A's Off-Season Outlook: Rebuild?

The disappointing ending to the Oakland A's 2014 season left many wondering what is next for the A's. Last week, we looked at the A's payroll situation and how that might shape their off-season decision-making. This week, we will dive into the three roadmaps the A's could follow in plotting out their off-season: rebuild, retool or reload. In part one, we weigh the possibility of an A's rebuild.

Since the Oakland A’s season ended last week, there has been a lot of talk about what the organization will do this off-season. With several free agents likely to leave the team and several more key players eligible for arbitration, the A’s will almost certainly be active over the next several months. Last week, I looked at the A’s payroll situation going into next year.

Given how many free agents the A’s have and the amount of money likely to go to their arbitration-eligible players, one thing is certain for the A’s going into the off-season: they won’t be standing pat. However, what path they do take remains to be seen.

As I see it, the A’s have three roadmaps to choose from over the next few months: rebuild, retool or reload. For these pieces, I am defining rebuild as a Chicago Cubs/Houston Astros-style tear down where nearly all above-average major-league players are traded for young players with little or no major league service time. Retool is defined as moving some of the team’s current MLB assets to create organizational depth and while moving others (or spending payroll) to improve their major-league roster. Reload is defined as an off-season similar to the one the A’s had the previous two years when all of their major transactions were made with the idea of improving the team for the upcoming season.

In this piece, I will look at the Rebuild Roadmap and breakdown the likelihood (or not) of the A’s going this direction.

What a Rebuild would Mean

As much as the A’s talked about rebuilding before the 2005, 2008 and the 2012 seasons, Oakland has never truly torn everything down and started over during the past decade. Even when Oakland traded away Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson before the 2005 season, they made moves that kept their 25-man roster at least capable of competing day-in and day-out. The same was true before the 2008 season, when the A’s traded Nick Swisher and Dan Haren, and again before the 2012 season, when Oakland dealt Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill. In fact, the A’s records in those seasons following their partial rebuilds were 88-74, 75-86 and 94-68, hardly the 100-loss seasons associated with teams that are rebuilding.

That being said, there is always a first time for everything and it is possible that the A’s will look at their AL West counterpart in Houston as a blueprint for how to handle the upcoming off-season. Should the A’s truly go through a rebuild, they will be looking to deal any veteran player with trade value, and younger players with high trade value under team control could also be dealt.

A rebuild almost certainly would mean that the A’s would trade starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija (arbitration-eligible and set to make seven figures) and Scott Kazmir (owed $13 million in 2015), as well as veteran position players Coco Crisp (owed $11 million in 2015), Brandon Moss (third year of arbitration; he's a Super Two), Josh Reddick (second year of arbitration) and John Jaso (final year of arbitration – health-permitting). A true rebuild may also mean the A’s deal young stars Josh Donaldson and Sonny Gray, both of whom would bring back significant returns.

Why the A’s Might Consider a True Rebuild

If the A’s decide to conduct a true rebuild, three factors will be driving their decision: 1) the increasingly competitive AL West, 2) the lack of depth in their farm system, and 3) the cost of keeping their current roster together.

While the AL West had a disappointing showing in the post-season, the division should be deep next year. The Angels’ window for competing with their current roster may be closing, but assuming Albert Pujols doesn’t completely fall apart and Garrett Richards returns early in the season, the AL’s best regular season team should have at least one more good season with their current crop of players. The Seattle Mariners came so close to the post-season this year that their ownership is likely to put more money into their roster for 2015. They will also have youngsters Taijuan Walker and James Paxton in the rotation for a full year. The Texas Rangers were snake-bit by injuries this year but could be dangerous if their luck changes next season. And the Houston Astros will continue to improve each year as their young players gain experience.

The second factor is the depth of the A’s farm system. Oakland has borrowed liberally from their farm system to improve their major league roster over the past three seasons, promoting and trading a significant percentage of their top prospects. The A’s system isn’t bereft of talent, by any means, but the organization doesn’t have the depth at each position that it did before the 2012 season.

The cost issue is always a factor for the A’s and it will likely weigh heavily in the team’s decision-making process this winter. The A’s payroll in 2014 was roughly $88 million. If the A’s were to bring back all of the players they currently have under team control for 2015, payroll will already be close to that $88 million mark – and that is even before the A’s look to replace free agents Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson and Jon Lester. It’s always hard to predict exactly what the A’s budget will be for an upcoming year. The A’s saw an increase in their regular season attendance, but they missed out on any post-season gates by not winning the AL Wild Card. With the stadium situation still not settled, A’s ownership may not be willing to bump payroll much past $90 million.

Should the A’s Trade Josh Donaldson?

Several national media outlets have speculated that the A’s will trade superstar Josh Donaldson as part of a major rebuild. Even if the A’s do make several trades designed to improve the team in the future, it doesn’t seem likely that the A’s would trade Donaldson.

For a trade to make sense, the A’s have to believe they are going to get back in return more in future value than they are giving up in present value. That is something Oakland has done well in past trades involving young veterans such as Swisher, Gonzalez, Mulder and Haren. However, none of the players the A’s have traded in the past come close to Donaldson’s present value. Over the past two seasons, Donaldson has been worth 15.4 in WAR. Only Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw have been worth more in WAR over the past two years. In other words, the A’s would need to acquire a package worth as much in future value as a Trout or a Kershaw to make trading Donaldson worthwhile. There just aren’t many teams – if any – that can put together packages of players with that kind of value. If the A’s got back three or four players in exchange for Donaldson, each of those players would have to project to be 2 WAR players or better for the trade to make sense. That kind of package is very difficult – if not impossible – to find.

Even the Astros kept Jose Altuve and signed him to an extension despite the fact that his best years may come before Houston is ready to compete for a title. Superstars are so rare that when a team has one, it doesn’t make sense for that team to trade him, unless he is in his final year of his contract. With Donaldson under team control for at least three more seasons, the A’s shouldn’t feel any urgency to deal Donaldson. Assuming he continues to play at a superstar level, he will still have plenty of trade value two years from now.

Donaldson is also unquestionably one of the faces of the franchise and trading him would be a huge blow to a fanbase that has already been through a lot of disappointment over the past 25 years.

Why the A’s aren’t Likely to Completely Rebuild

While the A’s focus this off-season may be more split between present and future than it has been the past two winters, it would be surprising to see the A’s completely tear apart their current roster. While Oakland may have played over their heads some during the first half of the season, they aren’t close to as bad a team as they appeared during the second half. Injuries impacted the A’s as much as any team in baseball during August and September and better health should improve the roster considerably. Oakland may trade one of their starters, but they will be doing so knowing that they will have a full year of Drew Pomeranz in the rotation and the possibility of Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin returning in June or July.

The A’s have also been very good at finding undervalued players at the major-league level. While the A’s don’t have an answer at shortstop right now, it’s not hard to imagine the A’s front office finding an inexpensive, but effective replacement for Lowrie, especially if they look to add defensive value at shortstop instead of offense. Better up-the-middle defense and healthier seasons from Moss, Kyle Blanks, Crisp, Stephen Vogt and others could put the A’s back in a position to compete next year. And if it all falls apart early in the year, the A’s could still recoup a lot of value for players they elect to keep at the mid-season trade deadline.

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