Despite a rash of spring training injuries and a few disappointing performances in the bullpen, the Oakland A's have had a lot go right for them during the first three months of the 2014 regular season. Going into their series versus the Miami Marlins, the A's hold the best winning percentage in baseball and a 3.5 game lead over the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West.
With a historic run differential of +129 through 78 games, the A's are actually four games worse than their Pythagorean record would predict based on their run differential. In other words, they haven't been lucky in posting their 48-30 record and that would suggest that the A's should continue to win at a rate similar to the one they have won at thus far.
The A's currently rank first in the American League in runs scored and first in the AL in team ERA. Although the A's rank in the bottom-half of the league in errors, Oakland defenders have saved 21 runs this season, according to Baseball-Reference.com, which is one of the best totals in the league.
Given the balance of the team, the A's wouldn't appear to have too many glaring holes going into the second-half of the season. However, with the Angels playing as well as any team in baseball right now, the A's can't afford to slip back much if they want to win their third-straight division title. The traditional July trade market has been slower since the advent of the second Wild Card, but there figures to be some movement before the July 31st deadline. The A's have been close to the promised land in each of the past two years, and it would be surprising if Oakland doesn't put some chips on the table to try to enhance their roster with the intent of making a deep run in the post-season.
Below I examine what areas of the team could be improved and what potential trade chips the A's have at their disposal.
1. Middle Infield
2. Starting Rotation
Thanks to a roster that is both deep and versatile, the A's don't have any glaring needs on the position player side of the ball. A's manager Bob Melvin has once again put his platoon system to good use, getting above-average performances from the team overall against both right-handed and left-handed pitchers.
The team balance on offense is further demonstrated when one breaks it down by position. The A's are currently getting OPSs of 743 at every position but first base, right field, shortstop and second base. The first base number is being weighed down heavily by the "contributions" of Daric Barton early in the year (410 OPS in 64 plate appearances) and the struggles of Alberto Callaspo when he has played a position he isn't that experienced at (447 OPS in 57 plate appearances at first; 650 OPS or higher everywhere else he has played). The regular first base platoon of Brandon Moss and Kyle Blanks has performed well, and Stephen Vogt has emerged as another option at first, as well. Chances are the A's will move away from Callaspo playing much first base once Blanks returns from the DL.
Right field has been manned most of the year by Josh Reddick, who has struggled at the plate but has excelled in the field. The A's have received good production from Vogt and Craig Gentry when they have been in right. Given the depth the A's have in the outfield and the value that Reddick brings with the glove, Oakland probably won't look to add a primary right fielder via a trade, unless that right fielder was a game-changing superstar (not too many of those on the market).
That leaves the A's middle infield as the area that they could most use an upgrade offensively. Jed Lowrie, Eric Sogard, Nick Punto and Callaspo have received the bulk of the playing time at short and second this season. All of them have struggled at the plate to varying degrees, although Lowrie's struggles have mostly been contained to the last few weeks. Both Sogard and Punto have been assets defensively, but if the A's can bring in a player who can handle second base and upgrade their offense, one would have to think that the A's would pull the trigger.
The biggest name available on the second base market is Chase Utley, who has been one of the top second basemen in baseball for much of his career (when he has been healthy). This season, Utley is batting .296/.356/.459 for a Phillies' team that is eight games under .500. The Phillies as an organization could use an influx of younger talent and a new direction after years of loading up on veterans carrying expensive deals. That being said, the Phillies may not be ready to admit that they are sellers with their payroll and their market-share, and Utley is a long-time favorite in Philadelphia.
Ultey is signed through 2015 and has vesting options that could keep him under contract through 2018. He isn't cheap and he isn't getting any younger, so the A's would have to weigh the future risk of being stuck with a declining veteran on an expensive deal with the current benefit of a player near the top of his game at his position, at least offensively. Utley's injury history is a concern, but given the flexibility of the A's roster, Oakland could find ways to rest him and play him at DH to keep down the wear-and-tear. Utley isn't versatile defensively, however, and almost every player the A's have acquired in recent years has had the ability to play multiple positions.
If versatility is what the A's are looking for, then the ultimate prize on the trade market will be Tampa Bay Rays' utilityman Ben Zobrist. Zobrist is a player the A's have liked for a long time. He is arguably the most versatile player in the league given that he can switch-hit and he can play all around the infield and the corner outfield spots. The Rays are reportedly ready to sell after a very slow start to their season, and Zobrist figures to be their second-biggest trade chip behind ace David Price.
