade, and he’s already off to a good start with Nashville, hitting .274/.324/.548. His power from the left side would be nice to mix in, but after a broken hamate left him with an injury-abbreviated 2014 season in Double-A, you can also understand Oakland's willingness to just let him get regular playing time until his bat -- and perhaps other considerations, even other injuries -- makes it easier for them to add him to the 40-man.
The other major hit this delivers to the Athletics’ full-season picture is that it limits the amount of time they’ll have to show off Zobrist as a potential bargaining chip at the trade deadline. If he’s out until it’s almost mid-June, that’s six weeks or so for him to show he’s productive, entirely healthy and able to answer the needs of any contender looking for a regular at third, second and the outfield corners.
Admittedly, trading Zobrist might seem pretty improbable at the moment, because the A’s should be contenders in a tight AL West race all the way down to the wire. But it’s also a team with a lot of moving parts that needs several calculated risks to work out exactly right. If things start to go very wrong before Zobrist comes back, there’s every reason to shop him before he departs as a 34-year-old free agent-to-be.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.