A's Off-Season Outlook: Retool?

The disappointing ending to the Oakland A's 2014 season left many wondering what is next for the green-and-gold. Over the past few days, we have looked at the A's payroll situation and how that might shape their off-season decision-making, as well as the possibility of an A's rebuild. Today, we will examine a retooling roadmap for the A's roster-building this off-season.

Earlier this week, I laid out three possible paths for the Oakland A’s off-season to take: Rebuild, Retool and 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.

On Monday, I took a close look at the rebuilding roadmap and weighed whether the A’s would go down this path. Last Friday, I also took a look at the A’s payroll situation for the upcoming year. Today I am examining the Retool Roadmap and breaking-down the likelihood of the A’s traveling this path.

What Retooling Might Look Like

If the A’s let all of their free agents walk, they will be saying good-bye to their starting shortstop (Jed Lowrie), their number one starter (Jon Lester), their right-handed hitting fourth outfielder (Jonny Gomes), their top set-up man (Luke Gregerson), their fifth starter (Jason Hammel) and their back-up middle infielder/frequent pinch-hitter (Alberto Callaspo). (Note: given that he was only with the team after rosters expanded, I am not including Adam Dunn among the players the A’s need to replace in 2014.)

Under the retool roadmap, the A’s would look to replace some of these players with in-house candidates and they would use trades, signings or waiver claims to replace the others. Under the retool roadmap, the A’s are also likely to trade one of their two big money starting pitchers – Jeff Samardzija or Scott Kazmir – to add young talent with more years of team control. In addition, the A’s could entertain trading a veteran such as Coco Crisp or John Jaso, depending on what other moves they make during the off-season. Because of injuries, both Crisp and Jaso will likely spend a significant amount of time DHing next season. Consequently, it may not make sense for the A’s to carry both players.

Of course, the A’s could make numerous other adjustments under the retooling scenario. But we will go over some of the more likely moves under this roadmap.

Replacing Lowrie

On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that the qualifying offer for free agents will be $15.3 million (it was $14.1 million last season). At $14.1 million, it was already a long-shot that the A’s would give a qualifying offer to Lowrie. However, at $15.3 million, the chances that the A’s make the offer to Lowrie are almost zero.

Not making a qualifying offer to Lowrie doesn’t completely eliminate his chances of returning to the A’s, but it will make him a more attractive free agent than he would have been with the draft pick penalty attached to him. The odds of Lowrie returning under these circumstances are less than 50%.

If the A’s do lose Lowrie, they are likely to look outside the organization for his replacement. Eric Sogard played some shortstop this season, but he is a natural second baseman and is much better at that position than he is at short. Nick Punto was signed to be a back-up middle infielder and it is hard to imagine the A’s turning over the everyday playing duties to Punto. The A’s other 40-man roster option at shortstop is Andy Parrino, who is an outstanding defender, but the A’s didn’t use him much in September even when Lowrie was struggling, which suggests they don’t see him as the answer at the position.

The A’s are thin at shortstop in the upper-levels of the minor leagues. Parrino was their starting shortstop in Triple-A for much of the season. The other two prospects to see significant time at that position in Triple-A are both minor league free agents (Tyler Ladendorf and Jose Martinez). Dusty Coleman, the starting shortstop for Double-A Midland last year, was one of the top defensive shortstops in the minor league last year. He, too, is eligible for minor league free agency.

The A’s top prospect is a shortstop (Daniel Robertson), but he has only a handful of games above the A-ball level and will need at least another year (and likely two) of minor league seasoning before he is ready to start at the major-league level.

If the A’s look outside the organization for a shortstop, they will likely be scouring the non-tender and trade markets for a fit. The top free agent shortstops – Hanley Ramirez, J.J. Hardy, etc. – will be in high demand and there is no chance the A’s will be able to compete in a bidding war with teams needing a shortstop such as the New York Yankees.

