Over the past 10 days, I have been analyzing the possibilities for the Oakland A’s this off-season. After a disappointing ending to their 2014 season, there are several directions the A’s can take as they prepare for the 2015 campaign. I have identified the three most likely roadmaps for the A’s to choose from over the next few months: rebuild, re-tool or re-load.
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. Re-tool 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. Re-load 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.
Given the A’s current payroll situation, the re-load roadmap is the least likely path for the A’s to take this off-season. The A’s followed this path each of the past two off-seasons. While both times the path led to post-season berths, the path also left the A’s farm system thin.
The A’s were also operating with more payroll room in each of the past two off-seasons. This year, Oakland will have a slew of its key players up for significant raises. In addition, the A’s have several key free agents, many of whom will draw interest from large market clubs.
Still, stranger things have happened (see the A’s off-season before the 2009 campaign), so let’s examine at what a re-load would look like, shall we?
What a Re-Load would mean
By now, A’s fans are pretty familiar with the re-load roadmap. One could argue that the A’s have been following that path since the first days of the 2012 off-season, when Oakland traded shortstop Cliff Pennington and prospect Yordy Cabrera for outfielder Chris Young. Since that time, almost all of the A’s major transactions have been with winning-now in mind. Over that period, the A’s have traded away a boatload of young talent, including first-round picks Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, Michael Choice, Grant Green and Jemile Weeks, 2014 NL All-Star Tyson Ross, young rotation members Dan Straily and Tommy Milone, emerging slugger Chris Carter, as well as prospects Ian Krol, A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, Max Stassi, Blake Treinen, Chris Bostick, Ronald Herrera, Jake Goebbert, Nolan Sanburn, John Wooten, David Freitas, etc. In return, the A’s have acquired plenty of veteran help in their quest to win a World Series.
The A’s re-loads have come with mixed results. On the one hand, the A’s have made three straight trips to the post-season, and the last two have come while the A’s have been busy building up their 25-man roster. On the other hand, even after giving up a farm system’s worth of talent, the A’s are still searching for that winning formula that will bring them a World Series ring.
But this piece isn’t about rehashing the A’s recent trade strategy. Instead, it is about what might happen should the A’s decide to continue down the path of playing for today while borrowing from tomorrow’s talent base.
Going into the off-season, the A’s will need to fill several holes on their 25-man roster. The A’s starting shortstop (Jed Lowrie), number one and four starters (Jon Lester and Jason Hammel), top set-up man (Luke Gregerson) and two regularly used bench players (Jonny Gomes and Alberto Callaspo) are all set to become free agents.
If the A’s take the re-load route, they are likely to keep all three of their top starting pitchers under team control for 2015: Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija and Scott Kazmir. The A’s also have promising left-hander Drew Pomeranz set to return, as well as right-hander Jesse Chavez. Oakland should get back Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin – both lost to Tommy John surgery last season – in June or July.
Although that is a fairly full rotation, chances are the A’s will go out and acquire one veteran starting pitcher if they are in re-load mode. They could even go after two free agent starters if they choose to use Samardzija or Kazmir in a trade designed to enhance other parts of their 25-man roster.
The A’s two pending free agent starters – Jon Lester and Jason Hammel – will enter the off-season with two different free agent profiles. Lester is likely to sign one of the top-five richest contracts this off-season, so he isn’t coming back to the A’s, even if they go into re-load mode. Hammel, however, could be a target for Oakland. The right-hander got off to a horrible start with the A’s after being acquired from the Chicago Cubs, but he was good in August and outstanding in September, when he posted a 27:3 K:BB and a 2.20 ERA in 28.2 innings. Hammel will draw plenty of interest this off-season, but his contract demands should be much more reasonable than the top free agent starters on the market such as Lester, Max Scherzer and James Shields.
The A’s could look at former Oakland starter Brandon McCarthy as a free agent target. Since leaving the A’s after the 2012 season, McCarthy struggled during his time with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he rebuilt his worth in a big way during his stint with the New York Yankees. McCarthy struck-out 82 and walked just 13 in 90 innings with New York and had a 2.89 ERA. The Yankees may want him back, but Oakland could make a play for the tall right-hander.