Zobrist has a team option that would keep him under contract through 2015 worth $7.5 million, so he is a player the A's can afford. He is currently under a deal that pays him $7 million for this season. Zobrist, like many of his teammates, is having a down year offensively, but he has a solid track record and could be revitalized in a pennant-race situation. Like Utley, Zobrist has plenty of experience playing in pennant races and in the post-season. He would give the A's a player that they could plug-in almost anywhere on the field – right field, left field, second base, shortstop, third base and first base. But he certainly won't come cheaply, as the Rays will be looking to load-up on younger, cost-controlled talent.
New York Mets' utilityman Daniel Murphy represents a poor-man's version of Zobrist. He isn't quite as versatile as Zobrist, but the left-handed hitting Murphy can play second, first, left and, in a pinch, third base. He is having a solid year for the Mets, who are currently in fifth place in the NL East and are likely to be looking to upgrade their young talent. The A's and Mets front offices have a lot of connections, but there are several teams reportedly interested in Murphy, who is under team control through next season. A bidding war between those teams could result in a more generous package going to New York than one would expect for Murphy.
Of the second basemen currently sporting WARs of greater than 1, only Utley, Zobrist and Murphy play for teams that are out of the playoff hunt. If the Pirates continue to remain at .500 towards the end of July, they could consider moving Neil Walker, although he is a Pittsburgh native and has been a popular player for the Bucs, who may not want to diminish the good will they built with their fans last season.
The A's could look at shortstops and either move Lowrie to second base or slide the new acquisition over to second. Arizona's Chris Owings has had a nice rookie season, but the D-Backs are likely to hold onto their younger talent as they look to dump contracts and try to recover from a disastrous 2014. Owings also doesn't have the plate discipline that one normally associates with players the A's target. The rest of the shortstop market is pretty thin, as it is littered with either aging veterans on expensive deals or players on contending teams not looking to sell.
The A's may decide that pitching is where they are best able to find an upgrade. Despite losing two-fifths of their expected Opening Day rotation during spring training, the A's starting rotation has put together a remarkable first half. The rotation sports a 3.23 ERA and a 1.186 WHIP. A's starters have done an excellent job throwing strikes, posting a 2.73 K:BB.
The A's rotation hasn't shifted much since Opening Day. Dan Straily was sent to the minors and Drew Pomeranz took his place in the rotation with great success. When Pomeranz was injured last week, the A's acquired left-hander Brad Mills to fill-in. Once Pomeranz returns, the A's will have Straily and Mills as depth for their current rotation.
The A's rotation depth is solid, but Oakland could still look to improve the front-end of the rotation with a veteran top-of-the-rotation starter that could help them not only reach the post-season but match-up with the Justin Verlanders, Jered Weavers and others that they are likely to see in a post-season match-up. If the A's did acquire a starting pitcher, they would not only be improving their rotation, but they may also be improving their bullpen, as one of the A's starters could slide into a middle relief role.
The biggest prize on the starting pitching market is Price, but the A's likely don't have the trade chips to win out on the expected bidding war for Price. The A's may similarly have difficulty putting together a package to acquire Cubs' starter Jeff Samardzija. Both Samardzija and Price are arbitration-eligible for 2015.
The Phillies may be willing to move left-handers Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, but both are on expensive contracts and both have had injury problems this year. Lee is currently on the disabled list, but he is expected to return to the active roster around the All-Star break.
Another name that might be of interest to the A's is Cubs' right-hander Jason Hammel. Hammel struggled with the Orioles last season, but he pitched well for them in 2012 and has a 2.99 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP for the Cubs in 2014. The Red Sox may be willing to trade right-hander Jake Peavy, but he hasn't pitched as well as any of the A's top-four starters thus far this year. One wild card could be the Mets, who might be willing to flip old friend Bartolo Colon. Colon has been red-hot of late and he recently dominated his old team. The A's would certainly know what they were getting with their former number one starter.