It is no secret that A’s shortstops struggled defensively in 2014. According to FanGraphs, A’s shortstops were at -9 defensive runs saved this season. Their UZR was -1.3, which isn’t awful, but is below average. By FanGraphs’ measurements, A’s shortstops fared well in terms of range but poorly in terms of runs allowed due to errors. Those who watched the team all year would say that range was an issue, too, especially with Lowrie in the game. If the A’s don’t acquire a replacement for Lowrie with the same offensive capabilities, they should be able to recoup some – or all – of the value lost by targeting an above-average defensive player at the position.

Some possible candidates include:

Cliff Pennington: Arizona Diamondbacks; entering final year of arbitration

Pennington made $3.25 million last year and is a non-tender candidate by the Diamondbacks, who have Didi Gregorius, Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings as cheaper options at shortstop. The A’s could try to re-acquire their 2005 first-round pick via trade or take the risk that he will be non-tendered and go after him in free agency. Pennington isn’t close to as good a hitter as Lowrie, but Pennington has been worth at least 1.6 WAR each year over the past three seasons, in large part because of his defensive abilities. Pennington would be a big upgrade for the A’s with his glove.

Pennington reached base at a .340 clip last season, although he missed significant time with injury. He can play a solid second and third base, in addition to short, and he is a good base-runner. All of those characteristics would give the A’s 25-man roster some added flexibility they didn’t have with Alberto Callaspo and Lowrie struggling with the glove and adding little speed.

Pennington is likely to be worth around $4-5 million in arbitration. That would equal roughly a $10-11 million savings over what Lowrie would cost if he were given (and accepted) the one-year qualifying offer. It is also be the same or less than what Lowrie was paid in 2014. Despite playing in half the number of games, Pennington was worth double in WAR than Lowrie in 2014.

Ruben Tejada: New York Mets; second year of arbitration eligibility

Tejada has had a tough couple of years with the Mets, spending a big part of 2013 in the minor leagues and losing playing time at the big league level in 2014 to Wilmer Flores. Tejada got off to a terrible start with the Mets this year, but he had a strong final three months of the season and finished with a .237/.342/.310 line in 119 games. More importantly, he played a sure-handed shortstop, posting a range factor above the league average and ranking 13th in MLB in UZR amongst shortstops. Tejada has struggled with his conditioning at times and he isn’t a big threat on the bases, but he works the count well and is the kind of hitter that can turn over a line-up well from the ninth spot.

As it stands right now, Tejada is likely to be the Mets’ back-up middle infielder in 2015. If the Mets acquire a big name starting shortstop, they may decide to non-tender or trade Tejada, who made $1.1 million in his first year of arbitration-eligibility last season.

Stephen Drew: Free agent

Drew had a nightmare 2014 season. After turning down the Boston Red Sox’s qualifying offer during the off-season, Drew found no suitors for his services on the free agency market. He didn’t sign a contract until part of the way through the season, when the Red Sox re-signed him to a one-year deal. Whether it was because he missed spring training or some other factor, Drew struggled with the bat all year. He hit a combined .162/.237/.536 in 300 plate appearances for the Red Sox and Yankees.

Drew should draw some interest this off-season since he can’t be offered a qualifying deal. However, he will likely need a one-year deal to rebuild his value after last year’s disaster. When Drew played for the A’s in 2012, he was still only a year removed from a broken ankle that still impacted his range on defense. With his ankle now healthy, Drew has developed into an above-average defensive shortstop. If the A’s think Drew can rebound back to his 2012 or (even better) 2013 levels offensively, they could make a play to bring him back.

Re-Stocking the Starting Rotation

The A’s starting rotation went through significant upheaval during the 2014 season. The changes began in the spring when Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin were lost for the season with elbow injuries. It continued in May when Drew Pomeranz replaced Dan Straily and then again in June when Straily was traded in a deal that brought back Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The complete remaking of the A’s rotation was finalized in late July, when the A’s acquired Jon Lester and traded Tommy Milone in separate deals.

Going into next season, the A’s rotation is arguably the most unsettled part of their 25-man roster. Only Sonny Gray is a sure bet to be part of next year’s Opening Day rotation – and that assumes that Gray isn’t traded as part of a big rebuilding project. What is certain is that Lester is gone. Hammel is likely to follow Lester out of the organization via free agency after his strong finish with the A’s. That leaves Gray, Samardzija, Scott Kazmir, Pomeranz, Jesse Chavez and Josh Lindblom as pitchers under team control for next year who made starts for Oakland in 2014. Parker and Griffin are expected to return to the big leagues in June or July, assuming their rehabs progress as expected.

