What next for the Athletics?

Returning from Tiger territory, it’s Ben Carter

What was the story last season?

Everyone expected the Athletics to lose games last season, but in the end they even lost at losing games. By winning their final two regular season games, they ensured a 69-93 record which is good enough to remove them from the second overall pick conversation (which would have been secure with a 67-95 record) and instead means they slot in at number six. For a team in fairly full-blown rebuild mode, that’s got to be at least a little frustrating. The -108 run differential was better only than the Twins in the American League and there were just six position players on the entire big league roster who amassed more than 0.3 fWAR (with one of those traded mid-season too). It was a bad season for the Bay Area side.

Any impending free agents?

Yonder Alonso: The 29 year old first baseman is arbitration eligible, but he is also a non-tender candidate and you have to think that the A’s will consider allowing him to walk. Alonso hit .253/.316/.367 last season which wouldn’t really be good enough if he were a good defensive first baseman and definitely isn’t good enough considering he isn’t.

Sam Fuld: The defensive wizard is a shocking 35 years of age now, and suffered a torn rotator cuff this year that prevented him from taking to the field. Even before that, his bat had long struggled to be impactful and as his speed declines so too has the defense. Still, his 6,000 word, 183 reference Wikipedia page will live in perpetuity.

Ross Detweiler: The left-handed reliever was traded from the Indians to the Athletics at mid-season in 2016, but wasn’t a particularly impactful bullpen piece for either team. Left-handed relievers will nearly always have a market in free agency but Detwiler appears likely to start the season on a team’s AAA staff and look to play his way into a ML role.

Where does the team need improving?

In Sonny Gray, Kendall Graveman, Jesse Hahn and Sean Manaea, the Athletics have a reasonable front-end of the rotation to line up on Opening Day. Gray struggled in 2016 but has ace upside, whilst all three of Hahn, Graveman and Manaea have youth on their side. Jharel Cotton had a mighty impressive audition at the end of the 2016 campaign whilst Andrew Triggs flashed some promising stuff from a funky side-arm delivery. The fifth spot in the rotation could undoubtedly be filled from within, but the A’s may choose to go external in search of depth.

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Sonny side up? Is it time for the A’s to cash in their ace?

The outfield was decimated by trades in 2016, as Beane emptied house once the season was dead and buried, with Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick and Billy Burns all departing before the July 31st trade deadline. Khris Davis played left field all season and mashed 42 home runs in the process, quietly becoming one of the most feared hitters in the American League. Danny Valencia’s departure via trade opens a hole in right field that could potentially be filled by Mark Canha whilst center field remains very much a question mark heading into the winter break.

Ryon Healy was one of few shining lights in the 2016 season, putting up a very impressive .305/.337/.524 triple-slash in 283 plate appearances. He’ll return at third base alongside Marcus Semien at shortstop, who deserves a great deal of credit for a huge campaign in which he hit 27 home runs and improved his historically bad defense. Jed Lowrie didn’t enjoy much luck on his Oakland return in 2016, although he will presumably be employed at second base again whilst the expected departure of Loney leaves them with a hole at first.

So… what’s the plan?

The A’s were pretty rubbish in 2016 and unfortunately project to be the same again in 2017. There remains some exciting talent in this infield and some very projectable arms in the rotation but it would need something fairly substantial to change for this team to be competitive next season.

With that being said, this isn’t an easy roster to blow up and rebuild. The most valuable asset is Gray who had an awful 2016 and so would not net the return the A’s would likely demand. The A’s could maybe shed some salary through trades, but given this is a team already operating under its (admittedly small) payroll, a fire sale would hardly salve, let alone cure Oakland’s ills.

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Hammel on Trial? Is Jason a good buy low-sell high guy for Billy Beane?

Instead, expect them to be fairly active on the free agent market. In the rotation, candidates include Jason Hammel, Brett Anderson and Jorge de la Rosa who would all appear to be low-cost options with a reasonable bit of upside. With Rich Hill as a fantastic template, you would expect the A’s to invest in some low-risk arms that could turn good.

In center field, the A’s will almost certainly go to the market. Carlos Gomez would be a typical A’s acquisition after an awful campaign, but he may still be out of the Oakland price range. Cheaper options include Michael Bourn, Austin Jackson and Jon Jay.

Free agent first basemen like Mitch Moreland, Adam Lind or ex-A Brandon Moss all represent reasonable targets, unless Oakland decide to shift Healy over to first base and instead pursue the third-base market which includes some fairly bleak options like Luis Valbuena and Trevor Plouffe.

One other likely trade candidate will be catcher Stephen Vogt, who has enjoyed a productive spell in Oakland but is getting older and seeing his defense decline. Oakland would presumably not receive a king’s ransom for his services, but a trade would open the door for left-handed hitting prospect Bruce Maxwell who had an impressive season in the minors. He’s certainly got my Vogt! Sorry.

It’s not often we enter an off-season where the A’s are genuine contenders to be one of the busiest teams, but given the state of the roster and the money available to them that is the position they are in. Even with a major free agent splash – and they could really only afford one – this isn’t a team that will compete next year.

Expect Beane to target cheap FA’s on short-term deals and try to turn one of them into a Rich Hill. Guys like Ryan Madson, Sean  Doolittle, Lowrie and Vogt are all options to be dealt at any point, but none will produce a particularly sexy return.

Best case scenario: The A’s acquire a few cheap free agents that help improve their defense in the short term and provide potential trade value in the long run. Guys like Carlos Gomez, Austin Jackson and Peter Bourjos stand out here.

Worst case scenario: They deal away Sonny Gray without acquiring much in return and spend the FA money on a three year deal for Edinson Volquez.

Likely scenario: Beane signs two cheap free agent pitchers and a decent center fielder but totally ignores the gaping holes at right field and first base. No-one is quite sure if it’s secretly genius because they’ve seen Moneyball and Brad Pitt does stuff like that in the movie and they like that Jonah Hill gif.

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