After an ugly 2015 season, the Athletics have plenty of flexibility, but also face plenty of uncertainty.
- Billy Butler, DH: $20MM through 2017
- Coco Crisp, OF: $11.75MM through 2016 (plus 2017 club/vesting option)
- Sean Doolittle, P: $9MM through 2018 (plus 2019 and 2020 club options)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections by MLB Trade Rumors)
- Ike Davis (5.155) – $3.8MM
- Sam Fuld (5.140) – $2.0MM
- Jesse Chavez (5.108) – $4.7MM
- Josh Reddick (5.050) – $7.0MM
- Craig Gentry (4.125) – $1.6MM
- Danny Valencia (4.118) – $3.4MM
- Fernando Abad (4.073) – $1.5MM
- Eric Sogard (4.064) – $1.7MM
- Brett Lawrie (4.055) – $3.9MM
- Felix Doubront (4.041) – $2.5MM
- Fernando Rodriguez (4.032) – $1.3MM
- Jarrod Parker (4.000) – $850K
- Drew Pomeranz (3.013) – $1.3MM
- A.J. Griffin (3.000) – $508K
- Evan Scribner (2.142) – $700K
- Non-tender candidates: Davis, Fuld, Gentry, Abad, Sogard, Doubront
After a season in which almost nothing went right, the Athletics will attempt to get back on track in 2016. How their ever-creative front office will accomplish that, though, is anyone’s guess. Now that they’ve lost a number of high-profile players (Josh Donaldson, Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, Scott Kazmir, Brandon Moss, Derek Norris, Jed Lowrie, Jason Hammel, Luke Gregerson) from their 2014 playoff run and still others (Ben Zobrist, Tyler Clippard) once their 2015 season fell apart, it seems wise to begin with an assessment of what, exactly, they still have.
Ace Sonny Gray still has a year remaining before he’s eligible for arbitration, and he looks like one of the game’s most potent young starters after a terrific 2015. The team also has several other starting pitchers (Jesse Chavez, Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt) who helped to one degree or another. Offensively, the A’s have a few young veterans who had decent seasons (like Josh Reddick, Stephen Vogt and Danny Valencia, with Billy Beane’s August claim of Valencia looking like a big win so far), and the team was also able to find playing time last year for a number of relative youngsters (Billy Burns, Marcus Semien, Josh Phegley, Mark Canha) who held their own and look like cheap future role players. The A’s lost 94 games last season, so it’s no surprise that they don’t exactly appear to be loaded with talent.
Of course, Donaldson, for example, once looked like little more than a cheap future role player too, and plenty of analysts have underestimated Oakland rosters barely flashier than the one the A’s have now. The 2015 A’s were also the victims of poor luck — they weren’t a good team, but they scored only 35 fewer runs than they allowed and might well have ended up with far more than 68 wins.
Still, this offseason is going to be a tough one for Beane and new GM David Forst. A series of questionable trades have left the Athletics with a limited talent base. In particular, their decision to deal Donaldson to the Blue Jays makes even less sense now than it did when it was consummated — the Athletics traded an MVP-type player with four years of control remaining and received only one good prospect (Franklin Barreto) plus a disappointing infielder (Brett Lawrie) and a couple low-wattage arms.
That the trade was a disaster for the Athletics is well known at this point, but I mention it here because it’s part of a pattern. Small-payroll teams need inexpensive stars like Donaldson. Other than Gray, the Athletics really don’t have any, and they don’t appear to have many players who have that potential, either. When they traded for Samardzija, they gave up Addison Russell, who already seems to be blossoming in Chicago. Then, when they dealt Samardzija themselves, they got Bassitt, Semien and Phegley, who look like good, helpful players, but not future stars. Their trade of Samardzija was, in isolation, a decent one, and it looks better after Samardzija had a subpar season in 2015, but the net result of the two deals is that it appears the A’s gave up an impact talent and didn’t receive one in return.
So now that potentially game-changing players like Donaldson and Russell are gone, how do the A’s build something new in their absence? For a 68-win team, the Athletics certainly have their fair share of decent players, and it’s easy to see any one of at least a dozen of them becoming useful contributors on a top-quality team. What they don’t seem to have is enough elite players to rally around, and it’s not clear where they’ll get them.