If the A’s bring back all six starters currently under team control, they will be in good shape until Griffin and Parker return. Oakland is likely to add some additional depth at the Triple-A level via minor league free agent signings. However, keeping both Samardzija and Kazmir means that the A’s will be tying up more than a quarter of their payroll in just two pitchers. If the A’s move either Samardzija or Kazmir, they may look to the major league free agency market for a cheaper veteran seeking a one- or two-year deal.

Even if the A’s plan to keep the core of their team intact, it still wouldn’t be surprising if they moved one of their two seven-figure salaried starting pitchers. The major league free agency market is deep with starting pitching this season, but several teams with contention hopes will be looking for starters and there should still be a trade market for Samardzija or Kazmir this winter. If the A’s want to improve their minor league talent base while also keeping themselves in position to contend, trading either Samardzija or Kazmir for a package of young players is their most likely course of action. Trading one of those two starters will also give the A’s more financial flexibility to keep their key position players.

Replacing Callaspo and Gomes

The A’s famously used a platoon system throughout the 2014 season, with great effect during the first half and with diminishing returns during the second half. Assuming most of their position players return in 2015, the A’s are likely to continue to employ platoons at many positions.

Two platoon players who are not likely to return are Jonny Gomes and Alberto Callaspo, both of whom are free agents. Gomes was with the team only for the final two months of the season after being acquired in the Yoenis Cespedes deal. The A’s had hoped that Gomes would provide similar production from the right-side as he did with the A’s in 2012, but he struggled in 34 games with the A’s (-0.5 WAR) both offensively and defensively.

Callaspo, a switch-hitter, was used against righties and lefties at various points in 2014 and he played a few different positions (second base, first base, DH and third base), although he didn’t play any of the defensive positions particularly well. At the plate, Callaspo got off to a hot start, but he cooled considerably in May and never recovered. He finished with an OPS under 600 and a -1.0 WAR for the season.

One could make the point that the A’s will improve just by subtracting Gomes and Callaspo from the line-up, but they will need to find at least league-average players to take those at-bats to realize the improvement. Given the injury history of several of the A’s key starting position players, Oakland would be wise to find players who can play more than one position to take the roughly 600 plate appearances shared by Gomes and Callaspo this season.

Ideally, the A’s would replace Gomes and Callaspo with one player who is a right-handed power-hitter and another who is a utilityman with secondary skills, such as speed or on-base prowess. Oakland may have the right-handed power hitter already in the system in the person of Kyle Blanks. The A’s acquired Blanks from San Diego in May and he hit .333/.446/.489 in 21 games before calf and Achilles injuries sidelined him for the rest of the season. Blanks has always had the potential to be an above-average hitter in the big leagues, but injuries have prevented him from realizing that potential. It would be a risk for the A’s to count on Blanks, but one that could pay off heavily if he stays healthy.

The A’s also have Nate Freiman, who showed the ability to hit both righties and lefties this year in Triple-A. Freiman reached base and hit for average during his rookie season in 2013 and hit for power but struggled to get on-base in 2014 (at the big league level). Based on his minor league track record, Freiman has the potential to be a well-rounded hitter who can reach base and hit for power, but he will likely need more regular at-bats in the big leagues to develop.

Of course, many would argue that the A’s don’t need to replace Gomes this off-season. Instead, they need to look for a replacement for Cespedes, whose production in the A’s line-up was missed dearly after his mid-season trade. There are several veteran free agents who could fill this role for the A’s – Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, Russell Martin (a catcher who could shift either Derek Norris or Stephen Vogt to first base/DH), Nelson Cruz – although all are likely to make more than Cespedes was slated to earn for 2015 and, therefore, will be over the A’s price range. The trade market should yield more options for the A’s, although it is difficult to know who will be available at this point.

