The Oakland A's announced on Wednesday that they signed infielder Nick Punto to a major league free agent deal. The contract is reportedly worth $2.75 million for 2014 and includes an option that can vest or become a club option (depending on a variety of factors) for 2015. Punto spent the 2013 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, appearing in 116 games for the NL West champions.
Punto, 36, made his major league debut in 2001 with the Philadelphia Phillies, but he made his mark with the Minnesota Twins. In 2006 and 2007, Punto was a regular for the Twins, appearing in 135 games and 150 games, respectively. Punto was with the Twins from 2004-2010 before signing a free agent deal with the St. Louis Cardinals for the 2011 season. A sports hernia limited Punto early in the 2011 season, but he appeared in 63 regular season games and 15 post-season games for the eventual World Series champions.
That off-season, Punto signed a two-year deal with the Boston Red Sox, but he struggled with Boston and was shipped to the Los Angeles Dodgers mid-season in the blockbuster deal that sent Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez to LA. This year, Punto was a heavily utilized back-up in LA for starters Juan Uribe, Mark Ellis and Hanley Ramirez, appearing in more than 100 games for the first time since 2009.
Like so many of the A's most recent acquisitions, Punto brings value to the roster because of his ability to play multiple defensive positions. Punto has appeared in more than 300 major league games as a third baseman, a shortstop and a second baseman. He also has limited experience in the outfield. Punto is an above-average defensive player at all three infield positions, and he could help the A's improve their middle-infield defense, an area in which they struggled in 2013.
Punto isn't a big threat on offense. He is a career .248 hitter with a 680 OPS. However, the switch-hitter is a career .263 hitter against left-handed pitching and he hit .309 with a 723 OPS against lefties in 2013.
Punto joins what was already a crowded infield picture for the A's heading into 2014. While Josh Donaldson and Jed Lowrie are likely to be the A's starters at third and short next year (barring a trade), the A's will have plenty of competition at second base and for the back-up infielder role with Eric Sogard, Alberto Callaspo, Jemile Weeks, Scott Sizemore and Andy Parrino joining Punto on the 40-man roster. Hiroyuki Nakajima, a free agent signing last year, isn't on the 40-man roster, but he could receive a non-roster invitation to spring training.
The addition of Punto this early in the off-season gives the A's plenty of flexibility as they look to make moves to improve on their 96-win club. Oakland could make a splash by trading Lowrie for a haul, but they are much more likely to deal Callaspo, given that Callaspo and Punto bring similar skills to the table. Callaspo is a better hitter than Punto, but Callaspo can't play shortstop and was a defensive liability at second and third. Both are switch-hitters.
The A's could also move Sogard, but chances are that Oakland places a higher value on the slick-fielding second baseman than other teams do, which would make it hard to get fair value for Sogard on the trade market. Where Sizemore, Weeks, Parrino and Nakajima fit into the bigger picture remains to be seen.
What is clear is that the A's continue to value versatility when targeting new acquisitions. Punto's abilities to play multiple positions and switch-hit mirror the characteristics that drew the A's to Lowrie and Callaspo. Depth at multiple positions has helped the A's withstand a variety of injuries and under-performances the past two seasons and is likely to play heavily in their thinking when they make additional acquisitions. Something to keep in mind as the A's continue their roster construction heading into 2014.