Learning to love Nick Punto

Brace yourselves A's fans, Nick Punto is bringing his scrappiness and needless sliding to Oakland in 2014.

Brace yourselves A’s fans, Nick Punto is bringing his scrappiness and unnecessary sliding to Oakland in 2014.

If the excitement over Phil Humber joining the A’s organization wasn’t enough, the club went out and signed light-hitting, slick-fielding utility infielder Nick Punto today.

You can start chilling the champagne because that 2014 AL West title is just about in the bag now that Mr. I Slide Into First Base On Clean Singles is in the fold.

The nice thing about the A’s being a back-to-back division winner with a roster that has a young, solid, affordable core is that there’s really no pressure heading into the hot stove league. You don’t have to gamble your major- or minor-league assets on a big trade and you don’t have to risk busting your budget in the often fruitless pursuit of top-tier free agents. You can sit back, relax and improve the bottom of your roster while waiting for more exciting opportunities to present themselves.

The offseason is still young and the A’s are always full of surprises, so there may be plenty of moves to come including some unexpected trades or an unexpected dive into the free agent market. But for now Nick Punto is the flavor of the day.

I won’t pretend I’ve ever been a fan of Punto from afar because I’ve actually found him mildly annoying at times. But that’s probably a good thing now that he’s bringing his 36-year-old talents to Oakland. Punto’s been a scrappy little role player for a hell of a long time, often chipping in with a timely play here and there for winning teams. Of course, he can also kill you on a play like this but if you’re an A’s fan you’re used to subpar playoff baserunning (damn you Jeremy Giambi).

Are we looking at the odd man out of the A's infield picture?  If I had to guess I'd say yes.

Are we looking at the odd man out of the A’s infield picture? If I had to guess I’d say yes.

If I had to make a call right this minute on which 30-something switch hitter gets pushed out of Oakland’s infield picture I’d say it’s Alberto Callaspo.

Punto’s coming off a .255/.328/.327 season with a price tag of $3 million next year while Callaspo hit .258/.333/.369 in 2013 with a $4.8 million salary due in 2014. When you look back over the past 3 seasons, Punto comes in at .250/.340/.336 and Callaspo comes in at .266/.344/368.  All in all, they’re just about identical twins at the plate with Callaspo providing a little more pop but not enough to get too excited about.

You’re not really losing much at the plate by going with Punto over Callaspo on the bench but you do come out way ahead on defense where Punto flashes some decent leather all around the infield compared to Callaspo’s sometimes-brutal efforts in the field.

Over the course of 162 games that defensive versatility will come in very handy as players get hurt and manager Bob Melvin tinkers with the lineup day in and day out.

What’s the market for Callaspo? If he really is the odd man out we’ll see what his value is outside of Oakland between now and Opening Day. If general manager Billy Beane actually has his sights set on sliding Punto into the role Callaspo filled down the stretch for the A’s in 2013 then I’m sure there’s a move to come down the line.

The A’s could use an extra arm in the bullpen, so maybe Callaspo is traded for a similarly priced middle reliever heading for arbitration on another team looking to dodge paying a raise. Maybe Callaspo is shipped out of town along with a little bit of cash for a mid-range prospect to shed some salary, open up a roster spot and add a little talent to the farm system.

I guess the one aspect of this move that disappoints me just a tad is that it probably means we’re going to have to wait a while longer to see Addison Russell take over at shortstop. My dream of Russell being called up in the second half of 2014 and bumping Jed Lowrie over to second base is likely over before the season even starts.

Sure, the kid’s only 19 but I was entertaining the crazy idea of Russell having a monster first half of the season in the minors and forcing his way up to Oakland in the second half. It could still happen depending on how everyone performs and what injuries crop up, but for now the A’s have the luxury of giving Russell plenty of time to develop while delaying his MLB service time and still fielding a strong playoff contender in 2014.  Nothing to complain about there.

Does the Punto signing and all the potential moves associated with it mean we’re on track to see a Scott Sizemore/Eric Sogard platoon at second base next year? Only time will tell.

All I know is that I’m happy to have an excuse to write about something other than the Phil Humber signing and I’m already looking forward to Punto’s first totally unnecessary head-first slide into first base at the Coliseum.

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