Whenever the lockout ends, transactions — both on the trade and free agent fronts — figure to pile up in a hurry. Among the likelier names to change hands is star Oakland first baseman Matt Olson, who has been the subject of rumors for several months. That’s only natural after A’s GM David Forst plainly acknowledged that the team has reached a point in its “cycle” where they’ll need to be open to moving established players (though the writing had already been on the wall for some time before that).
The Yankees have been frequently reported as an interested suitor for Olson, and prior to the lockout, Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News wrote that the Rangers had “already begun investigating” what an Olson acquisition might cost them. Whatever exactly occurred in those pre-lockout talks seemingly wasn’t a huge deterrent, as Grant writes this week that Texas will “absolutely” circle back with the A’s to see if there’s a potential fit.
Perhaps of greater intrigue to fans, however, is that Grant suggests an Olson package would require, at minimum, current big league first baseman Nathaniel Lowe, plus of the organization’s top prospects and a pair of other mid-tier names from down on the farm. As one might expect, it’s a rather broad and subjective set of parameters. Josh Jung and Justin Foscue are both “top prospects” for the Rangers, for instance, but Jung’s value is considerably higher at the moment. It’s hard to see the Rangers parting with Jung, who’s expected to debut in 2022, or either of the top pitching prospects in the system (2021 No. 2 overall pick Jack Leiter and 2018 first-rounder Cole Winn).
Regardless of specific permutations on the prospect side of things, a package headlined by Lowe and two or even three intriguing farmhands would figure to be appealing to A’s brass. Lowe, 26, isn’t on the same level as Olson offensively or defensively, but he’s been an above-average hitter in the big leagues and is controlled another five seasons. He’ll likely be a Super Two player (assuming Super Two designation remains unchanged in current labor talks), thus putting him on a path to arbitration eligibility next offseason. Lowe’s first two or even three arbitration salaries should be relatively affordable, however.
Texas acquired Lowe in a Dec. 2020 trade that sent four prospects to the Rays, and he responded with a solid first year at the plate in his new environs. Through 642 plate appearances, Lowe slashed .264/.357/.415 with 18 home runs, 24 doubles, three triples, eight stolen bases (in eight attempts) and a hearty 12.5% walk rate. Lowe had fanned in 31.8% of his first 245 trips to the plate in Tampa Bay, but he dropped that number to a more manageable 25.8% in Texas. Defensively, he put up sub-par marks in Defensive Runs Saved (-3), Ultimate Zone Rating (-4.2) and Outs Above Average (-3). Scouting reports from Lowe’s prospect days pegged him as a solid defender at first base, however, so there’s likely some room for improvement.
Notably, Grant adds that if Olson isn’t acquired, first base isn’t likely to be a priority for the Rangers. A pursuit of Olson, then, seemingly isn’t about being dissatisfied with the work Lowe has put in, but rather about jumping at the opportunity to grab an elite player with multiple years of club control remaining.
While there’s no guarantee Olson is ultimately moved, it’s an interesting look at a potential framework for a swap. The A’s have, historically speaking, tended to prefer returns that included immediate help for the big league roster when dealing away star players. Lowe would certainly fall under that umbrella, and some immediate production from him could help to soften the blow of losing Olson.
Olson, 28 next month, has emerged as one of the premier first basemen in the game over the past few years, with his 2021 season in particular towering above the rest of the league. In 673 plate appearances, Olson batted .271/.371/.540 (146 wRC+) with 39 home runs, 35 doubles and standout defense at first base. He dramatically reduced his strikeout rate, cutting it from 26.1% (2016-20) all the way to 16.8% — and he did so without sacrificing any of his plate discipline. To the contrary, Olson’s walk rate jumped from 10.8% in 2016-20 to 13.1% this past season.
Trading a player of this caliber is a tough pill for the A’s to swallow but also, as Forst alluded to, a familiar process in the Oakland front office. Olson is due his second arbitration raise once the lockout ends, and MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects that he’ll jump from $5MM to $12MM for the 2022 season. Add in a third and final arbitration raise in 2023, and Olson figures to cost upwards of $30MM over the next two seasons combined.
That’s a bargain rate for most clubs, but for a perennially low-payroll A’s team that has seen its best players reach the late stages of arbitration simultaneously, it’s a problematic scenario. Olson, Matt Chapman, Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt and Frankie Montas are projected to combine for $45.7MM alone; the A’s payroll is set to rise to its second- or third-highest mark ever in 2022 before the team even makes a single addition.
Trading Olson within the division may not be preferable for the A’s, but longtime baseball ops boss Billy Beane and Forst have never shied away from intra-division swaps. Texas and Oakland lined up on a deal just last offseason, swapping out Elvis Andrus and Khris Davis in a financially-motivated arrangement. A year prior, Texas and Oakland matched up in a Mike Minor swap, and the two teams also struck an accord in the 2019-20 offseason when Jurickson Profar went from Texas to Oakland as part of a three-team trade. Suffice it to say, Beane and Rangers president of baseball operations Jon Daniels are comfortable trading within the division, although moving a star of Olson’s caliber perhaps changes that calculus a bit.
If the Rangers were to ultimately pry Olson loose from their divisional foe, one would have to imagine they’d take a run at signing him to a long-term extension. They still have a ways to go before stepping back into the AL West running and aren’t yet expected to contend in 2022, so losing any trade acquisition after just two seasons could be deemed counterproductive. That’s putting the cart well before the horse, however, as Texas will face competition from several other clubs in trying to put together the best offer for Olson. Beyond the Yankees, Olson has been reported as a target for the Braves, should Freddie Freeman sign elsewhere. Others yet will view the situation similarly to the Rangers, feeling that while first base isn’t a dire need, Olson himself is so appealing that he’s worth moving some other pieces around to fit into the puzzle.