Should the A's spend this offseason, or save? Should the team sign a few established veterans with question marks, or simply let the kids play?
AN seems divided. The community is struggling to reconcile its desire to be competitive and spend an available $10-15M, with the painful realization that a.) much of the organization's best internal talent is still 1-2 years away, b.) the team had the worst attendance in baseball last year, and c.) the team, as presently constructed, will not make the playoffs in '10.
There's one very unique way, and one very unique target, who allows the A's to reconcile those two stances. This post will discuss that offseason strategy after the jump.
This post will be broken up into three sections:
I. Roster Moves II. Justification/Analysis III. References/Resources
This is not typical AN style, but I think it will make it easier to navigate. As you're reading the first part, if you find a completely unsupported statement, please have faith that the explanation or citation is to follow.
I. 40-Man Roster Moves and Active Roster Decisions
A. Let Garciaparra, Kennedy, Crosby, Tomko, and Duke all leave in free agency.
B. Outright/nontender Casilla, Denorfia, and Marshall.
C. Protect FDLS, Carter, Lansford, Recker, Figuroa, and Wimberly from the Rule 5 draft by adding all six players to the 40-man roster prior to the November 20th deadline. I don't really think the team needs to protect all these guys, and I don't think they will, but I'm sticking to a clear emphasis on the future here in this post and each of these may have some future value.
D. Sign 21-year-old Cuban free agent left-handed pitcher Aroldis Chapman to a front-loaded, eight-year, $60-million deal.
E. That leaves exactly 40 players on the 40-man roster. Treat Eric Chavez and Brett Wallace as a "1-for-1" on the 40-man roster from the start of spring camp. Wallace currently isn't on the 40-man. But as soon as Chavez inevitably breaks down and needs to placed on the 60-day DL, immediately purchase Wallace's contract and annoint him the starting 3b, whether that happens in late March, May, or later in the season.
F. Let Eric Patterson, Travis Buck, and Aaron Cunningham get a lot of at-bats in Spring and compete for two roster slots. Let Gregorio Petit be the backup middle infielder, since he's a good defender and can play a capable shortstop. Thanks in part to drafting Grant Green, the organization has enough shortstops that it can promote internally and still survive the graduation of Petit and Pennington in the same year.
G. Explore a lot of cool offseason trades. Eventually, realize that no one wants to give up anything substantive for a reliever (Wuertz) or a left fielder coming off a horrible second half (Hairston). Keep both of them and hope the scenery changes by this July.
Here's how the 25-man roster looks on Opening Day:
13 hitters: Suzuki, Powell, Barton, Ellis, Pennington, Chavallace, Petit, Patterson, Cust, R. Davis, Sweeney, Hairston, Buckingham.
SPs: Braden, Anderson, Gonzalez, Cahill, Mazzaro, Eveland, Chapman (In the rare chance that all seven are healthy, the two least effective are optioned and join Simmons, Mortensen, and eventually a re-habbing Josh Outman in the AAA rotation).
7 relievers: Devine, Bailey, Ziegler, Wuertz, Meloan, Kilby, Gray, Breslow, Blevins (in the rare chance that all nine are healthy and effective in spring, option two of them, and they'll inevitably shuttle up and down all year anyway).
The projected payroll of that group is slightly less than $50M. Given that the A's had the worst attendance in baseball last year, and no reason to expect an uptick in '10, I think that low figure is perfectly justifiable. I think that last year showed that average Bay Area consumers won't come out to watch the A's just to see a couple of big names. Even prior to falling out of contention, there wasn't a major upswing in attendance with the arrivals of O-Cab, Holliday, Giambi, and Garciaparra. So there's no reason to expect that adding Glaus or Beltre for '10 would have a positive effect upon attendance, either.
Eschewing the free agent market almost entirely, with the very notable exception of Chapman, afforded the luxury of protecting literally any Rule 5 eligible player that was even remotely intriguing and had future upside. It would be a shame to let a good player get away for nothing, only to use that roster slot to sign an aging vet who doesn't contribute to a playoff season in a one-year deal.
The above roster only has one sexy, intriguing new move, which will leave a lot of ANers flustered as they look at the exact same names who struggled to a sub-.500 season. But avoiding FAs also gives a lot of players currently in the organization an opportunity to prove themselves, and there's a lot to watch there as the season rolls on: Can Petit, Patterson, and Pennington be major leaguers? Can Barton be an everyday first baseman? Was Rajai Davis' 2009 entirely a fluke, or has he indeed made adjustments and improved as a major league hitter? Will I finally get to watch Brett Wallace play third base and make a determination for myself, instead of reading a bunch of vague, lame Internet reports and staring at pictures of his ass and legs to try make the decision? These are all questions I'm legitimately excited to see answered, and the pitching staff offers us similar ones. Avoiding free agent re-treads will give us the opportunity to answer more of those than we would've otherwise.