A replacement for Callaspo is more likely to come from outside of the organization. The one internal candidate to replace Callaspo is Shane Peterson, who was a Pacific Coast League All-Star for Sacramento this year. Peterson can’t play second or third base like Callaspo did, but he can play all three outfield positions and first base. Peterson has the secondary skills to be a useful bench player – he works the count well, has some power, runs the bases well and is a steady glove. The A’s didn’t give Peterson a September call-up, however, so he may not be in their plans for next year. He is also a left-handed hitter, which could work against him if the A’s keep their current roster construction.

If the A’s do go outside of the organization to find a replacement for Callaspo, they would be wise to acquire a jack-of-all-trades type who can move all over the diamond during a game, especially if the A’s keep John Jaso and Coco Crisp. A player like Adam Rosales – who is about league-average with the bat and can play every position but catcher and center field – is extremely valuable on a team that likes to pinch-hit liberally like the A’s do. A player like that can also cover a lot of holes when players are day-to-day with nagging injuries. Unfortunately for the A’s, Rosales has played well for the Rangers and isn’t likely to be non-tendered or traded this off-season.

Replacing Gregerson

Luke Gregerson had a strange season. He was really, really good, but he had his occasional missteps and all of them were at costly and memorable times. Gregerson was a workhorse in the A’s bullpen, making 72 appearances and throwing 72.1 innings. His ERA was 2.12 and his ERA+ was 176. His strike-outs were down compared to his previous two seasons with San Diego, and his home rate nearly doubled from 2013 to 2014 (0.4 to 0.7). Still, all things considered, he was one of the best set-up men in the American League in 2014.

With big money teams like the Detroit Tigers and the Los Angeles Dodgers in desperate need for relief pitching, Gregerson should have plenty of suitors this winter. He made $5 million in 2014 and should get a multi-year deal worth at least $7 million a year on the open market.

A strong bullpen can be the difference between being a good team and a mediocre one, and the A’s have benefited greatly from the strength of their bullpens the past three seasons. That being said, the A’s don’t have the luxury of paying exorbitant sums for their set-up men. Closer Sean Doolittle is signed to a team-friendly contract, but with set-up men Fernando Abad and Ryan Cook set to earn raises in arbitration and Eric O’Flaherty already earmarked $5.5 million for next year, the A’s don’t have much more room in their budget to spend on relievers.

Chances are, the A’s won’t spend a significant amount of money on a replacement for Gregerson. In fact, they are much more likely to look internally for a replacement than they are to search outside of the organization. Right-handers Evan Scribner and Fernando Rodriguez had outstanding seasons in Triple-A last year and both have significant major league experience. Both pitchers are out-of-options, as well, and are likely to be part of the A’s plans for an Opening Day bullpen.

Rodriguez will be two years removed from Tommy John surgery next April. When the A’s acquired him from Houston before the 2013 season, they envisioned a late-inning role for Rodriguez. He proved he could handle a full-season workload last year and showed solid command even though he was still in that “working his way back to normal” stage of his Tommy John rehab. Rodriguez struck out more than a batter an inning for Sacramento and allowed 0.4 HR/9. He could join Dan Otero and Ryan Cook as top right-handed options in the “bridge” innings next season.

Scribner posted eye-popping numbers for Sacramento in 2014. He struck-out 72 and walked just nine in 47 innings for the River Cats. Scribner has gone back and forth between Triple-A and the big leagues the past four years and should finally get a legitimate chance to stay in the majors next season now that he will be out of options. Scribner doesn’t have a power arm, but his fastball gets good movement and his curveball is a true out-pitch. Scribner allowed three homeruns in 11.2 innings with the A’s this season, but that was out-of-character for him. If he can improve his change-up or create more velocity differential with his slider, Scribner could emerge as another “where did he come from?” late-inning stud for the A’s next season. At the very least, he should be an effective middle reliever.

Otero is likely to slide into the role as the main set-up man next season, unless Cook can rebound after an injury-filled and inconsistent 2014 season. Otero was a groundball machine for the A’s in 2014 and he showed the ability to pitch on back-to-back days without losing effectiveness. Otero isn’t a strike-out pitcher, but he doesn’t walk batters and is able to come in with runners on-base and be effective because of his ability to induce groundballs. He led A’s relievers with 86.2 innings pitched this year.

