On October 14, we looked at the five burning questions hanging over the Oakland A's this off-season. How have the A's addressed those questions thus far and are there more questions that have arisen?
Question #1: Should the A's re-sign Bartolo Colon?
Colon remains on the free agent market, but the A's all but definitely answered this question earlier this week when they signed free agent starter Scott Kazmir to a two-year, $22 million deal. With Scott Feldman receiving three-years, $30 million from Houston, Colon's price tag is continuing to rise as the off-season rolls along. With Kazmir and the newly acquired Josh Lindblom in the fold, the A's have eight pitchers that made at least five starts in the major leagues last season on their 40-man roster. Unless Oakland chooses to deal several of those starters, there wouldn't be an obvious need for Colon any longer.
In going with Kazmir over Colon, the A's are betting that Kazmir's strong finish in 2013 and age (31) are better indicators of future success than Colon's last two seasons of sub-3.50 ERAs. Colon is 40 years old, and although he has pitched like a man much younger than his age the past two years, he could be in-line for a swift decline at any time. Of course, Kazmir comes with his own risks, as he pitched so poorly from 2009-2011 that he was out of affiliated baseball entirely in 2012 and he has a history of arm troubles. Still, his fastball velocity was as good last year as it was during his peak in 2005-2008 and lefties with Kazmir's stuff aren't easy to find.
Colon was worth 5 WAR last season when he posted a 2.84 ERA in 190.1 innings for the A's. Kazmir isn't likely to give the A's that level of production next season, although expecting Colon to achieve that level of production again in 2014 wasn't reasonable either. Regardless, the A's will need to replace that production somewhere, whether it be with improvements to the rest of the rotation, upgrades in the bullpen, or more production from the position-player side of the team's roster.
Which brings us to the next question we posed back in October:
Question #2: Should the A's re-sign Grant Balfour?
The A's had two All-Stars in 2013 and both are on the free agent market: Colon and Balfour. Like Colon, Balfour remains a free agent, but also like Colon, Balfour has already seen his old team replace him before he has even signed with another club.
Over the past two weeks, the A's have made three trades that may have significantly enhanced their bullpen. Just before Thanksgiving, the A's traded prospect John Wooten to the Washington Nationals for left-handed reliever Fernando Abad. Abad is a hard-throwing left-hander who posted a 3.35 ERA and struck-out 32 in 37.2 innings for the Nationals last season. Abad should give the A's more depth in the middle innings, something they lacked at times last season.
On Monday, the A's traded former first-round pick Jemile Weeks and a PTBNL to the Baltimore Orioles for closer Jim Johnson. Johnson will assume Balfour's ninth-inning role with the A's, giving Oakland an experienced closer while also allowing the team to keep Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle in set-up roles. Johnson has saved 101 games over the past two seasons, the most in Major League Baseball. Johnson has a career ERA of 3.33 in 400 big league innings and has posted an ERA above 4.00 only once in his career.
Johnson, like Balfour, had some very memorable blown saves last season. In fact, Johnson led the league in blown saves with nine. He is a very different pitcher than Balfour. Balfour is a flyball pitcher who racks up well more than one strike-out per inning pitched. He also struggles with his command at times. Johnson is a groundball pitcher who doesn't strike-out as many batters, but he walked nearly two fewer batters per nine innings last season than did Balfour. Johnson's HR/9 rate was also significantly lower than Balfour's. Both pitchers have been worth essentially the same in terms of WAR over the past two seasons. The A's struggled with their up-the-middle infield defense last season, which could hurt Johnson's effectiveness, although Oakland has added at least one defensive upgrade for their middle infield already this off-season (more on that later).
The A's followed up the Johnson trade with another deal on Tuesday to strengthen their bullpen, dealing outfielder/DH Seth Smith to the San Diego Padres for RHP Luke Gregerson. Gregerson has been one of the most reliable middle relievers in the National League since he made his major league debut in 2009. His ERAs over the past three seasons are 2.75, 2.39 and 2.71. Gregerson has benefited from pitching in a pitcher's park in San Diego, but he will receive many of the same benefits at the Coliseum, so his numbers should translate well to the A's.
Gregerson's addition to the A's bullpen might be even more important than the addition of Johnson. While Johnson gives the A's experience at the back of their bullpen, he doesn't provide a major enhancement over what the A's had at that spot in 2013. Gregerson, however, is a significant upgrade for the A's in the middle of their bullpen. Oakland now has four set-up men who can legitimately be called on in a close game late (Cook, Doolittle, Gregerson and Jerry Blevins). And they still have Dan Otero (who was arguably the A's most consistent middle reliever down-the-stretch last season), Abad, Evan Scribner, Jesse Chavez, Pedro Figueroa, Arnold Leon and Fernando Rodriguez (when he recovers from Tommy John) to fill out the remaining middle innings. That is a lot more depth than the A's had in the bullpen last season and could help lessen the workloads early in the season on Cook, Doolittle, Blevins and Johnson, all of whom have appeared in a lot of games over the past two years.
