Around the turn of the millennium or so, the sabermetric orthodoxy posited that any team could find a slugging first baseman. They grew on trees, and in one of those beautifully cohesive puzzle pieces of evolution, the trees were fertilized by tobacco spit. Anyone could have a slugger of their own if they were willing to pick one from the first-baseman tree. The A's, those sabermetric darlings, didn't need to mess around with that sort of stuff because they had Giambi. But the first basemen were out there.
The A's probably didn't really believe that simplistic theory. But they sure acted like it after Jason Giambi left. They started by making a first baseman out of a catcher, which somehow became a plot point in a highly successful Hollywood movie. And they kept cycling through internal and external options after Scott Hatteberg left, hoping to find the diamond in the rough.
They had hopes for Triple-A mashers Dan Johnson and Graham Koonce. They had bigger hopes for prospects Daric Barton and Sean Doolittle. In 2009, Jason Giambi got 269 at-bats for the Oakland Athletics, and he hit .193/.332/.364. I have no memory of this. I wasn't out of the country. I was following Major League Baseball and living about 25 miles from the Oakland Coliseum, but if you had asked me which team Jason Giambi played for in 2009, I would have answered the Hiroshima Carp before the Oakland A's.
And over the last couple of years, they've been frantically grabbing at the first basemen that other teams discarded, like Kila Ka'aihue and Brandon Allen. If there was a sequel to Moneyball, it would probably be an indie film in which Billy Beane follows Kyle Blanks around all creepy-like, waiting for him to get waived.
The long-term answer might be here at last for the A's. Chris Carter is having a whale of a season. He might be the guy who breaks the Curse of Giambi, in which "curse" is defined as "spell where the A's received surprising production from several different players who couldn't sustain any long-term success." Carter entering Thursday:
Carter came up from the minors on June 28 and hit a home run against Texas. He hit another one the next day. There are a lot of reasons for the Oakland resurgence. But consider that when Carter came up, the A's were 37-39 and five games behind the Orioles for the second Wild Card. Since then, the A's have the best record in the American League at 35-18, and they're now leading the Wild Card chase. Carter has been the first baseman they've been looking for since the baseball gods dropped a piano on Daric Barton's production.
There are caveats, of course. He's got only 157 at-bats. He probably isn't this good. His numbers in the majors are better than those he posted in 1,277 Triple-A plate appearances, which is a bit of a red flag. Another red flag: 1,277 Triple-A plate appearances. But Carter isn't just a brainless, two-tool masher. He has a scouting pedigree. Baseball America ranked him the #28 prospect in baseball before the 2010 season, writing …
Carter can hit balls out of any part of any ballpark, and he's strong enough to do so without having to sell out for power. He's willing to take walks when pitchers won't challenge him, and he did a better job of handling offspeed pitches in 2009.
He stalled after that, never doing poorly, but never forcing his way onto a roster. That's why the A's were messing around with players like Ka'aihue and Allen in the first place. It's why they were willing to consider Manny Ramirez as their DH, even though he was going to miss the first 50 games of the season.
In June, Carter forced his way onto the roster. Something clicked, apparently. He hit .338/.463/.494 in his final month at Triple-A, and his walk rate shot up while his strikeout rate went down. He hasn't stopped hitting since then.
Billy Beane used to call Erubiel Durazo his "white whale," and Beane eventually got his man. Whale. Whale-man. This time, the white whale wasn't a specific player, but a generic description. The A's have been rummaging through their farm and the farms of the other 29 teams, looking for a patient, slugging first baseman.
This time, they might have him.