Other veteran free agents the A’s could consider targeting under the re-load blueprint include Francisco Liriano (3.20 ERA and 9.4 K/9 over last two seasons) and Ervin Santana (3.95 ERA and 2.84 K/BB in 2014). Former A’s right-hander Dan Haren could also be a target for a short-term deal after he had a rebound second half of his season with the Los Angeles Dodgers (4.20 K/BB, .221 BAA). International free agents or pitchers posted from the Japanese Professional League will add to this target list, and the A’s could always pursue more starting pitching via the trade market.
The A’s starting shortstop for the past two seasons is set for free agency. Despite having a down year in 2014, Jed Lowrie couldn’t have timed his foray into free agency much better. Several big market teams will be looking for a shortstop and the market is very thin. Hanley Ramirez is the best free agent shortstop on the market, but many believe he needs to be moved off of the position, either to third or second base. The other top free-agent-to-be was J.J. Hardy, but he signed an extension with the Baltimore Orioles last week.
Lowrie’s only competition in the free agency market will come from two other veterans coming off of down years: Stephen Drew and Asdrubal Cabrera. The international market might add a name or two to this list, but it is a very down year for free agent shortstops.
The simplest solution for the A’s would be to re-sign Lowrie, especially if they felt he was more likely to be the 2013 version of himself in 2015. However, if the Yankees or Dodgers get involved in the bidding for Lowrie, even a re-loading A’s won’t stand a chance.
If the A’s lose Lowrie or choose not to pursue him, they could get creative in upgrading up-the-middle. The A’s could look for upgrades at second base and cover shortstop with a combination of Andy Parrino, Eric Sogard and Nick Punto. There wouldn’t be a lot of offense with that combination, but it would likely be a defensive upgrade over what the A’s had at short in 2014. And those players right now are set to be the A’s second base solution, so Oakland would simply be shifting that poor offensive production over a spot.
The free agent market at second base is also weak, however. The best free agent second baseman on the market is Rickie Weeks, the older brother of former A’s first-round pick Jemile Weeks. Rickie has a team option for 2015, but it isn’t expected to be picked up by the Milwaukee Brewers. Weeks has a long injury history, but he had a solid year for the Brewers. In 121 games, he hit .274/.357/.452. He started only 62 games at second, however, and fared poorly at the position defensively. Weeks was used most often as a pinch-hitter in 2014, often versus left-handed pitching.
The trade market might be the A’s best hope for upgrading their middle infield. There are likely to be a few big name middle infielders dangled on the trade market this winter, most notably Troy Tulowitzki, who is coming off of a turbulent season for the Colorado Rockies. Tulowitzki is the best shortstop in baseball when healthy, but he hasn’t appeared in 140 games since 2011 and is signed to a huge deal through 2020. Tulowitzki has been the face of the Rockies’ franchise for most of his MLB career, so it will be difficult for the Rockies to part with him. Even if he is available, the A’s may not have the players necessary to trade to Colorado. Tulowitzki is a 10-5 player, but he did grow up in the Bay Area and was an A’s fan as a kid.
The Phillies have two potential trade targets in Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. Both are veterans on expensive contracts with injury histories and 10-5 status, but both would fill a need for the A’s. It isn’t clear, however, that Philadelphia is willing to trade either player. Rollins is in the final year of his contract and may want to finish his career in Philadelphia, but he is also an Alameda native who might be rejuvenated by a homecoming. He had a 717 OPS in 138 games last year, and he stole 28 bases in 34 chances and hit 17 homeruns. Defensively, Rollins was a 1.0 dWAR player last year and he was worth 3.9 WAR overall.
Utley’s contract includes vesting options that could take him through the 2018 season. The 35-year-old played in 155 games in 2014, the most he has played since 2009. He had a 746 OPS and 11 homers. He also walked 53 times. Defensively, Utley rated a little bit above average in 2014 (0.6 WAR). He was a 3.6 WAR player overall this season.
