The Athletics are squarely in the mix for the second American League Wild Card and, with six remaining games against the first-place Astros still on the schedule, are still alive in the division chase in the American League West as well. Oakland currently trails Houston by four and a half games, so with 28 games left to play, there’s time for a surge to overtake the current leaders.
Oakland’s proximity to a division title and their (at the time) status as a team in possession of the second Wild Card spot surely emboldened the team to go for it at this year’s trade deadline. The acquisition of Andrew Chafin was a solid addition to an already-sound bullpen, but it was the team’s trade for Starling Marte that really grabbed headlines. That’s in part due to Marte’s status as one of the more prominent names on the summer trade market but also due to the fact that Oakland parted with longtime top prospect Jesus Luzardo — five years of control over him to be exact — in exchange for a rental player who’ll be a free agent at season’s end.
At the time of the trade, I touched on this a bit, but it’s a concept that bears a bit more detail. The Athletics have every reason to act aggressively on the trade deadline this summer, because barring a major uptick in the team’s typically thrifty payroll, this could be something of a last hurrah for the current Oakland core.
The A’s don’t have much on the payroll next season — just Elvis Andrus $14MM salary (of which the Rangers are paying $7.25MM) and Stephen Piscotty’s $7.25MM salary. The A’s have a $4MM club option on Jake Diekman that comes with a $750K buyout as well. Most clubs would probably pick that up given his strong season, but it’s at least feasible that given the forthcoming payroll crunch that will be laid out here shortly, the A’s could pass on it.
Those minimal contractual guarantees look nice at first glance, but the Athletics have an enormous arbitration class on the horizon — and it’s not just large in terms of volume. It’s a talented and experienced group of players featuring the majority of Oakland’s most recognizable names: Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, Ramon Laureano, Frankie Montas, Lou Trivino, Chad Pinder, Tony Kemp, Deolis Guerra, Burch Smith and (depending on his final service time numbers) perhaps Adam Kolarek. Of that bunch, Manaea and Bassitt are up for their final arbitration raises — the former as a Super Two player. Chapman, Olson, Montas and Trivino are getting their second raises.
I wanted to better ascertain just how expensive a class this is going to be for the Athletics, so I reached out to MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz for some help. Matt created MLBTR’s Arbitration Projection model, and I asked if he’d be able to put together some projections for the Athletics’ class based on the seasons they’ve had to date. Matt did just that, tacking on each player’s rest-of-season projections from the Steamer projection system to their actual production to date, coming up with the following projections:
- Matt Olson: $11.8MM
- Sean Manaea: $10.1MM
- Matt Chapman: $9.8MM
- Chris Bassitt: $8.9MM
- Frankie Montas: $4.8MM
- Lou Trivino: $3.0MM
- Ramon Laureano: $2.8MM
- Chad Pinder: $2.7MM
- Tony Kemp: $1.8MM
- Burch Smith: $1MM
- Deolis Guerra: $900K
- Adam Kolarek: $800K
(One caveat on the projections themselves: these raises are determined using the 2021 model and standard inflation for the 2022 season. Major League Baseball and the MLBPA agreed not to use 2021 arbitration raises as precedent-setters because of the anomalous nature of last year’s short-season data.)
In all, it’s a projected total of $58.4MM. Add that to the combined salaries of Andrus and Piscotty, and the A’s are up to $72.4MM — $76.4MM if they exercise the option on Diekman. That’s what they’d owe to just 15 players. There are some possible non-tenders in there (Smith and Kolarek, certainly), but for the most part, all of the major names should be expected to be tendered. We don’t know precisely what next year’s minimum salary will be due to the expiring collective bargaining agreement, but even filling out the roster with players earning this year’s minimum would take them up to nearly $80MM — about $6MM shy of their current payroll.
Of course, we know that you can’t simply supplement this group with pre-arbitration players, because the rest of the current roster isn’t made up of pre-arb players. The A’s currently stand to lose not only Marte but also Mark Canha, Yan Gomes, Yusmeiro Petit, Sergio Romo, Jed Lowrie, Mitch Moreland, Josh Harrison, Mike Fiers and Khris Davis to free agency. Replace that group with readily available, in-house options and you’re probably not looking at a playoff team — certainly not with the Mariners, Angels and Rangers both looking to improve their rosters this winter, making for even tougher competition within the division.
The A’s have never carried an Opening Day payroll greater than $92MM, per Cot’s Contracts — their prorated 2020 payroll may have gotten there — so an arbitration class worth more than $55MM is an immensely expensive group for ownership. Some of this crunch could be alleviated by trying to find a taker for Andrus and/or Piscotty, though moving either player might necessitate the A’s paying some of the freight (or taking a lesser contract in return). As previously mentioned, some non-tenders could get the bottom-line number down as well.
It’s always possible, too, that ownership simply bites the bullet and pays up for a franchise-record payroll. We haven’t seen that level of spending in the past, though, and this is the same A’s team that only agreed to pay its minor leaguers a $400 weekly stipend after considerable public relations backlash during last summer’s pandemic — a move that only cost them about a million dollars. The A’s also had the Marlins foot the bill for all of Marte’s remaining salary. Perhaps that was in preparation for a payroll hike this winter, but that’d be a rather charitable interpretation when history and precedent tell us this is a team that is already pushing the upper levels of its comfort from a payroll standpoint.
All of this is to say: the Athletics certainly have the look of a team that is going to have to make some tough decisions this winter. They can either take payroll to new heights, look to move Andrus and/or Piscotty (which would likely mean attaching a prospect and further depleting a thin farm), or listen to offers on some names who’ve become staples on the roster.
Parting with a starter such as Manaea or Bassitt would be difficult, but both are slated to become free agents following the 2022 season. Both Chapman and Olson have two arbitration raises left, which means both are going to be owed a raise on top of that already sizable arbitration projection following the ’22 campaign. Both are on a path toward $15MM-plus salaries in 2023 — especially if Chapman is able to maintain his recent surge at the plate and return to his pre-hip surgery levels of offensive output.
Whatever route the Athletics ultimately decide to take, the organization and its fans are in for a good bit of change this winter. That could mean changes to the payroll or changes to the composition of a core group of players who’ve been quite successful since coming together a few years back. Regardless of which path they choose, it’s understandable that the A’s opted to be aggressive at this year’s deadline; with Canha, Marte and several relievers set for free agency and a huge arbitration class that could force some financially-motivated trades, this looks like the current group’s best and perhaps final chance to make a deep playoff run together.