If the A's decide to stand pat with their rotation, they may look to make upgrades in their bullpen. Oakland expects to get left-hander Eric O'Flaherty off of the 60-day disabled list sometime in the next week or two. O'Flaherty had Tommy John surgery early last season and signed a two-year, free agent deal with the A's before this season with the idea that he would give Oakland's bullpen a boost midway through 2014 and for all of 2015.
O'Flaherty has made five appearances for the River Cats during his current rehab assignment. In three of those appearances (spanning four innings), he hasn't allowed any runs and has given up just one hit. In the other two outings (spanning 2.1 innings), he has allowed four runs on four hits and two walks. In total, O'Flaherty has three strike-outs in 6.1 innings with the River Cats. He struck-out the side in a scoreless inning for the Stockton Ports in early June.
If O'Flaherty is back to his top form, he will represent a significant upgrade for the A's bullpen. He has a career 2.85 ERA in 319.1 major league innings and he has allowed just 16 homeruns in his career. From 2011-2013, O'Flaherty's ERA was 1.45. He held left-handed hitters to a 419 OPS during that stretch. Now that Sean Doolittle is the A's everyday closer, O'Flaherty would give Oakland a set-up option against tough left-handers. Fernando Abad has done a nice job for the A's this season, but O'Flaherty would give Oakland two legitimate weapons before the ninth inning against tough left-handed hitters.
Even if the A's are confident that O'Flaherty will return in top form (and that is always a question when a player is within the first two years of a recovery from Tommy John surgery), they may still want to add another bullpen arm. Off-season acquisition Jim Johnson has been a disaster for the A's this season and he doesn't seem to be turning it around. His ERA in June is a respectable 3.38, but his WHIP is 1.88. Location has been a problem for Johnson all season and it doesn't seem likely that he will be able to pitch his way back into a non-mop-up role by the end of the year.
The A's still owe Johnson more than $5 million, but they may consider that sunk cost at this point. Oakland also has to be concerned with set-up man Ryan Cook, who has been on the disabled list multiple times already this season and has been inconsistent with his command. Adding another reliever with experience in the later innings would make a lot of sense for the A's.
One target could be former A's pitcher Brad Ziegler, who is one of the few D-Backs who is pitching well this season. Ziegler is signed through 2015 with a team option for 2016 and he is the kind of pitcher that would fit well in the A's bullpen this year and in coming years. Ziegler has always been tough on right-handed hitters because of his submarine throwing motion, but he has actually pitched well against left-handers the past two seasons. He is a workhorse who has experience closing and setting-up and he could fill multiple roles for the A's.
The A's saw plenty of reliever Joaquin Benoit when he was with the Rangers and the Tigers, and he could be available this season on the trade market. Currently pitching for the struggling San Diego Padres, Benoit has a 1.42 ERA and a 37:7 K:BB in 31.2 innings. He has experience in the post-season and could close in a pinch when Doolittle isn't available. The A's have dealt with the Padres a lot over the past few years. Acquiring Benoit could also serve the added benefit of keeping him away from the Angels, who are rumored to be interested in him. Benoit, like Ziegler, is signed through 2015 with a team option for 2016.
If the Rays look to move some of their veteran relievers, Oakland could have some interest in Joel Peralta or Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez). Peralta actually originally signed with the A's as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic in 1996, but he has never pitched for Oakland at the big league level. Peralta has been a solid middle reliever for Tampa since 2011. He is 38, but he has more than one strike-out per inning so far this season and has been a workhorse. He is signed through this season with team options for the next three seasons. Oviedo didn't pitch in the big leagues in 2012 and 2013 after it was discovered that he had been pitching under a false identity. His 2.33 ERA for Tampa this year is a little on the lucky side (his FIP is 4.02), but he is cheap ($1.5 million contract for this year) and has held right-handed hitters to a .146 average this season.
There should be several other quality middle relievers on the market as the calendar draws closer to July 31st and teams on the bubble of contention decide to cash-in those chips.
A's Potential Trade Chips
There is no such thing as an untouchable player in the Oakland A's system, but it is very unlikely that the A's deal top prospect Addison Russell. Russell has missed much of the season with a torn hamstring, but he is back on the field now and still has an outside chance of factoring in for the A's in September. At the very least, Russell figures to be a big part of the A's plans for the 2015 or 2016 seasons.
The A's are also likely to be loathe to deal fellow 2012 first-round picks Matt Olson and Daniel Robertson. Both are putting together outstanding seasons with High-A Stockton and both could be future cornerstones for the A's in the infield.
