Is good hitting contagious?
More to the point: Do hitters perform better when they are surrounded by other patient, proficient hitters?
Now if you've already decided where you stand on that question, you have probably also decided what you think the A's should do this winter.
Billy Beane has already mentioned an interest in finding out how much better Jack Cust could be with some established hitters around him. From there, its not much of a leap to suggest that Beane might be interested in seeing if the addition of a few established hitters could have a positive effect on the rest of the young lineup as well.
With that I hope to plant the seed for a humble rebuttal to my colleague's well-articulated arguments in favor of shunning the pricey 1-to-2 year signing of an aging vet.
Parsing through both Beane and Wolff's recent comments, we've learned:
- The team is in the market for at least one hitter, and it won't be one of the big, expensive names that will command 4+ years and $70 million or more.
- Eric Chavez is still being penciled in as the team's third baseman, and the A's won't acquire an expensive third baseman as long as that's the case.
- The team and Mark Ellis are back in contract talks and both sides seem amenable to a deal being reached.
- Beane doesn't seem willing to trade from his farm system in order to bolster the major league offense.
We might as well use that information to inform our offseason predictions. With that, here's my best guess as to the '09 Opening Day 40-man Roster, with the corresponding transactions and commentary in between.
After Kirk Saarloos and Donnie Murphy were outrighted to Sacramento on Tuesday, the A's have these 42 players on the 40-man roster.
Part A - Ramping up for the Rule 5 - Late October to mid-November
Before November 20th, which is the date that teams must add players from their own system to the 40-man roster in order to protect them from the Rule 5 draft, I'd expect the following moves:
- Javier Herrera and Richie Robnett are both DFA'd. These moves are indicative of this duo sliding backward in '08, but also of the organization's increasing depth. Herrera's once-promising numbers are muted by testing positive for steroids, concerns about his work ethic, and the fact that he didn't improve much in his second stint in Midland. Unlike Robnett, Herrera may get snagged by another organization off waivers. But he was going to run out of options before he ever contributed to the big-league club, so now is the time to try and sneak him through and allow his developmental process to continue.
- Keith Foulke and Emil Brown are both allowed to walk as free agents. We'll get to the team's three Type B Compensation free agents - Frank Thomas, Alan Embree, and Mark Ellis - a little bit later.
Brad Kilby - and only Brad Kilby - is added to the 40-man roster for protection from the Rule 5 draft. Somewhere in Westwood, right this second, PaulThomas is spitting out Chianti onto his property law case reading. No Anthony Recker? No Ryan Webb, Jesus Guzman, or Justin Sellers? With apologies to PT and our Rule 5 draft mavens, I think the team won't need to make as many moves as many of us originally thought. The real Rule 5-eligible talent - Cunningham, Baisley, Gio, Outman - was added to the 40-man during the year. And both Webb and Sellers are so young, and so far away from the majors, that if they were added to the 40-man now, they'd be out of options by the time they're finally ready to contribute. Murphy's recent outrighting to AAA may have foreshadowed Guzman's fate; Murphy's a better player than Guzman, and he obviouly wasn't deemed worthy of an offseason roster spot. The best argument could be made for protecting Recker, given the lack of quality catching depth around the league. But Recker's respectable season at Midland was buoyed by an unsustainable.384 BABIP, and he struck out in 29% of his at-bats. He also doesn't have nearly the upside at this point that 22-year-old Jesus Flores did when the Nationals plucked him in '06. I think the A's are safe.
Part B. Free Agent Fracas - Mid-November to Mid-December
I like to fantasize about A's acquisitions as much as anyone, but if we're truly trying to project who the team will acquire, we should start with this question:
Why would Player X want to become an Oakland Athletic?
Unfortunately, that filter removes some of the most exciting names. Let's try this test out on the FA market's best shortstop option - Rafael Furcal. Why would Furcal pass up a more familiar environment, a better chance to win the World Series, a better home stadium with higher attendance, better endorsement opportunities, being closer to his home country, and playing with several friends/countrymen, to play for...the A's???
Answer: He'd only do it for a deal that grossly exceeded whatever else he was being offered. The A's don't tend to handcuff themselves with these types of deals, which is probably one of the keys to their long-term success.
