Over the last three years, the Oakland Athletics have found ways to cobble together competitive rosters despite being a low revenue organization. From a financial standpoint, this offseason appeared even more challenging than usual. Before discussing money matters further, let’s reflect on the A’s 2020 campaign.
After winning 97 wins in 2018-19 and only earning a wild card berth, the Athletics won the AL West for the first time since 2013. Oakland defeated the White Sox in the initial round of playoffs marking the first time it won a postseason series since beating the Twins in the 2006 ALDS. The team would subsequently fall to the division-rival Astros in the ALDS.
Surprisingly, the A’s lineup wasn’t as potent as recent seasons. Several hitters delivered below average production for manager Bob Melvin.
Matt Chapman fell prey to a hip injury that eventually required season-ending surgery. Despite the setback, Chapman did manage to hit 10 home runs with a .535 SLG. However, the 27-year-old had an anemic .276 OBP.
Across the diamond at first base, Matt Olson hit 14 home runs, although his .195/.310/.424 slash-line was his worst since debuting in 2017. Staying in the infield, shortstop Marcus Semien finished with a 91 OPS+, just one year after being an MVP finalist.
On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average.
Designated hitter and former AL home run champion hit Khris Davis just two homers and .200/.303/.329 in 30 games. Right fielder Stephen Piscotty had five dingers, although his .226/.271/.358 slash was similarly awful.
It wasn’t all bad in Oakland. Several hitters had productive seasons. Among them, left fielder Robbie Grossman (130 OPS+), Mark Canha (126), deadline deal acquisition Tommy La Stella (124), and freshman catcher Sean Murphy (131). Murphy’s performance earned a fourth place finish in AL Rookie of the Year voting.
On the mound, strong pitching helped the A’s overcome sagging run production. Although the bullpen was the backbone of the staff, the rotation was solid also.
There were no marquee names, but the starting staff’s combined xwOBA was sixth lowest among MLB rotations. Chris Bassitt (.289 xwOBA), Sean Manaea (.292), and 23-year-old Jesus Luzardo (.298) were top-50 in the majors. Rounding out the rotation, Frankie Montas (.316) and Mike Fiers (.320) were slightly worse than league-average.
Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA last year = .312
The bullpens .283 xwOBA ranked fifth in the majors. Leading the charge was closer Liam Hendriks (.227). Getting the ball to Hendriks was a deep and versatile group. Among the arms used most often: Jake Diekman, (.240), Joakim Soria (.248), J.B. Wendelken (.260), Lou Trivino (.282), and Yusmeiro Petit (.311).
Defensively, Oakland took a big step backwards. After ranking twelfth in the majors in defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2019. The team was in the bottom 20-percent with -19 DRS last year.
The dramatic decline is traceable back to several players. Semien went from a top-5 defender in 2019 to a bottom feeder last year. At second base, the main offenders were Tony Kemp (-6 DRS) and La Stella (-2).
There were also strengths in the field. Although he failed to win a third consecutive Gold Glove, Olson (5 DRS) once again provided stellar first base defense. Across the diamond, Chapman (5) was superb. Ramon Laureano (5) was also excellent in center field, as were Canha (3) and Piscotty (2) in right field.
The A’s lost two stars to free agency – Semien and Hendriks. However, GM David Forst chose to remain relatively idle until the first week of February. Forst’s biggest move sent Davis and Heim to the Rangers for shortstop Elvis Andrus and catching prospect Aramís Garcia.
|Source: Baseball Reference|
Andrus will earn a total of $28 million over the next two years compared to Davis’ $16.75 million paycheck this season. Yet, the A’s managed to find financial relief from this deal. Texas is sending two annual installments totaling $13.5 million to offset Andrus’ salary. Therefore, Oakland pays Andrus $7.75 million this season, essentially shaving $9 million originally programmed for Davis off this year’s ledger.