Several other A's prospects could be dangled in the right deal, however. The list below is far from comprehensive and also shouldn't be taken as a list of players the A's actively WANT to deal. However, it is a list of talented players that could be of interest to other teams. In addition to the players listed below, the A's could try to get creative with a team that is willing to take a risk on a younger player such as Jarrod Parker or A.J. Griffin. Both Parker and Griffin are coming off of Tommy John surgery. With the emergence of Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz and the improvement of Tommy Milone over last season, the A's could move either Parker or Griffin in the right deal. This isn't likely, however.
Trade Chip Names to Watch
Michael Ynoa, RHP: Ynoa has arguably as much talent as any pitcher in the A's organization and he has been electric at times for Stockton this season (39 K in 26 innings). However, he has also been inconsistent, leading to his 6.92 ERA.
Bruce Maxwell, C: Maxwell is a rare breed, a left-handed hitting catcher who can actually hit. Maxwell has improved his defense behind the plate and is hitting .275 with a .364 OBP for Stockton this season. He could be an excellent platoon-mate for Derek Norris in a few years, but the A's have a lot of depth at catcher in the big leagues and both Norris and Vogt are under team control for the next several seasons.
Renato Nunez, 3B: Nunez, the A's representative in the upcoming Futures Game, isn't a player that Oakland would part with lightly, but he could be one of their most valuable trade chips. Nunez has a lot of rawness to his game, but he has improved his plate discipline and his defense this season and he is still only 20. He has lots of power in his bat and could be a perennial 30-homer hitter if he reaches his peak. Nunez has 14 homers in 68 games for High-A Stockton this season.
Chad Pinder, IF: Pinder was the A's second-overall pick last season out of Virginia Tech. He had a disappointing pro debut with Vermont last year, but he has shined for Stockton in 2014, hitting better than .300 with power all season. Pinder's plate discipline isn't great, but he is an excellent athlete with a feel for the barrel and the ability to play several infield positions. He could intrigue several organizations.
Dan Straily, RHP: The A's haven't given up on Straily, but, in the right deal, they may be more willing to part with him than they were two years ago. Straily has had an up-and-down past two seasons. At times, both in the minor and major leagues, he has been unhittable. But, at times, he has been too hittable, which is reflected in his homers-allowed totals in the big leagues and Triple-A, especially this season. Command within the strike-zone has been Straily's biggest issue. If he can clean that up, he could be a solid number two or three starter in the big leagues for several years.
Seth Streich, RHP: With Raul Alcantara out for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Streich moves into the role of ‘top A's starting pitching prospect'. Streich has cruised through the California League thus far this season and could be in-line for a promotion to Double-A in the coming weeks. He is a strike-out pitcher who generates a lot of groundballs and doesn't walk many batters. A lot for teams to like.
Shane Peterson, OF: Peterson has quietly put together an outstanding season with the Sacramento River Cats, but he may not get much opportunity at the big-league level with the A's deep outfield. Peterson is a bit of a tweener in that he doesn't have huge power or blazing speed, but he does a lot of things very well and can handle all three outfield spots, as well as first base.
Nate Freiman, 1B: Like Peterson, Freiman has had an excellent season with Sacramento, but he has yet to be able to crack the A's deep roster. Freiman spent all of last season on the A's roster, but this year is his first at the Triple-A level. After a poor April, Freiman has dominated PCL pitching, hitting both righties and lefties. He has plus power and could interest teams in need of a corner power bat.
Billy Burns, OF: The A's acquired Burns this off-season from Washington and like what he can potentially bring to their outfield. However, in the right deal he could be on the move again. Burns got off to a slow start this season with Double-A Midland thanks to a strained oblique, but he still has 38 stolen bases in 41 chances in just 65 games. Burns will never hit for power, but he has good plate discipline and his running ability makes him a unique prospect.
Tucker Healy, RHP: Healy is the kind of pitcher that the A's tend to like more than other organizations, so his chances of being dealt are probably slim. Healy doesn't have the stuff of a Michael Ynoa, but he gets a lot of movement on his low-90s fastball and he has made minor league hitters look like fools since turning pro. This year alone, Healy has a 56:9 K:BB in 35.2 innings for Stockton and Midland.