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The 2018 season was a resounding success for the Athletics, who entered the campaign as underdogs but ended it as one of the majors’ premier teams. Despite opening the season with baseball’s lowest payroll, the Athletics notched the sport’s fourth-most wins (97) and earned their first playoff berth since 2014. The postseason was a one-off for the Athletics, whom the Yankees bounced in the American League wild-card game, but it’s obvious the franchise came a long way this past year. Now, with the A’s looking to build an even better club for 2019, they’re set to increase payroll, as just-extended executive vice president Billy Beane announced this week. Of course, with the A’s still at least a few years away from potentially opening a new ballpark in Oakland, it may be unrealistic to expect their payroll to make a substantial near-term jump.
- Stephen Piscotty, OF: $29.5MM through 2022 (includes buyout of 2023 club option)
- Yusmeiro Petit, RP: $6.5MM through 2019 (includes buyout of 2020 club option)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Khris Davis – $18.1MM
- Mike Fiers – $9.7MM
- Marcus Semien – $6.6MM
- Blake Treinen – $5.8MM
- Sean Manaea – $3.8MM
- Kendall Graveman – $2.5MM
- Cory Gearrin – $2.4MM
- Liam Hendriks – $2.1MM
- Mark Canha – $2.1MM
- Chris Bassitt – $1.6MM
- Ryan Buchter – $1.3MM
- Josh Phegley – $1.2MM
- Ryan Dull – $900K
- Non-tender candidates: Graveman, Gearrin, Hendriks, Phegley, Dull
- Jonathan Lucroy, Jed Lowrie, Matt Joyce, Trevor Cahill, Jeurys Familia, Shawn Kelley, Brett Anderson, Edwin Jackson
Here’s a statement which would have seemed believable in, say, 2010 instead of 2018: A team which saw Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Edwin Jackson total at least 17 starts apiece made the playoffs. Amazingly, Oakland accomplished that this past season after grabbing Cahill, Anderson and Jackson off the scrapheap. All three of those pitchers’ halcyon days were supposedly long gone, but each paid dividends for an A’s team whose starting staff dealt with a horrific rash of injuries, including to No. 1 option Sean Manaea and promising youngsters A.J. Puk and Jharel Cotton, among many others. Manaea easily led the A’s in innings (160 2/3) and ERA (3.59), but his season ended Aug. 24 because of a shoulder injury/surgery that could keep him out for all of 2019. Meanwhile, both Puk and Cotton missed the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and they’re also likely to sit out some portion of next year.
Because of the injuries to Manaea, Puk and Cotton, not to mention the fact that Cahill, Anderson and Jackson are now free agents, questions abound in the A’s rotation. Unsurprisingly, it’s a major area of concern for Beane, who said this week that he and general manager David Forst – who, along with manager Bob Melvin, also just received an extension – want to “create a starting pitching group that Bob can rely on every day.”
Piecing together a reliable starting group was an extremely difficult task for the A’s in 2018, which led them to deploy the “opener” on several occasions, including in their playoff loss to the Yankees. Veteran reliever Liam Hendriks was the main pick in such situations, totaling eight “starts” in September. With the exception of a subpar playoff showing, Hendriks pitched brilliantly in those short outings, thereby salvaging his season just a couple months after the A’s cut him from their 40-man roster. The 29-year-old is now among the A’s arbitration-eligible players, and it’s unclear whether they’ll retain him or how they’ll utilize Hendriks if they keep him. Whether it’s Hendriks or another pitcher(s), Oakland could take a page out of the 2018 Rays’ playbook and use an opener on a regular basis for the majority of the season, which would slightly lessen the need to acquire traditional starting pitchers over the winter.
Of course, even if the A’s do continue rolling with that unorthodox strategy next season, they’d still need more help. After all, the unspectacular Mike Fiers – acquired from Detroit in August – looks like the most proven healthy starter they have. The 33-year-old did good work during his two-month stint in Oakland in 2018, but he’s more of a mid- to back-end arm than a front-line type. Fiers also won’t be cheap in 2019, but given the uncertainty throughout the A’s rotation, he seems more likely than not to stick with the club.
Beyond Fiers, Oakland’s top healthy options look to be Daniel Mengden, Frankie Montas and Chris Bassitt. All three were reasonably effective last season, but each carry limited track records in the majors. Lefty Jesus Luzardo has never appeared in the bigs, on the other hand, but the 21-year-old is one of Oakland’s best hopes to find an ace from within. While Luzardo has only combined for 94 2/3 innings above the Single-A level, he’s regarded as a stud prospect, and Forst recently suggested he could vie for a starting spot with the A’s as soon as spring training.
No matter what happens with Luzardo in camp, it’s clear the A’s will have to augment their rotation from the outside prior to then. The question is whether they have the financial flexibility to make headline-grabbing moves. Including arbitration projections, the A’s are already looking at an Opening Day payroll of more than $86MM, Jason Martinez of MLBTR and Roster Resource estimates. They began last season just under $66MM, and they’ve only gone past $86MM once (in 2016). The A’s could create spending room by non-tendering some players and perhaps extending expensive designated hitter Khris Davis in order to lower his 2019 salary. However, even if those scenarios come to fruition, it’s tough to envision them being in position to splurge on anyone.