Question #3: What should the A's OF situation look like next year?
Although all three of the A's top outfielders were under team control going into the off-season (Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick), there were still questions as to the direction the A's would take with their entire outfield going into 2014. Fourth outfielder Chris Young was a free agent and the A's made no attempt to re-sign him. He recently signed a deal with the New York Mets.
Before this week, it appeared that the A's would replace Young in-house with rookie Michael Choice. The A's top pick in 2010, Choice had a strong first season at Triple-A in 2013 and played well during his September call-up. Like Young, Choice can play all three outfield positions and he bats right-handed, so he seemed like the obvious replacement. The A's front office felt otherwise, however, trading Choice and second base prospect Chris Bostick to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Craig Gentry and RHP Josh Lindblom.
Gentry now slides into the role that Young played in 2014, and Gentry could assume an even bigger role for the A's in 2015 if Crisp leaves via free agency. Gentry, like Young, is a right-handed hitter whose natural position is centerfield. Young had to learn the corner outfield spots on the fly when he came to the A's last season, but Gentry has experience playing in left and right, as well as center.
Young had a very poor season for the A's last year as he tried to adjust to a back-up role and to the American League. Gentry will not have to make as many adjustments, as he is not only used to a fourth-outfielder role, he is also used to the American League, having competed in the AL West for his entire major league career. Gentry is a very different hitter than Young. While both can work a walk, Gentry is a much more contact-oriented hitter, while Young has significantly more power than Gentry, who has hit only four homeruns in 323 career MLB games.
Overall, Gentry is a career .280 hitter, although he has benefited from playing at the hitter-friendly Rangers ballpark (career .296/.367/.406 at home and .265/.344/.330 on the road). In 45 career at-bats at the Coliseum, Gentry is batting .333/.365/.405, however, although that sample size is quite small. Both Young and Gentry have above-average speed, but Gentry has run more frequently over the past two seasons. Gentry was successful in 24 of 27 attempts last season and is 56 out of 66 for his career (84.8%).
Given that Choice will be a rookie next season, there is a good chance that the A's will get more out of Gentry in 2014 than they would have gotten out of Choice in a similar role. Long-term, the A's may find themselves wishing they had hung onto Choice, who projects to develop into a solid major-league average corner outfielder (which can be expensive to find on the open market). The A's don't have a ton of corner outfield depth in the minor leagues without Choice, although they do have Reddick and Cespedes under team control for the next few years.
The A's also traded away Seth Smith this week. Smith gave the A's 2.2 WAR over the past two seasons, although 1.7 of that came in 2012. The former Rockies outfielder was limited mostly to facing right-handed pitchers and was never an everyday player for the A's. He had a strange 2013 season, getting off to a very fast start then struggling badly during the middle months of the season before finishing the year red-hot.
The A's will need to find a replacement for Smith's at-bats, although they may have those replacements already in-house. Oakland could move first baseman Brandon Moss back to a left field/DH role, or they could use catcher John Jaso or infielder Alberto Callaspo as the left-handed hitting DH. Injuries limited Jaso to only half a season last year and Callaspo was with the team only for the final two-and-a-half months of last year. A full year of production from either in the left-handed hitting DH role could out-perform what Smith provided in 2013. If the A's go the in-house route, Michael Taylor and Nate Freiman could be competing for that 25th spot on the A's Opening Day roster this spring.
Question #4: What will the A's catching situation look like?
The transaction went relatively unnoticed early in the off-season, but the A's decision to re-sign catcher Luke Montz to a minor league contract could have an impact on their major league catching situation in 2014, especially in light of the Seth Smith trade.
Last season, the A's entered the year with John Jaso and Derek Norris as their primary catchers. Jaso and Norris each missed time with injury during the second-half of the year, with Jaso missing basically the entire second half dealing with the after-effects of a concussion. Jaso was cleared to hit in October and he got some at-bats during Instructs while the A's were competing in the post-season. It remains to be seen whether Jaso will be able to catch regularly given the concussions he suffered last season. Jaso had a 759 OPS in 249 at-bats before his season was ended prematurely. Although he didn't hit for a lot of power with the A's last year, his numbers would still represent an upgrade over what Smith provided in the left-handed hitting DH role last year. If Jaso can't catch, the A's could work him out at first base this spring, freeing Moss to play some left field, as well.
Norris quietly had a solid sophomore season with the A's. Most of his playing time came against left-handed pitching, but he still amassed 308 at-bats and he was productive, posting a .246/.345/.409 line. Those numbers were in-line with the types of numbers he put up in the minor leagues, so that line probably isn't a fluke. Norris did struggle badly against right-handed pitchers last year, batting only .149 in 114 at-bats. In the minor leagues, Norris did not have such extreme splits, however, and his struggles against right-handed pitching may have been more due to not seeing that many and being rusty than anything else. With one-and-a-half years of MLB service time under his belt, Norris may be ready for a more regular role.