This thing will have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Casual fans will become attracted to this team if and when it becomes a dynastic, perpetual playoff contender and the same faces stick around for a decade instead of being flipped for prospects after three years. That's part of why I have no problem with annointing Wallace at 3b as soon as Chavez's body breaks down. Wallace turns 24 during the season next year and has had a full, successful season of AAA. I don't want a one-year stopgap; I want casual fans and their kids to get to know and grow attached to watching Brett Wallace. With a new stadium on the horizon, I hope they'll get to keeping watching him for the next 10 years.
Obviously the most radical suggested move is the signing of Chapman, especially at such a high cost. But I see no point in suggesting popular moves that are unrealistic. "We should sign Holliday on a three-year, $30M deal!" Most everyone would like that, but it would never happen. Similarly, we have to assume that signing Chapman would likely require meeting his top asking price. By now, all A's fans have hopefully accepted that Oakland is not the top destination for any free agent. That gives the team a few limited, undesirable options in free agency: 1.) pursue retreads and castoffs who don't have attractive opportunities elsewhere, or 2.) the dreaded "overpay," which is often a pejorative shorthand for "much more than the second-best offer on the table."
Clearly the team's recent free-agent signings have fallen into category #1, with mostly uninspiring results. I am advocating a radical, one-time shift to option #2 (well, until November of 2013, anyway). But I insist on quibbling with semantics here. An "overpay" implies that the player did not perform to the value of the contract he received. Thanks to his age (21), Aroldis Chapman is the extremely rare example of a coveted free agent who could actually "outperform his contract," or provide surplus value, despite accepting an offer that was signficantly higher than the second-best one on the table. That couldn't happen with most elite free agents. Mark Teixiera can't dramatically outperform his contract. He received a very handsome deal that is commensurate with his production - and that's all that the Yankees need. Tex's great season in 2009 is a perfect example - he produced 5.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which was worth $23.1M according to Fangraphs' valuation system...and that was pretty close to what he was paid, when you factor in the signing bonus of his new contract. That works out just fine...for the Yankees. Their payroll is high enough that their free agents don't need to provide surplus value.
The A's can't do that. To win, they need to strategically pursue surplus value (and the accompanying surplus risk, yes) everywhere - even in free agency.
My point is, for the offer I've suggested, no one will know if its an overpay for several years. According to Fangraphs dollar valuations, there were 39 pitchers who produced at least $15M in value this year, and 45 who produced at least $14M. The contract I've suggested puts Aroldis Chapman in an A's uniform for eight years, from age 22-29. If four of those seasons are somewhere between "very good" and "great" - which I'm defining as the top 40 or so starting pitchers in the game via Fangraphs dollar valuation - then the deal actually has surplus value for the A's, even if Chapman does nothing for the other four seasons of the deal.
Chapman's incredible upside is what makes me feel comfortable that he'll perform at the level of "top 40 MLB SP" at least a few times during his peak. Six-foot-4, 180 pounds, a fastball that's been clocked at 101, and lefthanded. The links you'll find below indicate that his pure "stuff" (especially his fastball velocity and slider movement) already rank among the best in the world.
He's probably not ready to step right into the A's rotation. But the length of the deal, and Chapman's age, actually fall in line perfectly with the A's next strong contending window. He can spend the first 1-2 years adjusting, even in the minor leagues, and will hopefully be ready to justify the team's large investment when he's 23-24 in 2011-2012. By that time, Cahill/Wallace/Cardenas/Carter & Co. will be providing tens of millions in surplus value for the big club, and Chapman's contribution will help reinforce the A's as the new AL West force. Over the course of the lengthy deal, he would contribute to several A's playoff contending teams.
Contrast that scenario with spending $5-15M combined on one-year deals for Adrian Beltre, Brett Myers, Duke, or Troy Glaus. The outlay being spent in 2010 is still approximately the same. But the most likely scenario is that the team still doesn't make the playoffs and the player moves on after the season, with the A's having earned nothing from his time here, similar to Giambi's second go-around. None of those four aforementioned players will help contribute to the next projected A's dynasty, which is why I'd prefer to avoid each of them.
Mychael Urban wrote a recent piece on his MLB blog in which he insinuated that Giambi was critical of Bob Geren this year, and that the A's brass was wary of Giambi's influence on the younger players. That anecdote is part of why I don't want to bring in any one-year rentals that cost millions of dollars. I think that 30-something veterans who have already banked tens of millions of dollars in greener pastures earlier in their career are always going to be privately cynical about Oakland's attendance, the difficulty to hit in Oakland's park, the perpetual youth movement, etc. Giambi is, by most accounts, a great guy, and even he apparently groused about the situation. It's just too easy to visualize Beltre, Myers, Glaus, and others of their ilk struggling, and doing exactly the same. Honestly? I guess I'm just at a point in my A's fandom where I'd rather watch guys who are just happy to be there, still earning their first few million and happy to be on a Major League field.