Right-handed Hitting Production
Both Alberto Callaspo and Jonny Gomes had disappointing seasons in 2014, but the A’s will still be looking to replace the right-handed offensive production they expected from both of them. The right-handed hitter could either be a full-time player or a platoon player who handles left-handed pitching extremely well.
There are several big-name right-handed hitters on the free agent market: Nelson Cruz, Victor Martinez (switch-hitter), Michael Cuddyer, Pablo Sandoval (switch-hitter, although generally better from the left-side), Chase Headley (switch-hitter), Russell Martin, Torii Hunter (if he doesn’t retire), Hanley Ramirez and Mike Morse headline the group. Each of these players is likely to receive interest from several suitors, but given how many of them there are, the A’s could find themselves the leading suitor for one, should they open up the pocketbooks.
The A’s have flexibility in terms of the position of the player they might be targeting to fill the role of right-handed offensive threat. Any third baseman the A’s might target would be moved to first or DH, but otherwise, the A’s have the flexibility to bring in anyone at any position who can hit well from the right-side. If the A’s did make a play for Martin, for instance, they could move Derek Norris or John Jaso from a primary catcher role to a DH/1B/occasional catcher role and team Martin with Stephen Vogt behind the plate. The A’s could then entertain offers for either Norris or Jaso. Oakland’s DH situation is wide open, so players like Cruz, Martinez and Morse would still fit into the roster construction even though they don’t have good gloves.
Another route the A’s could take would be to trade either Samardzija or Kazmir for a productive, right-handed hitting position player and then replace the traded starter with a free agent starting pitcher.
The A’s will be returning most of their bullpen from 2014, and that is good news considering how strong the bullpen was for most of the season. There are questions about the health of left-handed set-up man Eric O’Flaherty, who finished the year with a sore elbow and is coming off of Tommy John surgery, and the A’s are almost certain to say good-bye to top set-up man Luke Gregerson.
Gregerson had an outstanding year in the A’s bullpen, but he is likely to receive a three-year deal worth at least $7 million a year. Even a re-loading A’s roadmap isn’t likely to include that kind of long-term deal for a set-up man, especially one who has thrown more pitches over the past three seasons than any other reliever in baseball.
The A’s enter the off-season with Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, O’Flaherty, Dan Otero, Fernando Abad, Evan Scribner, Fernando Rodriguez and Jesse Chavez (if he isn’t in the starting rotation) all under team control for 2015. The A’s also have several promising relief prospects in the Double-A and Triple-A levels of their organization. All things considered, the bullpen is the area the A’s have the least need to upgrade.
That being said, relievers are historically volatile year-to-year in terms of their performance, and adding one more veteran late-inning arm to the mix certainly wouldn’t hurt. If the A’s go the free agent route, they could consider former Giants’ closer Sergio Romo, who adjusted to a set-up role well this season. Burke Badenhop, Pat Neshek, Andrew Miller, Joakim Soria (if his option isn’t exercised), Jason Grilli, Jesse Crain (if healthy), Jason Frasor and Joel Peralta are all experienced set-up men who could be free agent targets.
The A’s have had plenty of success acquiring bullpen help through the trade market in recent years, so that might be the most likely course of action for the organization.
As I stated at the start of this piece, the A’s are not likely to follow a re-load roadmap this winter. With their budget already tight, the A’s won’t have a lot of wiggleroom with salary to go out and sign high-profile free agents or bring in expensive veterans via trades. The farm system is also so thin at this point that trading for high-profile talent could strip the system completely dry. Given how the A’s operate, thinning the farm system even further would jeopardize the future of the franchise beyond this year. A more balanced re-tooling approach makes the most sense. The A’s core is still talented enough for the team to be competitive next season, but there is enough competition within the division that going for broke at the expense of the future doesn’t make a lot of sense. Making moves that help both the present and the future would allow the A’s to explore this window of opportunity one more season without locking out future windows.