The rise of Cliff Pennington

After putting up a .363/.453/.451 line in his junior year at Texas A&M, Cliff Pennington became the 21st overall pick of the 2005 draft. Equipped with speed and good on-base ability, Pennington was a perfect fit for his drafting team, the Oakland A’s, who were in need of an insurance policy on the still unproven Bobby Crosby.

Pennington proceeded to rise up the rungs of the metaphorical minor league ladder, despite producing middling numbers in Single- and Double-A ball. Coming into 2008, expectations had been severely lowered for the former first rounder, and the question now became whether he would ever make the major leagues and become, at most, a utility infielder instead of “is he the next star A’s shortstop?”

+--------+--------+-----+----+----+-----+----+-------+------+------+-------+ | Season | Level | AB | R | HR | RBI | SB | AVG | BB% | K% | wOBA | +--------+--------+-----+----+----+-----+----+-------+------+------+-------+ | 2008 | AA | 204 | 42 | 0 | 18 | 20 | 0.260 | 16.0 | 17.6 | 0.352 | | 2008 | AAA | 236 | 47 | 2 | 16 | 11 | 0.297 | 18.6 | 14.4 | 0.374 | | 2008 | Majors | 99 | 14 | 0 | 9 | 4 | 0.242 | 11.6 | 18.2 | 0.299 | | 2009 | AAA | 360 | 48 | 3 | 40 | 27 | 0.264 | 11.1 | 15.0 | 0.335 | | 2009 | Majors | 163 | 24 | 4 | 17 | 7 | 0.288 | 9.4 | 20.2 | 0.348 | +--------+--------+-----+----+----+-----+----+-------+------+------+-------+

Pennington did nothing to improve upon those low expectations in the first third of 2008 in Double-A, batting .260 with 0 home runs. The silver lining was total of 20 steals and a 1.08 K:BB ratio, apparently enough of a lining for the A’s to promote Cliff to Triple-A.

In Triple-A Pennington played what could be described as well for the first time in his professional career, as he batted .300 with an impressive .430 on-base percentage—the result of him walking in nearly one-fifth of his plate appearances. The power was still non-existent, but nobody complains about a .300 hitting shortstop with speed and decent fielding ability.

For his efforts, the A’s promoted Cliff to the majors for the final month of the season. He was replacing the injured Mark Ellis at second and, true to his role, played at replacement level.

Will Cliff be a solid shortstop for years, or simply a stopgap? (Icon/SMI)

Pennington started 2009 at Triple-A knowing the A’s did not see him as their shortstop of the future. In the 2008 amateur draft they selected shortstops Jason Christian in the fifth round, high-schooler Nino Leyja in the 15th round, and gave 28th-round pick Dusty Coleman over-slot money. Plus, over the offseason the A’s opted to give Orlando Cabrera four million dollars to play short for them instead of Pennington.

Had he known the A’s would also go on to draft Grant Green, a shortstop, with the 13th overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft, he might have given up hope of ever starting in the major leagues again. But things were meant to be.

At the 2009 deadline, the A’s traded Orlando Cabrera to the Twins (for a shortstop prospect, of course) and called up Pennington. He was coming up after a sleep-inducing second run at Triple-A in which he batted .265/.345/.367. The 27 steals were there, but Cliff was looking like he was the next definition of replacement level.

Surprisingly, Pennington has played above replacement level in his 46 major league games this year—1.2 wins above to be more specific. He has batted .290 with seven steals and four home runs, which is a lot by his standards.

With his solid production, it is becoming more and more likely Pennington will enter the 2010 season as the A’s starting shortstop. It is nice to think that he could possibly maintain this level of production over a full season—which would equate to a .290 average, 14 home runs, and 24 steals—but that is unlikely.

More likely, based on his 1,562 minor league at-bats, is a .260-.270 average with four to eight homers and 20 steals. Also keep in mind batting late and in the A’s lineup will lead to few run and RBI opportunities.

Overall Pennington can be decent AL-only shortstop next year if drafted late, but should be looked as only a stopgap for one or two years before the A’s find somebody else to fill the role.

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