The Athletics’ net savings seemingly spurred several free agent signings. First came veteran relievers Sergio Romo and Trevor Rosenthal. Then, 35-year-old first baseman Mitch Moreland. In the same window, the team re-signed two of its own free agents – Fiers and Petit. All five players agreed to one-year pacts.
|* Rule 5 Draft
Sources: Baseball Reference; FanGraphs
The team brought back another familiar face. Infielder Jed Lowrie, who previously spent five seasons with A’s, returned on a minor-league contract with a non-roster invite (NRI). Lowrie is the most notable of many players offered an NRI this offseason by Oakland.
A non-roster invite (NRI) is an invitation to players not on a team’s 40-man roster to attend Spring Training. This includes upper-level minor leaguers and free agents signed to minor-league contracts in the offseason.
Outfielder Ka’ai Tom and reliever Dany Jiménez were Rule 5 Draft picks. Tom spent 2019 at AA/AAA in Cleveland’s system. The right-handed Jimenez appeared in two games with the Giants last season. In 2019, he struck out 93 in 59 frames for Toronto’s High-A and Double-A affiliates.
Unless injured, Rule 5 Draft picks must remain on the drafting club’s 26-man roster through the following season. Otherwise, a player must pass through waivers and then be offered back to his original club $50 thousand. If the original team doesn’t choose to pay, the drafting club can then send him to the minors.
Olson will continue holding down first base, while Chapman to patrol the hot corner. With this pair, Oakland has arguably the best infield corner defense in the majors.
After 12 seasons with the Rangers, Andrus takes over at shortstop. The 32-year-old will attempt to rejuvenate his career after slashing .194/.252/.330 and losing the starting gig in Texas to Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
At second base, Kemp, Chad Pinder, and Vimael Machín will vie for playing time. If he’s healthy, Lowrie could factor into the equation. The 36-year-old was an All-Star at the position in 2018, but missed most of the last two seasons due to a knee injury. Both Kemp and Machín are lefty hitters, while Lowrie is a switch-hitter. Perhaps one option for the team is forming a platoon with Pinder’s righty bat.
The infield backups likely depends on how the competition at second base goes. Pinder, Kemp, Machín, and Lowrie are capable of playing multiple positions, which bolsters roster depth and versatility. Pinder has starts at every position on the diamond except pitcher and catcher. Kemp has played left and center field, while the second-year Machín has touched every position on the field as a professional. Lowrie has time at every infield position, although we have to reemphasize his age and recent health issues.
The starting outfield projects to be Canha in left field, Piscotty in right field, with Laureano playing between them. Tom, Dustin Fowler, and Seth Brown are in the mix for playing time along with the gang vying for the backup infield spot.
The departure of Davis seemed to signal the club’s departure from a full-time designated hitter. That probably changed with the signing of Moreland last week. The left-handed hitter produced 10 home runs and a .265/.342/.551 slash with a 130 OPS+ with the Red Sox and Padres last year. Moreland has always performed much better against righties during his 11-year career. Perhaps Melvin uses right-handed hitters at DH on days there’s a southpaw starter on the mound.
Murphy is the starting catcher. The sophomore is recovering from surgery for a collapsed lung, although the team expects him to be ready for Opening Day. Competition to be Murphy’s backup or serve as minor-league depth includes Allen, the recently acquired García, and non-roster invites Carlos Pérez and Francisco Peña.
Bassitt, Luzardo, Fiers, Montas, and Manaea return to the rotation, which bodes well for the A’s. Bassitt is one of the more underrated starters in the majors, while the duo of Luzardo and Montas can still get better. Fiers has a reputation of being durable and delivering innings. That’s a valuable trait in a year clubs will have to manage pitcher workload following a truncated 2020 campaign.
After dealing with shoulder problems, left-hander A.J. Puk projects to join the rotation at some point. Management might opt to use the 25-year-old out of the bullpen until he builds arm strength. The Dodgers have succeed employing this tactic with young starters Julio Urías Dustin May, and Tony Gonsolin.