But going down that hypothetical road to rejection with Furcal, as painful an exercise as it was, can lead us to two players that do make sense and fit into Beane and Wolff's above-stated criteria:
1.) Offer 1b-DH Jason Giambi a 1 year, $10MM deal with a $10MM vesting option for '10 and a $2.5MM buyout (as well as a partial no-trade clause).
Sorting by OPS+, Giambi was the second-best hitter in '08 among all available FAs this offseason, behind only Teixiera. He projects to be worth just as much as Burrell or Dunn in '09, yet he'll come at significantly lower sticker price and without the long-term risk and uncertainly associated with a 4-6 year deal that covers the tail end of a player's prime and the beginning of his decline years.
The option would vest at 450-500 at-bats in '08. If Giambi gets that many at-bats, it means that he was healthy, and if he is healthy for an entire season, he'll be very successful.
Why he'd want to be an Athletic: Familiarity, mutual respect, the opportunity to play first base most of the time (which he prefers), returning to his native California, and because the money won't be significantly better elsewhere.
Giambi will be a fall-back for other suitors (perhaps the Angels if they lose the Tex Sweepstakes?), and most teams will avoid him all together. If Billy gave him a recruiting pitch and a competitive offer right as the free agent period opened, I think that would go a long way. It's nice to feel wanted.
Obviously he'd rather play for a contender, but I don't forsee any contenders viewing him as their primary target, and I don't think the market for him will be commensurate with his impressive numbers. I think he'd sign that deal, or perhaps a slightly larger one.
2.) Offer OF Juan Rivera a one year, $3MM deal with a $3.5MM team option for '10.
I'm still seduced by what Rivera did in his last healthy season with a full-time job in '06. In 448 at-bats, he slugged 27 home runs en route to an .887 OPS. Then he lost nearly the entire '07 season after suffering a broken leg playing winter ball, and by the time he came back healthy in '08, the Angels had signed every outfielder in America and he was 13th on the depth chart.
With the inevitable rust and lacking a clearly defined role, Rivera struggled in '07 to the tune of a .720 OPS in 256 at-bats.
The blessing of these struggles is that the 30-year-old Venezuelan won't be the top item on any team's Christmas wish list, and he should be very affordable.
Does he still have an .800-.825 OPS season or two lurking in there somewhere? If used properly, I think he does, and for that price, he'd be an incredible bargain. This is not Emil Brown II. Rivera is a legitimate right-handed power threat, four years younger and still in his prime, with a major league track record that exceeds anything Emil ever did.
Like Giambi, Rivera could play well enough during this contract to turn himself into an attractive trade piece or an eventual Type B Compensation pick after he leaves the A's. See? Even aging vets can help a rebuilding team get better for the future - it just has to be the right acquisition.
Why he'd want to be an Athletic: I doubt it would be his first choice. But more than anything, most big leaguers want to play. The A's can promise him that opportunity (I'll get to the positions a little bit later), where the Angels didn't. The short term of the deal also should keep him motivated by the opportunity to finally earn a big payday, at the end of his prime, after 1-2 good seasons.
3a.) Offer arbitration to Frank Thomas, Alan Embree (after declining his $3MM option), and Mark Ellis. Hope that Thomas and Embree decline, seeking cameo roles on contenders in their quests for a ring.
Thanks to the crazy math of the free agent compensation system, Thomas and Embree, despite their minimal contributions to the A's "success" in '08, could net the A's two of the first 45 picks in the 2009 MLB draft, if the A's offer arbitration and the duo sign with other teams. They could tell both players that they plan to offer arbitration only as a formality and ask them to decline it. These types of arrangements happen occasionally with Type B's and given the good relationship Beane seems to have with them, it's plausible.
3b.) Hope that Mark Ellis accepts arbitration, agreeing to a one-year, $7.5MM deal, rather than demanding a 2-3 year pact or signing elsewhere.
Tough situation here. A ton of Ellis' value is tied up in his defense, and he's having offseason surgery on his throwing arm. Will it affect him negatively? If the second major arm surgery of his career drops his defense from "top 5 in all of baseball" down to "average for his position", then a three-year deal at the going market rate (~$21MM, or $7MM per) would look ugly).
But if he comes back at something close to what he was this year, he's head and shoulders above the team's internal options at second base, even in down year offensively. His presence also makes it easier to stomach the otherwise-suspect defense the A's would be trotting out to the field in this hypothetical scenario (Giambi playing ~90 games at first, Cust and Rivera splitting time in left, with all three doing some DHing to stay fresh).