Should the A’s need to dip into the minor leagues to find relief help, they will have some options to choose from, as the bullpen is one of the few areas the A’s are deep in at the upper levels of their system. Right-handers Seth Frankoff, Tucker Healy, Austin House and Paul Smyth could be factors for the A’s at some point next season. Left-hander Jeff Urlaub is also expected to be healthy this spring after missing most of last year with an elbow injury. And hard-throwing right-handers Bobby Wahl and Michael Ynoa have outside chances of making the big leagues this season, if they can develop consistency with their deliveries.

Historically, the A’s have had a knack for finding effective relievers on the trade market and the waiver wire. Last off-season, Oakland chose to target more high-profile, established veteran relievers in Gregerson, O’Flaherty and Jim Johnson on the trade market. However, it was their lowest profile bullpen acquisition that was arguably their best – Abad. This off-season, look for the front office to get back to their waiver wire/low-profile trading ways, as they look for the next Oteros, Abads, Craig Breslows and Pat Nesheks.

Trade Jaso or Crisp?

The injuries to John Jaso and Coco Crisp during the second half of this season were at the top of the list of reasons why the A’s struggled after the All-Star break. Crisp is the catalyst that makes the A’s offense go, and when he isn’t playing or is playing through injuries, the A’s offense tends to stagnate. Jaso had the fourth-highest OPS+ of any hitter on the A’s this season behind only Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Derek Norris, so losing him to a concussion was a big blow.

Going into 2015, both Crisp and Jaso are question-marks because of their injuries. Crisp has a neck condition that he will have to continually manage and Jaso is coming off of two straight years cut short by concussion. It seems likely that for both players to make it through the 2015 season in better health than they enjoyed in 2014, both will need to see more time at DH.

It appears the A’s were planning on a future with Crisp seeing time at DH even before they signed him to a contract extension last spring. The A’s acquired Craig Gentry during the off-season and one of Gentry’s main values as a player is his defensive ability in centerfield. The A’s also re-acquired Sam Fuld in July with the intention of keeping him in 2015, and he can also play an above-average centerfield. In addition, the A’s picked up minor league outfielder Billy Burns from the Washington Nationals last winter. Burns has work to do offensively, but he rated among the best defensive centerfielders in Double-A in 2014, according to BaseballAmerica.

With that amount of centerfield depth, the A’s should be well-positioned to give Crisp several starts a week at DH next year. However, if they do have him DHing regularly, they will need to figure out another plan for Jaso. The A’s haven’t ruled out Jaso catching next season, but it is hard to imagine him or the team taking the risk of sending him out there regularly after the two major concussions. Stephen Vogt – provided his foot is healthy – is the best defensive catcher on the A’s current 40-man roster and he should take over as the backstop against right-handed pitchers.

Jaso could try learning to play first base. If that worked, the A’s could move Brandon Moss to left field and let Crisp get regular at-bats at DH. That wouldn’t give the A’s their best defensive alignment, but it would probably give Oakland their best batting line-up versus right-handers. Jaso is arbitration-eligible and is likely to make between $5-8 million next year. Crisp is signed to a deal that will pay him $11 million in 2015. If the A’s are looking to reallocate funds to a different area of the roster, this could be a spot where they trade a veteran to save payroll and bring in more minor league depth. This may not be the likely path for the A’s, however, as the trade value for Jaso and Crisp is likely to be low this off-season thanks to Jaso’s injury concerns and Crisp’s long-term deal.

Why this Roadmap Works Best

Since the start of the Billy Beane regime, the A’s front office has been at its best when it has its toes dipped in both the “play for today” and “trade for tomorrow” pools. When the A’s have focused solely on playing for that season, they have had a tendency to over-pay for players in trades. However, when they are trying to balance the future and the present, the A’s front office has shown a remarkable amount of creativity in finding undervalued players around the league.

For this roadmap to work, the A’s front office will have to trust the players they in their system currently, something that they haven’t always done in recent years, especially on the position-player side. Trusting players they currently have to fill some of the existing holes will free them up to use assets in areas where an obvious internal candidate doesn’t exist.

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