Other youngsters who could eventually help the rotation include Daulton Jefferies, James Kaprielian, and Grant Holmes. Jeffries, Kaprielian, Holmes were at the team’s alternate training site last summer. Jeffries and Kaprielian made their MLB debuts; Holmes didn’t get the call. It’s conceivable all three could contribute in a relief role.
Rosenthal is set to replace Hendriks as closer. Tasked with getting the ball to the 30-year-old will be Diekman, Trivino, Wendelken, Petit, Smith, plus newcomers Romo and Adam Kolarek. After a downward skid in 2018-19, Rosenthal rebounded with the Royals and Padres to tie Tampa Bay’s Nick Anderson for the third lowest xwOBA (.210) among MLB relievers.
Entering his age-38 season, Romo remained an effective reliever (.293 xwOBA) with the Twins last season. Kolarek has a unique side-arm delivery, but delivered excellent results with the Dodgers in 2020. The southpaw held hitters to a .164 AVG and .250 xwOBA – both top-40 among MLB relievers.
Others vying for bullpen spots are Jiménez, Jordan Weems, Nik Turley, Miguel Romero, and the starters previously mentioned. Considering the recent influx of experienced arms, it’ll be challenging for the club to retain the 27-year-old Jiménez as a Rule 5 draftee.
Turley has no more minor-league options remaining, which could play into the decision making of Forst and his staff. It’s worth noting there are several players vying for positions, who are in the same situation as Turley.
Players on a 40-man roster have three minor-league “options.” Teams can send players with options to the minors without first having to clear waivers. Only one option is used annually regardless of how many times a player goes to the minors. Players without options must pass through outright waivers before being eligible for assignment to the minors.
Oakland dealt its most expensive pending free agent – Davis – this offseason. But the team’s practice of signing free agents to short-term deals means there’s always rental players available to move at the July 31 trade deadline.
|* Club Option For 2022
Source: Baseball Reference
Considering Oakland’s recent success, shipping out veterans probably isn’t in the cards. Instead, the team would appear more likely to add pieces this summer to facilitate a return to the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. Then again, there’s a possibility financial reasons compel the A’s to avoid adding payroll at the deadline.
As noted earlier, the A’s remained idle in the marketplace until offloading Davis and his salary, which was the team’s highest. Only then did they sign Petit, Fiers, Romo, Rosenthal, and Moreland. Is this a coincidence or evidence of a need to strictly manage dwindling resources?
It’s impossible to know for certain. But the circumstances surrounding a potential reunion with Semien and then details regarding Rosenthal’s contract suggest the A’s may be spread thin financially.
When Semien signed with the Blue Jays last month, Ken Rosenthal of the Atlantic reported the A’s had previously floated the notion of a “one-year/$12.5 million deal with $10 million deferred in 10 one-year installments of $1 million each.” This came on the heels of Oakland declining to make an $18.9 million qualifying offer to their longtime shortstop.
Then, the team reportedly signed Rosenthal to an unusual one-year deal with deferments.
Trevor Rosenthal’s one-year, $11M deal with the Athletics is heavily backloaded, sources tell @TheAthletic. Rosenthal will be paid $3M in 2021, $3M in ‘22 and $5M in ‘23.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) February 19, 2021
Is A’s owner John Fisher mired in a financial crisis or is Fisher simply being conservative with his resources? The answer doesn’t matter, but the franchise taking a more austere budgetary approach would have consequences this year and in the future.
An inability or unwillingness to spend may prevent Forst from acquiring needed help this season. Moreover, the financial motivation driving recent contract negotiations make it increasingly likely the team trades Chapman and Olson before they reach free agency after the 2023 season. Perhaps the purge begins this summer.
All of this must be very frustrating for A’s fans. To be tantalizingly close to reaching the World Series only to be held back for financial reasons. Then again, it probably won’t surprise that fan base if money brings their team’s great run to a screeching halt.
My Oh My…
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