The dream scenario from the team's perspective would be to persuade him into a one-year extension at a slightly above-market price. Ellis gets a chance to prove he's healthy, the team mitigates its financial risk, and the A's get another year to evaluate Pennington/Petit/Patterson to see if any of them can carry Ellis' jockstrap in '10 and beyond - because they sure haven't proven that yet.
Part C - The Trade Winds Blow East - Late December
It's late December, and all the biggest fish on the free agent market have found their new homes. The Cardinals anticipated taking a pass on the free agent pickings at closer (K-Rod, Fuentes), and always intended to fill the back end of their '09 bullpen via trade. But after getting out-bid on Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria, the Cards find themselves without a shortstop, too...with Spring Training less than two months away.
After paying Cesar Izturis $2.85 million to post a .628 OPS in '08, St. Louis appears resigned on Christmas Day to pay Izturis $3 million for the same predictable, uninspiring results. Until...
The A's offer Huston Street, Bobby Crosby, Dan Meyer, and $3MM to cover part of the final year of Crosby's deal for top catching prospect Bryan Anderson and either Allen Craig or David Freese, whichever one of the two 3b prospects they prefer.
We could haggle over the money slightly, but I think this is a fair deal that benefits both teams.
On the Cardinals' side, they fill their gaping shortstop hole with a five-year veteran in a contract year with a ton to prove. Like most players, Crosby's stat line will probably see an uptick in the NL and in a better hitter's park (.700 OPS?), making him a significant upgrade over Izturis, despite the fact that he's cheaper than Izturis once the A's fork over $3MM in cash.
Street will probably make about $5MM in arbitration this year, and the Cardinals get their closer for the next two years at least at a price far cheaper than FA value. They also have a pitching coach with a great reputation for getting the most out of his pitchers, and Street needs that support.
Meyer is a throw-in, but if there's one place he can stick, it's probably here, in the NL and as a reliever. Tony LaRussa's yen for LOOGYs is legendary, and perhaps he an Duncan can develop one in Meyer for only $400K.
On the A's side, they clear around ~$7MM in salary with this deal, even if they fork over $3 million for Crosby. That $7MM almost covers the Giambi signing by itself. It also ensures that the team gets good value for Street; he had a good final month in '08 and probably reinstated some of his trade value with that performance. This is following in the footsteps of a Beane trend toward trading cost-controlled pitchers while they are at near-peak value (contractually and in terms of performance), before they break down and offer nothing in return.
In Anderson, the A's receive one of the game's top 10 catching prospects, a pure hitter who will definitely stay at catcher with no major defensive question marks. He lacks power, but he also reached AAA by the tender age of 21, so perhaps some will come with time. With Anderson (L) and Josh Donaldson (R), the A's could potentially have an awesome 1-2 catching punch in Fremont, with the added flexibility and depth to trade Suzuki in his later, more expensive arbitration years down the road if they see fit. Imagine - carrying two catchers that both hit well enough to justify playing them equally and keeping them fresh and productive, like the Indians did with Kelly Shoppach and Victor Martinez in '07.
Another potential haggling point in that deal is whether the second prospect coming back is Freese or Nico's Holy Grail, Allen Craig. My vote would be Freese, despite slightly less impressive offensive numbers, in large part because we can be certain he'll stick at third base. Freese was the California League Defensive Player of the Year in '07, while Craig's major question mark is shaky defense. If Craig can't stick at third - a very real possibility - he's instantly much less attractive.
Neither Craig nor Freese is a guaranteed future starting third baseman, the way Anderson all but is at catcher. But they provide yet another decent breakout candidate for the role of Chavez' heir apparent, and acquiring them would continue an organizational trend of hoarding cheap depth (like Patterson and Murton) that ensure the team won't need to make the Shannon Stewart/Emil Brown, $1.5MM replacement-level stopgap signings in the future.
Meyer was out of options and wasn't going to make the A's 25-man roster next season anyway, so he literally doesn't represent a loss to the team, even if he does represent a slight gain to an NL team.