The good news is that Beane and Forst proved they could bargain hunt on the starting pitching market recently with the additions of Cahill, Anderson and Jackson (plus Rich Hill in 2016). And looking at this year’s class of free-agent starters, there’s no shortage of available veterans who a.) have been successful and b.) won’t break the bank. A few of the many names include CC Sabathia (a Bay Area native), Lance Lynn, Derek Holland (Bay Area ties from spending 2018 with the Giants), Ervin Santana, Clay Buchholz and former Athletics Gio Gonzalez, Drew Pomeranz and Tyson Ross. On paper, nobody from that group is all that exciting, but they could be effective, affordable options for Oakland to pursue in free agency. Alternatively, the A’s may seek higher-upside types via trade.
Even though he bombed as a member of the Yankees, who acquired him from the Athletics in July 2017, a reunion with Sonny Gray could make sense. The Yankees are all but guaranteed to sell low on the soon-to-be 29-year-old Gray, who pitched well outside of New York in 2018 and who’s projected to earn $9.1MM next season. If the A’s want to go bigger than Gray, perhaps they’ll make a push for a member of the Indians’ stellar trio of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer. Cleveland will reportedly listen to offers for each of those hurlers, but because all three are fantastic and relatively inexpensive, the Tribe would demand bounties for any of them. With that in mind, it’s worth noting the A’s farm system sits a middle-of-the-pack 15th in Baseball America’s latest rankings. They probably wouldn’t be in the catbird seat with regard to acquiring any of the Indians’ aces, then.
There are fewer pressing issues elsewhere on the A’s roster, but they aren’t devoid of concerns. While most of the A’s terrific, Blake Treinen-led bullpen remains intact, they could lose two important pieces from it in Jeurys Familia and Shawn Kelley, who are now free agents. Meantime, on the position player side, their biggest questions are at catcher and second base, where their 2018 starters are also free agents.
At the keystone, Jed Lowrie has been an extension target for the A’s since at least the summer. Oakland wasn’t able to lock the 34-year-old up before the market opened, but it still seems to want him back. Considering Lowrie was among the majors’ most valuable second basemen from 2017-18, that’s not surprising. But the A’s will have to consider his age and injury history, not to mention the presence of intriguing youngster Franklin Barreto, when determining how much they’re willing to pay Lowrie. In the event Lowrie walks, Oakland could simply turn second over to the soon-to-be 23-year-old Barreto – who, despite posting palatable production in the majors and minors, struck out and walked at untenable rates from 2017-18 – or add one of the many veteran stopgaps available in free agency as a fallback.
The A’s took the veteran stopgap route behind the plate an offseason ago, signing Jonathan Lucroy to a one-year, $6.5MM deal. Lucroy’s a free agent again as a result, and it’s possible the A’s will bring him back on another short-term agreement. Lucroy, 32, is nowhere near the player he used to be, though he seemed to fit in nicely with the Athletics in 2018. Aside from Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Ramos, each of whom should be out of the A’s price range, free agency’s lacking in game-changing backstops. That could lead the A’s to at least kick the tires on baseball’s best catcher from 2018, J.T. Realmuto, whom the Marlins figure to trade this winter. However, as is the case with the aforementioned Indians starters, acquiring Realmuto would mean surrendering a haul. As such, the A’s may be more inclined to go with a Lucroy type and continue waiting for 24-year-old catching prospect Sean Murphy, who could arrive in the majors sometime next season.
While catcher and second base are clearly the A’s biggest problem areas among their position players, there’s an argument that they should also add to their outfield. However, they’re already crowded out there, and most of the returnees acquitted themselves well in 2018.
The A’s most established outfielder is right fielder Stephen Piscotty, one of their shrewdest acquisitions from last winter. Center fielder Ramon Laureano was also an impact pickup from an offseason ago, but his addition came with much less fanfare than Piscotty’s. Laureano joined the A’s via waivers from the division-rival Astros in November, and he surprisingly went on to emerge as a standout during a 176-plate appearance campaign. Along with playing tremendous defense, the righty-swinger held his own against same-handed pitchers and lefties alike, creating hope that he can be an everyday starter for the long haul. The unheralded trio of Mark Canha, Chad Pinder and Nick Martini also proved to be tough outs, and the A’s may be confident they’ll deftly hold down left field in 2019. There’s also Dustin Fowler, whom the A’s acquired in the Gray deal. Fowler, 23, had a difficult rookie year, though in fairness, it was his first action since he suffered a brutal knee injury while with the Yankees in 2017.
Evidenced in part by their outfield, there should once again be plenty to like about the A’s cast of position players in 2019. Superstar third baseman Matt Chapman – whom the A’s may try to extend – will continue to be their franchise player, while Davis, first baseman Matt Olson, shortstop Marcus Semien and at least a couple outfielders represent quality complements who remain on hand. The bullpen also continues to look formidable, leaving the A’s shaky starting rotation as their most significant issue this offseason. Between the unit’s injuries, its potential free-agent departures and the A’s payroll constraints, Beane and Forst have serious work ahead to turn the staff into a strength prior to next season. If they’re able to achieve that feat, it would go a long way toward helping the A’s stay among baseball’s elite in 2019.