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Daric Barton Returns, Brandon Allen Free Again

Brandon Allen has been set free. With Daric Barton eligible to return from a stint on the disabled list, the Oakland Athletics designated Allen for assignment. The 26-year-old started two of the Athletics’ first four games but now finds himself on waivers — free to be claimed by any team. While Barton’s return likely meant that Allen would lose playing time, he is far from a franchise first baseman. And this may have been the wrong move for the rebuilding A’s.

Barton has been successful in the past, but the 26-year-old is far from ideal at first.  He has shown the ability to take walks at an elite level — and play terrific defense — but he provides virtually no power from a position that demands it. Last season, the average first baseman  posted a .439 slugging percentage — the lowest number at that position since Barton entered the league. Even in his best year, Barton’s slugging percentage was just .413. While Barton’s ability to take a walk is valuable, pitchers adjusted by pounding the strike-zone against him and were confident that he wouldn’t hit for enough power to hurt them. Outside of 2008 — when a ridiculous 12.1 UZR boosted his 5.1 WAR — Barton has barely rated as a passable first baseman.

The problem is that Oakland’s current first basemen are a bit of a motley crew. The team already had Barton, Allen and Chris Carter last season; but the team chose to sign on-base machine Kila Ka’aihue during the off-season. Carter and Ka’aihue both posted strong numbers throughout their minor league careers, but they never got regular playing time with their former teams. While Carter might have been seen as a first baseman of the future, his stats are very similar to Allen’s. Due to the glut of castoffs and similarly skilled players at the same position, the A’s released Allen knowing they could get similar production out of the others.

Allen was projected to be the worst hitter among the A’s first base options, according to ZiPS.

Players AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Daric Barton 0.241 0.351 0.359 0.319
Brandon Allen 0.212 0.310 0.375 0.304
Chris Carter 0.268 0.312 0.416 0.311
Kila Ka’aihue 0.226 0.329 0.373 0.311
2011 First Basemen 0.263 0.338 0.439 0.337

As you can see, ZiPS projected every Oakland first baseman as a below-average option. While Allen and Carter look like similar players on paper, ZiPS gives Carter a much better projection. Seeing how Allen had the lowest projection among the group, it’s hard to be upset at the A’s decision to let him go.

The main question here is whether Barton should be starting. Barton’s .319 wOBA is the best among the remaining three A’s first basemen — and nearly all of the value comes from his ability to get on base. While Carter and Ka’aihue project slightly worse, their .311 wOBAs really aren’t far behind.

What sets Barton apart is his defense. He’s already projected to be the most valuable offensive first baseman on the team, but he’s also regarded as one of the better defensive first basemen in the majors. Ka’aihue and Carter would certainly provide more power, but neither carry strong defensive reputations.

While none of them seems like the answer at first base, neither Ka’aihue nor Carter has received enough playing time in the majors to write them off. Barton might be a useful player, but he shouldn’t be starting on a contending team. And by the time the A’s are ready to contend, Barton isn’t likely to be on this team.

At the same time, Barton has the best track record of the bunch. While he isn’t fully recovered from an off-season shoulder injury, Barton could be a useful trade chip if he can rebound to his previous offensive production. If the A’s moved Barton at the deadline — or he struggles with his recovery — they’ll see if their other options have a future with the club. If Barton struggles — and the A’s can’t find a takers at the deadlin —, they would still be better off playing Ki’aihue or Carter in the second half. Playing Barton right now seems to be the smartest option, but if he’s still on the team in August, Oakland needs to find another option.