7:29 pm: Forst addressed the club’s likely forthcoming payroll cuts this evening, telling Jon Heyman of the MLB Network (Twitter link) the team is willing to field offers for any player on the roster. “This is the cycle for the A’s. We have to listen and be open to whatever comes out of this. This is our lot in Oakland until it’s not.”
10:30 am: The Athletics’ stunning decision to let manager Bob Melvin leave to sign a three-year deal as the Padres’ new manager served as a portent for a bleak winter in Oakland, only increasing prior expectations that a payroll reduction was on the horizon. General manager David Forst spoke with John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle and others at this week’s GM Meetings, and while he didn’t outright say that the team plans to reduce its bottom line in 2022, he implied that another “step back” is certainly a possibility.
“I think right now we’re in the middle of those conversations with [ownership],” said Forst. “We don’t have exact direction yet. But you look at our history, and we have three- or four-year runs and recognize where we are makes it necessary to step back. But we have not gotten to that point yet with ownership.”
While Forst understandably sidestepped a definitive declaration on the team’s payroll direction, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale writes that a pair of MLB executives told him Oakland is expected to slash payroll to as little as $50MM. One potential wrinkle as the A’s look to cut payroll, writes Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, is the uncertainty surrounding the collective bargaining agreement. The league’s initial offer to the MLBPA included a proposed salary floor (in exchange for a reduction of the luxury tax threshold — a nonstarter for the players’ side of negotiations). Even though the MLBPA had no interest in the specifics of that particular proposal, the eventual possibility of a salary floor could come back to haunt the A’s if they gut the payroll early in the winter.
One way or another, it seems quite likely that the current Athletics’ core is going to be broken up this offseason — the question is to what extent rather than whether it’ll happen at all. Such an outcome wasn’t exactly difficult to foresee. I explored back in early September how, based on their typical payroll levels, the A’s were unlikely to spend to keep a deep arbitration class after projected raises to the likes of Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt and Frankie Montas (among others). Retaining that group would require an increase over this season’s $83.8MM payroll — already the fourth-highest in franchise history and not far below the team record of $92MM. That increase would come before making a single addition to the 2022 roster.
When looking for trade candidates on the Oakland roster, the top of that arbitration class is the most obvious place to begin. At $12MM, Olson leads the bunch in terms of expected salary, per MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz’s end-of-year projections. Each of Manaea ($10.2MM), Chapman ($9.5MM), Bassitt ($8.8MM) and Montas ($5.2MM) is also set to account for a notable portion of the team’s payroll next season.
The A’s would surely be open to moving outfielder Stephen Piscotty (still owed $8.25MM, including a 2023 option buyout) and shortstop Elvis Andrus ($7.25MM through 2022 after accounting for the portion of his salary paid by the Rangers). Neither player has much in the way of trade value at this point, however. Oakland currently projects for a payroll just north of $85MM, per Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez. That figure includes MLBTR’s projected arb salaries, the two guaranteed contracts and a slate of pre-arb salaries to round out the roster.
Olson, Chapman and Montas all have two years of club control remaining. Manaea and Bassitt are set to become free agents next winter. While it’s possible, if not likely, that other players on the Oakland roster will also see their names pop up in trade talks, that quintet offers the best blend of productivity, affordability (for other clubs) and trade value (for the A’s). Here’s a quick, high-level look at each:
- Olson (28 next year): A 2021 All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner, Olson leads all first basemen with 34 Defensive Runs Saved and a 22.8 Ultimate Zone Rating since 2017. He’s sixth among first basemen in Statcast’s Outs Above Average during that time. Olson swatted a career-best 39 home runs in 2021 and, most importantly, cut his once-problematic strikeout rate to an 16.8% level that is well below the league average. Olson walks at a high clip, has massive left-handed power, plays elite defense and looks to have made huge gains in his contact skills. He hit .271/.371/.540 in 2021 despite a cavernous home stadium.
- Chapman (29 next year): As with Olson, Chapman is a preternatural defender. Since 2017, the two-time Platinum Glover leads third basemen in DRS (78) and UZR (48.7) and trails only Nolan Arenado in OAA (48). Chapman has huge power, but his contact trends have gone in the opposite direction of Olson. Chapman, whose 2020 season ended early due to hip surgery, struck out at a 22.8% clip from 2018-19 but a 33.1% pace in 2020-21. The glove is still elite, and Chapman has still bashed 37 homers in his past 774 plate appearances while walking at an 11.4% clip. The current version of Chapman has huge value, but if the strikeouts decline as he further distances himself from the hip injury, he has MVP-caliber talent.
- Manaea (30 next year): Manaea’s 2018 season ended with major shoulder surgery, and he missed most of 2019 while on the mend. Since returning, he’s delivered 263 innings of 3.73 ERA ball with near-identical reviews from fielding-independent marks like FIP (3.64) and SIERA (3.78). In that time, Manaea has a 24.8% strikeout rate, a 5.2% walk rate and a 43.8% grounder rate — all strong marks. He moved from a four-seamer to a sinker this season, and the 92.2 mph average on that sinker was the best velocity on his primary offering since his four-seamer sat 93.1 mph as a rookie in 2016. He’s a one-year rental, but a good one.
- Bassitt (33 next year): A frightening injury that saw Bassitt struck in the face by a 100 mph-plus line drive in August looked like it might end his season. Bassitt, however, returned from surgery to repair facial fractures on Sept. 23 and made two appearances to close out his season (6 1/3 innings, one run allowed). Since establishing himself as a big leaguer in 2018, the late-blooming righty has a 3.23 ERA, a 23.1% strikeout rate, a 7.1% walk rate and a 42.3% grounder rate in 412 innings. This past season’s 25% strikeout rate and 6.1% walk rate were career-highs. Like Manaea, Bassitt is a free agent next winter but would make a fine rental for a contender.
- Montas (29 next year): Montas consistently averages better than 96 mph on his heater. The 2021 season was his first topping 100 innings, thanks to a combination of injuries, the shortened 2020 campaign and an 80-game PED ban. Lack of innings notwithstanding, Montas has been effective on the whole since 2018, logging a combined 3.57 ERA with above-average strikeout and walk rates. The 2021 season looked to be a true breakout, as Montas ranked ninth in MLB with 187 innings and turned in a 3.37 ERA with a career-high 26.6% strikeout rate.
The asking price on those players, and others, will vary based on expected earnings and remaining club control. It’s not a given that the A’s trade all five, of course, and it’s possible that even as they do make some changes on the roster, some of those dollars are reallocated to low-cost free agents.
In past trades of notable players, the A’s have tended to focus on upper-level prospects and young big leaguers who’ve yet to establish themselves rather than the lower-level types often targeted by teams commencing full teardowns. That’s not a guaranteed blueprint for how they’ll operate this winter, but the focus on near-term assets is part of the reason the A’s have managed to remain so competitive amid frequent “step backs,” regular roster turnover and perennial payroll constraints.
The extent of this ostensible “step back” will be partly determined by the extent to which ownership is willing to spend in future seasons, but the A’s have never embarked on the sort of lengthy, years-long rebuilds we’ve recently seen in Baltimore, Detroit and other places. Oakland has never had more than three straight losing seasons under Billy Beane and has just eight total losing records in Beane’s 24 full seasons leading baseball operations.