At first glance, the Athletics didn’t really do much of note this winter. The club retained southpaw Jake Diekman and picked up infielders Tony Kemp and … picked up a club option over Yusmeiro Petit and … umm …. signed Ryan Goins to a minor-league deal.
Viewed through another lens, though, the notoriously low-budget A’s had a blockbuster, all-in offseason. Which lens is that? The one through which Red Sox owner John Henry views the game of baseball.
After trading away homegrown superstar Mookie Betts, Henry conveyed his cherished memories of Stan The Man for brownie points with the Boston fanbase. Saying his young heart would’ve shattered had childhood hero Stan Musial “ever been traded — for any reason,” the now-grown Henry … well, gave some reasons why Betts was sent west by one of the richest teams in sports.
It wasn’t about getting under the Competitive Balance Tax threshold, Henry says. Rather, it’s just the sort of thing that is foisted upon MLB teams — even those “consistently among the highest-spending clubs in baseball” — by the collective bargaining agreement (a deal those same teams negotiated to their general advantage).
The Red Sox, per Henry, were forced to “make hard judgments about competing for the future as well as the present.” Their hands were tied by the fact that, “In today’s game there is a cost to losing a great player to free agency — one that cannot nearly be made up by the draft pick given.” Ultimately, Henry said of the organization’s leadership: “we could not sit on our hands and lose [Betts] next offseason without getting value in return to help us on our path forward.”
There are many ways to approach and discuss these comments. For our purposes here, we’re not even going to consider what they mean for the Red Sox or the game of baseball. There’s no need to call for pitchforks; that statement has already had its day in the news cycle anyway. The Boston club certainly has spent and put a winner on the field of late. And Henry at least fessed up to the fact that the team simply decided to punt near-term performance for future value, even if he didn’t want to acknowledge the rather obvious financial component of that calculus.
What’s most interesting to me about the comments is that … holy smokes, the Oakland Athletics really believe! If Henry is to be taken at his word, then the A’s are making one heckuva roll of the dice by keeping, rather than trading, their own pending free agent star: shortstop Marcus Semien.
True, Semien almost assuredly isn’t as good as Betts, but the former actually contributed a full fWAR more than the latter in 2019. Semien is only earning $13MM, just under half the $27MM Betts will receive. But it’s a much bigger portion of the Oakland payroll than Betts was to the Boston budget. (That’s true just based upon simple math, but that tends to undersell the impact. The A’s have to consider every dollar spent over league minimum, while the Red Sox have far greater operating leeway to shoehorn in cost-efficient but more-than-minimum players.)
What of the odds of success in 2020, which is obviously a huge component of this decision? The Red Sox are well behind the Yankees on paper. But the A’s are chasing an uber-talented Astros team that remains mighty even without its crack signals operations unit. Both of these teams are unlikely to take their division, but each is a solid Wild Card contender. Fangraphs’ postseason odds aren’t gospel and obviously must be taken only as a guide to true roster capability (as they are intended) … but wait, how does this make sense? The Red Sox, sans Betts, project at about a coin flip of making the postseason. That tops the A’s, even with Semien! You might quibble with the projections and point to the upside on the Oakland roster. But don’t the Red Sox still have Chris Sale and Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers?
So, even as the Red Sox determined they couldn’t “sit on [their] hands and lose” Betts without adequate compensation after the coming season, the Athletics decided to keep Semien in roughly analogous circumstances. Well, analogous from a roster talent and postseason odds perspective. The low-budget A’s are the sort of team that’s typically forced to take its Betts-type players off the table on the rationale set forth by Henry, even if it stings, in order to preserve a long-term flow of talent and keep up with deeper-pocketed rivals. Instead, they’re letting their version of Betts ride.
It’s quite the juxtaposition. Perhaps the A’s still have designs on a Semien extension, but it’s far from inevitable and we haven’t heard indication that a deal is particularly likely. And if one is to be struck, it’ll require convincing him to forego free agency … which will assuredly require the kind of price that makes the A’s squirm (even if they can now finally see a new ballpark on the horizon). A mid-summer trade fall-back is available but isn’t exactly plan A. All things considered, in relative terms, the situation is quite similar to that which would’ve faced the Red Sox on Betts.
Look, I don’t really have a Take here. I’m not here to call the Oakland front office reckless or label Henry’s explanation feckless. My point is only this: given those two teams’ divergent approaches, doesn’t Henry’s statement suggest that one or the other is true?