Many 68-win teams can upgrade simply by identifying positions where they have massive deficiencies and addressing those, but the A’s actually have fewer gaping holes than most. One priority, though, could be adding another corner outfielder or first baseman. Canha profiles decently as a semi-regular either in left field or at first base, and Vogt figures to pick up at bats at first base when he’s not catching, but the Athletics can use a bit of help. They’re unlikely to be top players for free agents, but they could find a lefty outfielder to upgrade on Sam Fuld — someone like Gerardo Parra or David Murphy might make sense, particularly with Jake Smolinski available to bat against lefties. Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter who’s under contract for next season, might be able to help in that regard, although he’ll play next season at age 36 and suffered through a miserable 2015 due to a lingering neck injury.
Beyond first base, the Athletics appear fairly set in the infield. With Lawrie and Valencia in the fold, the A’s can give Semien another shot at shortstop, although Beane seems open to using him at other positions at some point in the future. The A’s could add an infield backup via free agency, though, particularly if they decide to non-tender Eric Sogard.
The Athletics could also use an upgrade at DH; the three-year deal to which they signed Billy Butler was perplexing at the time, and it doesn’t make any more sense now. It seems more likely, though, that they’ll hope Butler improves in 2016, since he’ll still be just 30, and they owe him an additional $20MM. A trade involving another bad contract also might be a possibility.
Then there’s the rotation. Gray ought to be back, along with Chavez, Bassitt and Hahn, health permitting. Jarrod Parker, who hasn’t thrown a pitch in the big leagues since 2013, was back to throwing at the end of the season after spending most of it recovering from an elbow fracture. The 26-year-old Parker got off to a great start to his big-league career in 2012 and 2013, but there’s no telling what the Athletics can expect from him, if anything, after multiple arm injuries and two full years on the shelf. Another talented young starter, A.J. Griffin, is in a similar boat — he was making his way back from Tommy John surgery last June when he got shut down again, this time with a shoulder problem. Now he hasn’t appeared in the big leagues in two full years, either.
Beyond that, the Athletics’ best options right now are back-of-the-rotation types like Kendall Graveman, Aaron Brooks and Sean Nolin, plus Drew Pomeranz, who could conceivably move to starting full-time. (Sean Manaea, who they acquired in the Zobrist trade, could be in the rotation picture by midseason.) It’s safe to say, then, that they could add another starter this offseason without causing a logjam.
Given the Athletics’ extremely limited future commitments, they could easily sign a free agent starter, although it’s doubtful they would want to be on the hook for a contract that would still be on the books, say, three years from now. A creative short-term addition like Doug Fister, Mat Latos, Rich Hill, or old friends Trevor Cahill or Bartolo Colon might make sense.
Then again, all this speculation assumes the A’s will look to stay competitive next year without sacrificing their ability to compete in the future, but Beane often forgoes the obvious path. One off-the-grid possibility might be spending heavily on righty relievers in an attempt to improve by building a good bullpen around Sean Doolittle, Fernando Rodriguez and Pomeranz. Relievers would require shorter-term commitments than starters or position players, allowing the A’s to spend a bit while still keeping their payroll relatively clear in 2018 or 2019, when they might have a better core than they do now.
Beane has also alluded to the possibility that the team could extend Reddick, who is eligible for free agency following the 2016 season. Reddick was already a very good all-around player before cutting his strikeout rate in half over the past three seasons. The change came at the expense of some of his home-run power, but his newfound strike-zone judgment increases the possibility that he’ll continue to be productive in the near future, particularly since he’s still just 28.
Other than that, who knows? The only constant with the Athletics is change. Would it really be a shock if, after previously emerging as the high bidder for top international talents like Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Ynoa, the Athletics suddenly entered the bidding for Korean first baseman Byung-Ho Park? Would it be impossible for Beane to sense an inefficiency in the market and pounce on, say, a three-year deal for a bigger-name player at an unexpected position, given that most of the team’s current options are passable but unspectacular? Would it be a surprise if, after previously trading their top prospect (Daniel Robertson) for Ben Zobrist in an offseason in which they looked to be re-tooling, they dealt someone like Barreto for a big win-now upgrade? After emphatically denying he would trade Gray, would it be out of the question for Beane to deal him anyway, a year after an anonymous A’s official emphatically denied that the team would trade Donaldson? Could the A’s trade Vogt, say, or Chavez, or even Reddick? With Beane and Forst, there’s no telling.