When Jaso landed on the DL, Vogt took over much of his playing time against right-handed pitchers. He posted a .400 SLG in 135 major-league at-bats last year, although his OBP was only .295. Vogt's best stretch at the plate came in September and October, when he posted a 758 OPS during the regular season and had a couple of big hits in the A's ALDS against Detroit. Given the amount of time that Vogt spent with the A's during the second half of last season, Oakland's front office may be more comfortable with the idea of having Vogt as the second part of the team's regular catching tandem, should Jaso need to move off of the catcher's spot.
By signing Montz, the A's have given themselves enough depth at catcher that they can carry Jaso, Norris and Vogt on the major league roster and still have some options at Triple-A, should they choose to go that route. Montz had a strong season for Triple-A Sacramento last year and even saw some time with the A's early in the season. He and Sacramento-area native David Freitas would make solid Triple-A catching depth for the A's.
Question #5: Can the A's improve their infield defense?
One of the A's biggest weaknesses last year was their infield defense, primarily up-the-middle. Josh Donaldson provided an above-average glove for the A's at third base and Eric Sogard was solid when he was in the game at second, but starting shortstop Jed Lowrie, first basemen Brandon Moss and Nate Freiman and back-up infielder Alberto Callaspo were all below-average defensively last year. The A's were the least efficient team at turning groundballs up the middle into outs for much of last year.
Having a good infield defense will be important for the A's next season. Not only are new acquisitions Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson both groundball pitchers, but Sonny Gray figures to get a lot more starts next year than he did in 2013 and he is a groundball pitcher. Fellow groundball pitcher Jarrod Parker had an uneven 2013 season and an improved infield defense could allow Parker more consistent success.
The A's have addressed this concern to an extent already this off-season. A few weeks ago, Oakland signed veteran infielder Nick Punto to a two-year free agent deal. Punto can play every infield position except first base and catcher and he plays those positions well. He is expected to serve as a late-inning defensive replacement at shortstop in games in which the other team starts a right-handed pitcher and as the starting second baseman against left-handed starters (Punto's splits favor him against left-handed pitching/Sogard's favor him against righties).
Having the option of bringing in Punto in the late-innings should help the A's some, but they still haven't completely addressed the infield defense issue. Ideally, the A's would move Moss to left or DH him and bring in an everyday first baseman who is at least an average fielder. The A's do have the in-house option of making Daric Barton that regular first baseman against right-handed pitchers. Barton is arbitration-eligible and he was thought to be a candidate to be non-tendered, but the A's decided to keep him by offering him a contract for 2014. He is a solid defensive first baseman and he had a good September at the plate with the A's. However, he hasn't been able to sustain his success in the major leagues for much of the past four years, so he isn't a slam-dunk to give the A's production next season.
If the A's believe that Jaso can catch regularly next season, they could still be in the market for an everyday first baseman that can push Moss into the DH role. If they feel Jaso isn't going to be able to catch but should be fine to hit, they may stick with Moss at first and give Jaso the left-handed DH role. Having Barton on the roster will give the A's flexibility this off-season to pursue a few different avenues as they sort out their first base/DH/left field depth chart.
So what's next?
The A's front office has been busy this off-season and they have already checked off a number of boxes on their off-season to-do list. However, there is still work to be done. Although depth is always a good thing to have, it doesn't make a lot of sense for the A's to carry eight legitimate candidates for their 2014 rotation into spring training. Brett Anderson, who is the highest paid member of the A's rotation outside of Scott Kazmir, is the most likely pitcher to be traded.
One wouldn't think that Anderson's trade value would be all that high given his struggles the past few seasons both health-wise and performance-wise. However, his $8 million contract for 2014 looks eminently reasonable in light of the free agent deals being signed by starting pitchers this off-season. Given the current marketplace, Anderson could represent excellent value for an organization priced out of the free agent market.
The A's may also be willing to deal one of their middle relievers such as Evan Scribner, Pedro Figueroa or Jesse Chavez. The A's have a lot of pitchers on their 40-man roster that are out of options next year. It may make sense to deal some of their current depth to avoid having too many players without options competing for spots during spring training.
If the A's do make further deals (especially if they deal Anderson), what should they be looking for? A first baseman would be one direction the team could go, and the Miami Marlins could be a good fit, as they are dangling first baseman Logan Morrison. However, the A's may look to replenish their farm system, which has taken a big hit over the past two years thanks to several deals that have improved the A's at the major-league level. The Toronto Blue Jays have been reportedly very interested in acquiring Anderson, and they have several intriguing minor league prospects, although their system has been thinned some by trades in recent years, as well.
The A's could also look for an everyday shortstop that would move starter Jed Lowrie to second base. Above-average everyday shortstops are hard to find, however, so this is the least likely route the A's could take the rest of the off-season.