After spending much of the season in first place and making the biggest splash of any team in July trades, the A’s scuffled with an ailing offense and were eliminated by the Royals in a one-game Wild Card playoff. They’ll have to deal with a number of escalating contracts as they look to retool and return to the postseason for a fourth consecutive year in 2015.
- Coco Crisp, OF: $22.75MM through 2016 (including buyout of 2017 option)
- Scott Kazmir, LHP: $13MM through 2015
- Sean Doolittle, LHP: $9.75MM through 2018 (including buyout of 2019 option)
- Eric O’Flaherty, LHP: $5.5MM through 2015
- Nick Punto, SS/2B/3B: $2.75MM through 2015
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- John Jaso, C/DH (5.032): $3.3MM projected salary
- Jeff Samardzija, RHP (5.028): $9.5MM
- Kyle Blanks, 1B/DH (5.005): $1.3MM
- Brandon Moss, 1B/OF (4.160): $7.1MM
- Sam Fuld, OF (4.140): $1.6MM
- Jesse Chavez, RHP (4.108): $2.5MM
- Craig Gentry, OF (4.084): $1.5MM
- Josh Reddick, OF (4.050): $3.7MM
- Fernando Abad, LHP (3.073): $900K
- Eric Sogard, 2B (3.064): $1MM
- Fernando Rodriguez, RHP (3.051): $900K
- Ryan Cook, RHP (3.036): $1.3MM
- Jarrod Parker, RHP (3.000): $900K
- Josh Donaldson, 3B (2.158): $4.5MM
- Non-tender candidate: Rodriguez
The Athletics suffered a surprising postseason exit in the Wild Card round after aggressively adding Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and, to a lesser extent, Sam Fuld in July trades. While the narrative that the absence of Yoenis Cespedes derailed the offense was powerful, there’s little to actually support that thinking. Cespedes’ offense actually declined upon his move to the more hitter-friendly AL East. Meanwhile, Brandon Moss was dealing with a hip injury that required offseason surgery, Coco Crisp was playing through neck injuries, John Jaso was out with a concussion and the previously hot-hitting Stephen Vogt quite literally limped to the finish on a bad ankle. Josh Donaldson’s bat went cold in September as well, though it’d be a stretch (to say the least) to pin that on the absence of Cespedes.
All of this is meant to say that while the offense should probably be addressed this offseason, it isn’t for the reasons that many would initially believe. A healthy Moss at first base will go a long ways toward reviving the offense, and Blanks provides an affordable and able platoon partner, assuming his own health rebounds. Donaldson provides a potential 30-homer bat at the hot corner. In center field, Crisp will reprise his role, and Reddick seems likely to again man right field following a strong finish (he hit .299/.337/.533 in 200 PA following a return from the disabled list). The A’s can deploy a defensively gifted platoon of Craig Gentry and Sam Fuld in left field should they wish, and some combination of Derek Norris, Jaso and Vogt will be entrusted with catching duties.
The obvious hole for the A’s is in the middle infield. Top prospect Addison Russell is no longer a consideration after heading to the Cubs in the Samardzija/Hammel deal. Jed Lowrie is hitting the open market, and the team never had a reliable offensive option at second base in 2014. A reunion with Lowrie (at either position) is certainly a possibility, and other options include Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Drew and Emilio Bonifacio. GM Billy Beane may need to get creative, as top shortstop prospect Daniel Robertson has yet to play at Double-A (though he was excellent at Class-A Advanced in 2014). One option on the trade market could be Luis Valbuena, who drew interest from Oakland at the trade deadline.
Alternatively, the A’s could look to the international market and pursue Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang or one of two Cuban second basemen who will soon hit the market: Jose Fernandez and Hector Olivera. However, Kang’s 38 homers aren’t seen as likely to translate to the Majors, and one scouting director to whom MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes spoke made the unfavorable comparison of Kang to Hiroyuki Nakajima. The A’s know all too well that gaudy stats from overseas often don’t translate, as they’ve received no return on the two-year deal they gave Nakajima. And, Nakajima posted those stats in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, which is commonly regarded as a more advanced league than the Korea Baseball Organization. Fernandez and Olivera may come with more upside, but neither is technically a free agent yet, and there’s no telling exactly when they will be cleared by the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control and Major League Baseball. So while either Cuban second baseman would make sense, the A’s would probably need to at least solidify shortstop (a one-year deal for Drew, perhaps?) if it’s decided that Fernandez or Olivera is the answer at second.
