MESA, Ariz. — When Cristian Pache entered his second spring training with the Oakland A’s last month, his preseason tasks appeared to expand far beyond just preparing for another season.
He isn’t just positioning himself for what he hopes to be a breakout 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 woeful 2022 season, the 24-year-old Pache is fighting to maintain his role as Oakland’s primary center fielder, a position for which he is being challenged by speedy newcomer Esteury Ruiz. It’s an intriguing quandary facing the A’s and manager Mark Kotsay, who have to make a decision before the team opens the season at home.
But Pache’s play this spring reflects a strong sense of urgency as he’s making a favorable case to hold onto his spot in the A’s outfield. He’s batting .355 through 31 at-bats so far this spring.
“I am getting the opportunity,” Pache said through interpreter and former A’s catcher Ramón Hernández.“I’m going out there to play good, play the best I can. I am good, I am feeling great and I’m just trying to do the best I can do 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’s 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 swings and misses and staying true to himself.
Pache’s whopping 26.9% K rate last season would have been 12th-worst in the majors had he been a qualifier. This spring, he has struck out just three times in 32 plate appearances (0.94% K rate).
“He’s made a cognizant adjustment to getting better in-zone plate discipline,” Kotsay said. “I think there’s 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 abilities in the outfield defensively.”
Another encouraging sign for the A’s has been Pache’s consistency. He has managed at least one hit in seven of the 13 Cactus League games he has played and has three multiple-hit games. Pache went 3-for-5 against the Reds on Mar. 5 before logging a two-hit performance against the Giants last Sunday that included an opposite-field RBI triple.
Those flashes at the plate for Pache were scarce last season. He hit .166 and posted an OPS mark of .459 in 91 games for the A’s. He also spent 41 games in Triple-A Las Vegas after being sent down at the end of June – he was recalled in August. Though it never hindered his elite defensive ability, Pache was simply not producing with the bat.
But Kotsay never lost faith in Pache.
“I think it’s just a matter of not seeing the results,” Kotsay said of Pache’s performance last year. “That’s what this game is about at the major-league level. It’s about performance and it’s about results. I think [Pache] understands that, but I’ve never lost confidence in the player.
“I know how hard the game is, playing it for 17 years. I know there’s going to be periods of time where you struggle and it’s hard to make that adjustment.”
Pache was also quick to note his confidence rarely wavered last season, and that he didn’t let his poor showing break his positive mentality.
“It didn’t affect me,” Pache said. “I know I was struggling but it’s stuff that happens. I mean, you can’t get down on yourself too much. I was trying to do my best and I wasn’t trying to think about it.
“I keep going and keep going and don’t think about the stuff that is happening because you’re going to get worse. All I could do was go out and try to perform my best and you can control that.”
In addition to his surge at the plate, Pache has played airtight defensively in center field, while also receiving corner outfield reps. He started in left field during the A’s 2-0 loss to the Royals on Thursday. Pache also has seen action in right, a sign that the A’s are trying to exercise his versatility in the outfield.
The role Pache’s optimism has played in his performance is debatable. The results are undeniable.
“I’ve got a strong mindset. If you’ve got a weak mindset, then that might eat you,” Pache said. “But no matter what I was going through, I’m a really strong mindset guy and that’s stuff I can control. That’s all that I can control is myself and work and go out and try to do my best.”
Oakland still has several cuts to make before the season opener on March 30. Pache is still trying to separate himself from Ruiz, who also is having a good spring. His only other option is being placed on waivers.
Pache understands the circumstances, but it isn’t deterring him from staying focused on the one thing he can control this spring. Himself.
“I don’t think about it as a competition,” Pache said. “I just go out and compete with myself.”