MESA, Arizona — When Cristian Pache started his second spring training with the Oakland A’s last month, his preseason duties seemed to expand far beyond just preparing for another season.
He’s not just positioning himself for what he hopes will be a 2023 season. His job – and a spot on the A’s Opening Day roster – is on the line.
Out of minor league options and looking to improve after a dismal 2022 season, 24-year-old Pache is struggling to maintain his role as Oakland’s top center fielder, a position he’s being challenged for by speedy rookie Esteury Ruiz. It’s an intriguing dilemma for the A’s and head coach Mark Kotsay, who must make a decision before the team starts the season at home.
But Pache’s play this spring reflects a strong sense of urgency as he is making a favorable case to retain his place in the A’s outfield. He’s batting . 355 in 31 at bats so far this spring.
“I’m seizing the opportunity,” Pache said through interpreter and former A’s catcher Ramón Hernández. “I will play well, play the best I can. I’m fine, I’m feeling great and I’m just trying to do the best I can with the opportunity.”
Coming into Friday, Pache was tied with infielder Kevin Smith for a team-leading 11 hits, making hard contact at a higher rate and producing the kind of results Kotsay believes he is capable of replicating in the regular season.
The key has been an improved offensive approach. Pache is putting the ball in play, producing runs, limiting hits and errors, and staying true to himself.
Pache’s impressive 26.9% K rate last season would have been 12th worst in the majors had he qualified. This spring, he was struck out just three times in 32 plate appearances (0.94% K rate).
“He made a conscious adjustment to improve plate discipline in the zone,” said Kotsay. “I think there is an approach to trying to get the ball in the air and not on the ground on the left side.
“Overall, same kid, same smile, same energy, same defensive skills.”
Another encouraging sign for the A’s was Pache’s consistency. He’s had at least one hit in seven of the 13 Cactus League games he’s played in and has three multiples. Pache went 3-for-5 against the Reds on March 5, before recording a two-hit performance against the Giants last Sunday that included an opposite-field RBI triple.
Those flashes at the plate for Pache were in short supply last season. 166 and posted an OPS mark of . 459 in 91 games for the A’s. He also spent 41 games at Triple-A Las Vegas after being kicked out in late June – he was recalled in August. While this never detracted from his elite defensive ability, Pache just wasn’t producing with the bat.
But Kotsay never lost faith in Pache.
“I think it’s just a matter of not seeing results,” Kotsay said of Pache’s performance last year. “That’s what this game at the major league level is all about. It’s about performance and it’s about results. I think [Pache] understands that, but I never lost confidence in the player.
“I know how tough the game is, playing for 17 years. I know there will be periods of time where you struggle and it will be difficult to make that adjustment.”
Pache was also quick to note that his confidence rarely wavered last season and that he didn’t let his poor showing break his positive mindset.
“It didn’t affect me,” Pache said. “I know I was struggling, but these are things that happen. I mean, you can’t stoop too low. I was trying to do my best and I wasn’t trying to think about it.
“I go on and on and I don’t think about the things that are happening because you’re going to get worse. All I could do was go out and try my best and you can control that.
In addition to his base surge, Pache played tightly defensively in center field while also receiving replays from the outside corner. He started in left field during the A’s 2-0 loss to the Royals on Thursday. Pache has also seen action on the right, a sign the A’s are looking to exercise their versatility in the outfield.
What role Pache’s optimism played in his performance is debatable. The results are undeniable.
“I have a strong mindset. If you have a weak mindset, it can eat you,” Pache said. “But no matter what I was going through, I’m a very strong mindset guy and that’s something I can control. That’s all I can control is myself and working and going out and trying to do my best.
Oakland still has several cuts to make before the season opener on March 30th. Pache is still trying to break away from Ruiz, who is also having a good spring. Your only other option is to be placed on waivers.
Pache understands the circumstances, but that doesn’t stop him from focusing on the one thing he can control this spring. Himself.
“I don’t think of it as a competition,” Pache said. “I just go out and compete with myself.”
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