But there's one more benefit to that deal from the A's standpoint: It gives the opportunity to freely audition for the shortstop job. As long as Crosby was in Oakland, he was going to grouse if anyone else saw time there. In fact, he was already doing it. By jettisoning him, the A's get to keep both Pennington and Petit on the active roster next year, with one starting alongside Ellis at SS and the other as the backup middle infielder. Since the A's next shortstop was probably going to have to be developed internally anyway, this creates the ideal situation from a developmental standpoint: a.) Good healthy competition between two guys for the starting job, b.) a "crutch" if one of the guys goes into a horrible slump (simply play the other guy for a week), c.) no complaining from Crosby, d.) an incredible double-play partner, and e.) with the improved lineup, the winner of the Pennington/Petit smackdown is batting 9th with virtually no offensive expectations.
Wrapping It All Up - 2009 Lineup and Roster
A big part of the offseason was spent prioritizing the offense. Furthering that trend, this hypothetical roster carries only 11 pitchers and 14 hitters, at least through the month of April with the additional off-days.
Lineup (vs. righties):
- Buck RF
- Sweeney CF
- Cust LF/DH
- Giambi 1b
- Rivera DH/LF
- Chavez 3b (we'll see about that, I'm skeptical)
- Ellis 2b
- Suzuki C
- Pennington/Petit SS
Now, how much better does that lineup look? :)
Getting back to our opening question: Do hitters perform better in a good lineup than in a terrible one, like the A's of '08?
Well, I don't think it could possibly hurt. There's actually 4-5 guys in there who could hit 20 homers now. Ellis' potential production looks great from that 7 slot, as does Suzuki's from the 8 hole. Perhaps all of these guys can also relax a little bit more with better hitters around them. Unquestionably, they'd have more opportunities to face pitchers in the stretch, and they'd work the opposing starting pitchers more than 2008 Oakland A's did with the worst offense in baseball (.687 team OPS).
But I'm also excited about the bench, which complements the starting nine very well:
Denorfia (R), Davis (R), Hannahan (L), Bowen (S) and Petit (R).
Denorfia, Davis, and Hannahan are three excellent defenders who can spell Giambi, Cust, or Rivera in the field in late innings, as well as give them plenty of off-days to keep them fresh. And hopefully, Denorfia and Rivera can play enough to ensure that Buck and Sweeney don't play much against lefties, where they had very poor platoon splits (in admittedly small samples) in '08.
There's also six or seven guys who can steal a base among that group of 14. It's a really nice complementary mix, and I could even see that offense being league average if it avoids injuries (which it might, if the playing time is doled out carefully).
Indirectly, that major league lineup also creates the best AAA lineup in baseball, by putting a few young studs in Sacramento to give them more time to develop.
C Powell, 1b Barton, 2b Patterson, SS Murphy (needs to become more flexible anyway), 3b Baisley, LF Murton, CF CarGon, RF Cunningham
You could see a few of those guys being angry about that, but I see no problem with them earning their way back to the big club. Plus, when they look around the diamond, they'll know this isn't the California Penal League - there's a future big leaguer at every position on that team.
The staff then looks like this:
- Duke SP
- Gallagher SP
- Eveland SP
- Smith SP
- Braden SP
- Brown RP
- Casilla RP
- Blevins LHP
- Ziegler RP
- Devine RP
Candidates for the final bullpen spot, all of whom have options remaining and can shuttle up and down all year long: Brad Kilby, Jeff Gray, Henry Rodriguez (he's a long ways off, I know).
The 40-man roster doesn't really need to carry a mop-up man, since Kirk Saarloos and Lenny DiNardo are both only a phone call and a DFA away in Sacramento.
The sixth and seventh SP, guaranteed to be needed due to injuries or a Duchscherer midseason trade: Outman and Gio Gonzalez.
With all of that offseason activity, we're still only at 38 spots on the 40-man roster. So the team could also take a high-upside reliever in the Rule 5 draft and stash him in the final bullpen spot, and perhaps also leave one open roster spot in spring training, planning to sign the best player that gets DFA'd in spring by another team. This season alone, AAA MVP Nelson Cruz and playoff stud Grant Balfour both passed waivers and all 29 other teams and returned to their respective organizations in late March.
Cost-effective, no sacrifices made for the future, and some hope for an offensive renaissance - If that's what the 40-man roster looks like on Opening Day, I'll be very excited about Oakland A's baseball.