A's Off-Season Outlook: Dollars And Sense

The Oakland A's will have a busy and perhaps tumultuous off-season after a disappointing finish in 2014. The A's have several directions they may go in this off-season. Before we explore those possibilities, we will first look at the factor that will most shape the A's off-season plans: the payroll.

Coming off of a disappointing ending to their 2014 season, the Oakland A’s are looking at an off-season that is guaranteed to be busy. The past two off-seasons, the A’s made deals and free agent signings that expanded payroll and upgraded their 25-man roster. This off-season, due to likely budget constraints, the A’s will probably take a hybrid approach, shedding some salary in trades designed to improve the depth in their minor league system while also looking for ways to upgrade the big league roster in a cost-efficient manner.

Over the next week, I will be looking at the A’s off-season roadmap to see what roads they may take before Opening Day 2015. In this first piece, I focus on payroll – more specifically on what the A’s might have to spend in 2015.

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Oakland A’s had an Opening Day payroll of roughly $82 million in 2014. The A’s added salary to that payroll during the season when they took on portions of contracts for Jeff Samardzija (roughly $1.5 million), Jason Hammel (roughly $2 million), Jonny Gomes (roughly $1 million) and Adam Dunn ($1 million). The A’s also paid the Red Sox $650,000 that went towards Yoenis Cespedes’ contract while the Red Sox covered $1.8 million for Jon Lester. Give or take, the A’s 2014 final payroll was likely in the $88 million range.

The A’s have several free agents this off-season: Lester, Hammel, Dunn, Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson, Gomes, Alberto Callaspo, Geovany Soto and Daric Barton. This group took up roughly $21 million in payroll this season. In addition, the A’s paid out roughly $15 million this year for Jim Johnson, Hiroyuki Nakajima and Brett Anderson that they won’t be responsible for in 2015. All told, the A’s are cutting roughly $36 million from their books before the off-season negotiating period begins.

While that may seem like a healthy sum coming off of the books, the A’s have a lot of salary being added to their payroll in the form of salary increases for players already under contract. The A’s have firm commitments to several players for 2015: Scott Kazmir ($13 million; up $4 million from this year), Coco Crisp ($11 million; up $3.5 million from this year), Eric O’Flaherty ($5.5 million; up $4 million from this year), Nick Punto ($2.75 million; same as this year) and Sean Doolittle ($780,000; up $150,000 from this year). That totals $33.03 million in committed salary for 2015.

The biggest part of the A’s budget for the upcoming year will be coming out of the arbitration-eligible group. Samardzija, Kyle Blanks, Sam Fuld and John Jaso are all in their Arbitration 3 years, Brandon Moss is a Super Two, while Fernando Rodriguez, Jesse Chavez, Craig Gentry and Josh Reddick are in their second year of arbitration-eligibility. Josh Donaldson, Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook, Eric Sogard and Fernando Abad are all arbitration-eligible for the first time. It’s always difficult to predict how much players will make in arbitration, but it’s not hard to imagine another $40-50 million coming out of this group.

The remaining group of players under team control but not yet arbitration-eligible will likely cost the A’s between $3-5 million, depending on whether any of those players receive raises or if they are all renewed with slight pay bumps.

If the A’s ownership group is willing to invest $90 million for payroll next season, the A’s will have anywhere from $2-to-$14 million left over to re-sign or replace Lester, Lowrie, Gregerson, Gomes, Callaspo, Soto and Hammel. Some of those replacements will likely come from players already on the A’s 40-man roster (for instance, a combination of Andy Parrino, Kyle Blanks and Nate Freiman should be able to replace Callaspo and Gomes, the A’s could replace Gregerson with Fernando Rodriguez or Evan Scribner or a non-roster prospect, etc.), but there are a few holes the A’s aren’t well positioned to fill with players already under team control.

The shortstop position is the A’s most glaring need. Lowrie had a disappointing year at the plate (93 OPS+ after a 119 OPS+ last season) and his range is limited at shortstop, but MLB isn’t crawling with even replacement-level shortstops that aren’t under their team’s control. (More on this in a future article.) Right now, the A’s don’t have a shortstop prospect ready to step in and be the A’s everyday option at that position on Opening Day next season. Parrino is the best option from a glove-perspective, but the A’s didn’t give him a lot of playing time this season.

Given all of those factors, Lowrie is likely to be made a qualifying offer by the A’s. Last off-season, the qualifying offer was $14.1 million. Lowrie is looking for a multi-year deal, but it is hard to see the A’s offering him more than two years (or, perhaps, two years and an option) with prospect Daniel Robertson making his way up the organizational ladder. However, Lowrie is coming off of a down year, and Stephen Drew didn’t receive much interest last year after rejecting his qualifying offer. In other words, there is a chance the A’s could get Lowrie back on a one-year deal. But it isn’t likely.

If the A’s were able to secure Lowrie for $14-15 million, they may be over-budget without trading at least one of the players they have under contract or under arbitration obligations for 2015. Starting pitchers Kazmir and Samardzija are both set to make more than $10 million (Kazmir is under contract for $13 million, while Samardzija should break $10 million in arbitration). Both players will be attractive targets on the trade market. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the A’s trade at least one of those starters to clear up some salary room to fill other needs, especially with Parker and A.J. Griffin set to return to the A’s mid-season next year (Chavez could fill a rotation spot until one or both of those pitchers are ready).

The A’s may also non-tender some of their arbitration-eligible players, although they don’t have any obvious candidates from their current list. Rodriguez has promising stuff and had a solid year in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, but the A’s didn’t use him much at the major-league level and they could non-tender him if they feel he will be making too much in arbitration. Jaso could be another non-tender candidate because of the questions surrounding his health. Jaso was one of the A’s best hitters this season, but if he has to move to first base or DH, he may not fit as well on the A’s roster. Chances are that the A’s bring Jaso back if they think he will be healthy enough to hit on a regular basis next season, however.

Blanks in another non-tender candidate, although the A’s are always looking for affordable right-handed power. Blanks was just that when he was healthy last year, and at $1-2 million, he’d be a good risk to take next season. Cook is another player the A’s could non-tender over future health concerns, although that is probably not likely.

The A’s are more likely to explore extensions with some of their arbitration-eligible players in hopes of keeping down next year’s salary while earmarking more guaranteed money for future years. Donaldson is a strong candidate for that kind of extension. It would make a lot of sense for the A’s to lock Donaldson up long-term. He has been one of the top-10 most valuable players in baseball over the past two years and will earn significant salaries in arbitration over the next three seasons. Signing him to a contract so that the A’s know what they will need to earmark for Donaldson for the next three-to-five years makes a lot of sense. Barring a catastrophic injury, even on a significant guaranteed contract, Donaldson will still have a lot of trade value should the A’s need to move him in a year or two, given how valuable a player he is.

Without knowing what budget the A’s intend to operate with, it is difficult to know exactly how much room they have to work with to acquire new talent (or re-sign current talent) for 2015. Suffice it to say, they won’t likely have much wiggle-room unless the budget jumps significantly. Look for the creativity of the A’s front office to be tested once again this winter.

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