Were they not in the AL West, the Athletics might have a division title under their belt in the past couple of seasons. Unfortunately for Oakland, they’ve played second fiddle to a powerhouse Astros club despite a pair of 97-win seasons and now must look for an avenue to either topple the ’Stros or finally punch through the Wild Card barrier.
That’s easier said than done, of course, and general manager David Forst chatted with John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle about this week’s GM Meetings and the work his club has to do to improve. Specifically, the Athletics would like to balance out their lineup a bit this winter. “It’s something we’ve discussed a lot internally, looking for opportunities to add left-handed bats to the lineup,” said Forst, who also listed the bullpen as a potential area for supplementation.
A certain old friend could even be a potential target, Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reports. The A’s have reached out to the representatives for free agent catcher Stephen Vogt, creating an opening for an intriguing potential reunion that didn’t seem terribly likely when the sides parted ways. The left-handed-hitting backstop could help with the aforementioned desire for lineup balance while also serving as a reserve behind the dish.
At present, the Athletics are heavily reliant on right-handed bats. Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien, Khris Davis, Ramon Laureano, Stephen Piscotty, Mark Canha and on-the-rise catcher Sean Murphy all hit from the right side of the dish. Oakland does have one potent lefty bat in first baseman Matt Olson, while switch-hitters Robbie Grossman and Jurickson Profar at least offered manager Bob Melvin some options from the left side of the plate. But the 2019 A’s were a powerhouse against left-handed pitching, ranking fourth in the Majors with a 115 wRC+ in that regard, while they posted a more measured (but still above-average) 104 wRC+ against right-handed opposition.
Both marks are reflective of a quality offensive unit, but there is indeed an opportunity to add some more balance — particularly with MLB rosters set to expand from 25 players to 26 players in 2020. The presence of that robust core — Olson, Chapman, Semien, Davis, Murphy, Laureano — doesn’t leave the A’s with too many clear spots for upgrade, but further comments from Forst lend some insight. The GM suggested that left field, where Grossman and Chad Pinder formed a capable platoon, isn’t “at the top of the priority list” at the moment.
As MLBTR’s Connor Byrne explored late last month in the Athletics’ Offseason Outlook, adding a left-handed bat at second base and/or in the outfield could be in the cards. Incumbent options include the aforementioned Pinder (who can play both positions), Profar (second base) and Piscotty (right field). Younger players like Franklin Barreto and Jorge Mateo have also yet to get a real look at second base and, as Shea observes, will both be out of minor league options in 2020.
Pinder is best suited for a bench role and saw even his numbers against lefties back up in 2019. Defensive questions swirled around Profar, who had a poor year at the plate outside of a blistering month of August. Piscotty is still owed $22.5MM over the next three seasons combined, which the A’s may deem too steep after his bat took a couple steps back in 2019 (.249/.309/.412).
The free-agent market offers some intriguing alternatives — Kole Calhoun or old friends Ben Zobrist and Eric Sogard could all conceivably fit the mold of what the organization is seeking. The relief market features numerous affordable arms — Sergio Romo, Pedro Strop, Craig Stammen and David Phelps among them. And the A’s, of course, are ever-active on the trade market and figure to lay the foundation for such negotiations at this week’s GM Meetings.
Still, it’s not an easy puzzle to solve. Their current 2020 payroll commitments stand at $45.5MM between Davis, Piscotty, Mike Fiers, Joakim Soria and Yusmeiro Petit. The A’s have another $53.7MM worth of projected arbitration salaries (courtesy of MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz), which are headlined by a $13.5MM projection for Semien. Among the notable non-tender/trade candidates in that bunch are Blake Treinen ($7.8MM projection), Profar ($5.8MM) and catcher Josh Phegley ($2.2MM).
As ever, cost will be a paramount consideration. Oakland opened the 2019 season with a $92MM payroll — low for most clubs but a franchise record for the A’s — and their current guarantees and arb projections alone will push them to $99MM (before even factoring in pre-arbitration players to round out the roster). If the hope is to add at least one new lefty bat (if not two) and some additional ’pen help, they’ll need to be aggressive in non-tendering/trading from that arbitration class and perhaps explore the market for Piscotty (depending on other moves). It’ll make for quite a few moving parts and possibly some unexpected trade scenarios, but that’s become the norm for Beane, Forst and the rest of an always-creative Oakland front office.
Looking more closely at the catching situation, Phegley’s situation is particularly relevant as concerns Vogt, since the former is presently in line to fill an important role behind the plate. It’s possible that both could share time on the roster, though that doesn’t seem terribly likely given the costs involved and the ongoing presence of Davis in the DH slot. The fact that there’s interest in Vogt seems a clear indication that the club is at least considering a different direction. As Slusser notes, Phegley’s offense tailed off in the second half and he lost playing time to Murphy down the stretch.
Vogt, of course, logged four-plus seasons with the A’s and was the club’s top catcher from 2015-2016. He emerged as something of a fan favorite thanks to his solid offensive contributions. In his time in Oakland, Vogt slashed .256/.317/.416 (101 wRC+) over 1641 plate appearances. He tailed off at the plate in 2017, leading the A’s to designate him for assignment, before a career-threatening shoulder injury wiped out his 2018 season.
Fortunately, Vogt posted a suprising bounceback effort last season with the Giants. In 280 plate appearances, Vogt slashed .263/.314/.490 (107 wRC+) with 10 home runs. Entering his age-35 season, Vogt surely won’t be expected to carry a huge load at catcher, but he’s still capable of getting behind the dish and offers some left-handed power, in addition to a well-respected veteran presence. As Slusser notes, that could make Vogt an ideal fit as the A’s break in the aforementioned Murphy. Already one of the game’s top prospects, Murphy impressed in a brief showing as a September call-up but will be in need of some supplementation and mentoring.