One possibility that has been bandied about is a trade of Donaldson, though when asked about it, one Oakland official gave Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle a very frank reply: “That would be stupid.” Nonetheless, Donaldson projects to earn $4.5MM and will hit arbitration three more times as a Super Two player, making him an increasingly expensive option for the A’s. I’m of the mind that the A’s are not yet under pressure to move Donaldson. I can’t see the team parting with him for anything short of a massive return that would yield immediate help for the middle infield and possibly a cheaper alternative at third base. (One possibility I’ve envisioned would be a trade sending Mookie Betts and Will Middlebrooks, among others, to Oakland. That, however, is pure speculation, and the Red Sox are said to be loath to trade the highly touted Betts in any deal.) Suffice it to say, while a Donaldson trade is a possibility, it also strikes me as unlikely.
The D’Backs present a plausible trade partner, with three young shortstops all more or less ready to contribute in the Majors (Didi Gregorius, Chris Owings and Nick Ahmed), and the Cubs of course have a bevy of middle infielders as well, including Javier Baez, Starlin Castro and Arismendy Alcantara. It’s unlikely, of course, that the Cubs would consider parting with Russell in any trade to send him back to Oakland. Beane could also rekindle talks for Yunel Escobar. Whatever route he takes, the lack of anything resembling a league-average bat to place at second or shortstop is a clear obstacle for the A’s.
Turning to the rotation, however, things don’t look too bleak. The A’s will be getting both Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin back at some point during the 2015 season, and in the meantime they’re hardly wanting for arms. Samardzija, Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray, Drew Pomeranz and Jesse Chavez can all open the season in the rotation, with Chavez perhaps eventually returning to a bullpen role as he did in 2014. Each of those pitchers turned in an ERA of 3.55 or better as a starter.
The A’s will likely add a depth piece or two, perhaps on minor league deals, as Parker and Griffin can’t be counted on immediately next season. We also probably shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the A’s add a mid-range free agent despite already having a seemingly solid crop of in-house arms from which to draw. They were in a similar situation last offseason but signed Kazmir anyway, and they added Lester, Samardzija and Hammel in July despite a respectable group of starters. Justin Masterson would present a nice buy-low option, while Francisco Liriano and Brandon McCarthy present attractive mid-range possibilities.
Adding a starter would allow the team to shift Chavez or Pomeranz to the bullpen, which is indeed an area that may need some addressing. Gregerson will hit the open market and could land as much as $20MM in Dierkes’ estimation (I’m inclined to agree), leaving a fairly significant hole. Sean Doolittle will return for a second season as closer and be joined by Eric O’Flaherty, Dan Otero, Ryan Cook and Fernando Abad in the ’pen. Rodriguez will be 31 next June and has yet to establish himself in the bigs, making him a non-tender candidate. Evan Scribner has been outstanding at Triple-A for the past three seasons and could get a longer look, though he’s yet to be a major factor in their plans. He’ll be out of options, which could help him get a look. Even if that’s the case, Oakland still seems to need at least one additional relief arm. Jason Grilli, Joba Chamberlain, Jason Frasor, Luke Hochevar and Jason Motte all strike me as possibilities for Oakland.
Whatever additions the A’s make could have to be creative, as the team currently projects to have a payroll of just under $77MM between its guaranteed contracts, arb-eligibles and league-minimum players needed to round out the roster (assuming a non-tender of Rodriguez). Last year’s Opening Day mark of roughly $83MM was a franchise record, and while it’s possible that Beane and assistant GMs David Forst and Farhan Zaidi will have more money to work with, a significant hike doesn’t sound expected.
It’s that thinking that has likely led to speculation on a trade of Donaldson, but I personally wonder if they’ll be more open to moving a different pair of more expensive players: Samardzija and Kazmir. With Samardzija set to earn nearly $10MM and Kazmir locked in at $13MM, the A’s could theoretically make either available and replace him either via free agency or by acquiring a younger, less expensive arm in that trade. Samardzija will likely seek $100MM+ on the open market following the 2015 season, pricing him out of Oakland’s range (though they will make him a qualifying offer if he remains with the team at that point). Kazmir is more expensive and comes with a troubling injury history. That might make him more difficult to trade, but teams with larger payrolls likely won’t have major trepidation about committing that type of money to a pitcher with a 3.77 ERA and even more encouraging peripheral stats in 348 1/3 innings since returning to the Majors in 2013. He’d be an attractive option for a team looking to bolster its rotation on a short-term commitment rather than committing to a similarly risky starter on a multi-year deal.
The A’s have a number of excellent pieces in place, but some of those pieces are becoming more expensive, which limits Beane’s freedom in crafting next year’s roster. As such, I do expect some pricier veterans to be shopped this winter, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a play for an international free agent with a more backloaded contract that becomes more expensive in 2016 once Samardzija, Kazmir, O’Flaherty and possibly Jaso are all off the books.
Oakland faces an increasingly difficult division, with the resurgent Angels, the improving Mariners and a presumably healthier Rangers club all looking like serious competition in 2015 (to say nothing of an Astros club that did make a 19-win improvement in 2014). Next season could be the final shot for this core group to make a deep postseason run before we see another of the significant roster overhauls we’ve come to expect from the Athletics.