A’s back atop AL West mix

 What an offseason it has been for the Oakland Athletics. After a disappointing playoff finish it looked like the club was going to break things down and retool. Jon Lester left via free agency while Josh Donaldson and Jeff Samardzija were dealt for depth and prospects — and those were just the major moves. The rest of the roster was flipped upside down, too.

On Saturday the A’s acquired Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for John Jaso, prospects Daniel Robertson and Boog Powell, and cash.

The consensus was that Zobrist, a free agent after 2015, would be dealt some time before the trade deadline. After news broke that the Rays had agreed to sign infielder Asdrubal Cabrera to a one-year deal, that trade seemed imminent. Many noted that Cabrera will earn the exact same salary that Zobrist was due for the upcoming year: $7.5 million.

Tampa Bay picks up the No. 1 prospect in Oakland’s system and stocks the cupboard in what is likely a retooling season. The A’s, in one fell swoop, plug their middle infield holes and reassert their position as one of the American League West’s top teams.

Zobrist is coming off a fourth consecutive season of production north of 5.0 fWAR. His 119 wRC+ in 2014 led the Rays. Offense is actually the less noted part of the switch-hitter’s game. Zobrist provides premium defence at five different positions. He saw the bulk of his time last year at second base, but regularly played all three outfield positions and shortstop. The only positions he hasn’t played in his career are catcher and pitcher.

The Seattle Mariners had been connected to Zobrist on-and-off for the past year, particularly in the time leading up to last July’s trade deadline. The 33-year old was a much discussed trade target for many teams, but Tampa Bay elected to hold onto their star utility player. It looks like that decision paid off.

When the Mariners were connected to Zobrist last summer, names like Nick Franklin and Brad Miller appeared frequently as part of a return package that presumably would’ve included multiple players. Of course Franklin would end up with the Rays in the three-team trade that netted Seattle Austin Jackson. Miller stands to be the club’s starting shortstop for the upcoming season.

For Seattle to surrender a prospect of Robertson’s calibre it would probably mean the loss of a James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, or D.J. Peterson from the organization. Paxton is a lock for a rotation spot and Walker figures to break camp as the No. 5 or No. 6 starter on the depth chart. Peterson is likely another year away from the majors but figures to fill the right-handed power void at first base down the road.

The Mariners have shown a hesitancy to part with significant young talent this winter. Brandon Maurer was traded to the San Diego Padres for Seth Smith, but the club was dealing from a position of depth. Rookie right-hander Carson Smith can likely step right into the vacated spot. Beyond Paxton, Walker, and Roenis Elias there is minimal starting pitching depth.

[pullquote]Zobrist brings a career 118 wRC+ to the Athletics. That mark would be higher than the 2014 production Oakland received from second base (69 wRC+ ), shortstop (89), and all three outfield positions (108, 89, and 101 from left to right).[/pullquote]

It’s possible that depth is part of the reasoning for the reluctance to include Walker or Paxton in a trade for Matt Kemp or Justin Upton. Both pitchers have high ceilings and could be key contributors in 2015, but realistically, moving one without first having another quality starter in the picture would have been foolish.

For the Athletics, Zobrist and Escober figure to secure the second base and shortstop positions, but you can be sure the club will look to maximize Zobrist’s flexibility throughout the season. For the time being, both players represent a sizeable upgrade to Oakland’s lineup and infield. Escober is also a plus-defender with some pop in his bat, though he lacks the on base skills that Zobrist possesses.

Eric Sogard struggled in 2014 with a 67 wRC+ while seeing the bulk of the second base innings and will probably assume a back-up infield role. Marcus Semien, acquired from the Chicago White Sox in the Samardzija trade, will shift into a utility-type role instead of having to play everyday at shortstop.

After the trade, Oakland now projects second to the Mariners in the AL West for the upcoming season. ESPN’s Keith Law figures the A’s added between five and six wins worth of value in the trade. By comparison, Donaldson posted a 6.4 fWAR in 2014 and newly acquired third baseman Brett Lawrie projects as a 3.6 fWAR player in 2015.

The two infielders acquired today alongside Lawrie and Ike Davis, who was acquired from the New York Mets, could make for an improved infield overall compared to last year. There is risk associated with all four new players, particularly Lawrie who has had a myriad of health issues in his young career, but it looks as if the departure of Donaldson won’t be felt quite as hard in terms of production.

Back in November I wrote that the A’s were taking a step back in the AL West with the loss of Donaldson. What would be next for the club was unknown, but dealing Samardzija and others seemed likely. But at the same time it was possible Oakland could use some of the acquired players to make other trades to bolster the present roster. Acquiring Upton appeared to be a possibility despite he, like Zobrist, will be a free agent at season’s end.

It was important that the Donaldson trade not be assessed until we saw what was to follow. The shedding of payroll over the course of the previous transactions is what allowed Oakland to take on $12.5 million in 2015 salary between Zobrist and Escobar.

The Mariners were unlikely to acquire Zobrist — or Escobar or Jaso for that matter — so this deal should have minimal effect on their remaining offseason plans. The Athletics now have an improved shot at matching last year’s 88 win total.

On Saturday the AL West became a slightly tougher division. The Mariners still stand as favorites, but the Athletics are very much back in the mix for the divisional crown.

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Tyler Carmont

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