I've come up with five potential directions for the A's upcoming off-season, each with their own merits and faults. This is Part I in the series.
#1: The 40-man roster is currently at 47 players as of August 18th. In the off-season, decline Ellis*** and Chavy's options, pick up Crisp's option, let Duke/Sheets/Gross all walk in free agency. ***Try to use the team's goodwill with Ellis to create a handshake agreement with him to decline arbitration if offered, then offer it to him and collect the compensatory draft pick when he signs elsewhere (Ellis will be a Type B free agent). Tender contracts to Kouzmanoff, Conor Jackson, and all other notable pre-FA arb eligibles. Add Cardenas, Taylor, and Corey Brown to the 40-man roster in November to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft - all three are eligible for the first time. Subtracting the five free agents and adding the three Rule 5ers puts the 40-man roster at 45. From there we have to release 6 guys, and I'll let you pick your least favorite 6 from this group of 10 OFs and RPs: Watson, Carson, Buck, Larish, Bonser, Meloan, Bowers, Souza, Wolf, Lyman. All are expendable, but I'd err on the side of keeping a few of the relievers with options remaining, because of the sheer volatility of RPs and the health of the A's big-league pen. Have you made your 6 cuts? Now the roster stands at 39.
#2: Sign Crawford to an eight-year, front-loaded contract that starts at $25M in 2011 but gets progressively less expensive over the life of the deal.
The Pros of Option A:
This is my preferred off-season plan, so I'm going to spend far more time defending this one than the other plans later in this analysis piece.
I believe the A's are on an upswing. They won 75 games last year, they'll win a few more than that this season, and next year they project to improve again. This year will be the last season in which they'll finish in the "bottom 15" in MLB for the foreseeable future. Why is that significant? Because a team that finishes in the bottom 15 has a protected first-round draft pick when pursuing elite, Type A free agents such as Crawford. Instead, those teams cede their 2nd-round pick when they sign an elite Type A free agent. In the A's case, this would mean giving up approximately the No. ~55 overall pick in the 2011 draft if they sign an elite Type A free agent like Crawford this year. That No. 55 overall pick is far less valuable than one in the #16-24 range, which is where the A's will be drafting in the foreseeable future as they continue their upswing with their young core of talent. In other words, this coming off-season is probably the A's last opportunity in the current contending window to pursue elite free agent talent with no major long-term talent penalty attached to it.
Other reasons I like Crawford: He plays a position in dire need of an upgrade for the A's, he's well-rounded and athletic and thus perhaps more likely to age well, he's only 29, his game isn't dependent upon power (which would likely be sapped in the Coliseum anyway), he instantly becomes a fabulously wealthy and successful African-American role-model for arguably the three most important prospects in the A's system (Carter, Taylor, and Weeks), he provides a lefty bat and balance in an organization that has become curiously right-hand dominant (Carter/Taylor/Choice/Cabrera) of late, and he's a phenomenal defender, which plays well in the spacious Coli outfield.
Eight years is a commitment that I think will be one year longer than anyone else wants to give him. But remember the hard lesson of the Furcal/Beltre/Scutaro/Chapman pursuits: It will take overwhelmingly the best offer to get a highly-coveted player in an A's uniform. So don't give a rebuttal that "you'd like to sign Crawford, but only at five years and $80M." At that price, so would the Yankees, and so would everyone else. It's a non-starter, and it's worthless to go down the road of the A's signing him at a discount price.
That's also the logic behind starting Crawford's proposed deal at $25M. No other team will offer Crawford that much in year one of his deal, and that eye-popping figure is what gets the undesirable A's in the door. The A's core is remarkably cheap right now, but will get more expensive as the pitching staff reaches the later years of arbitration. Thus a front-loaded deal allows the A's to manage their payroll successfully in the end years of Crawford's deal (2016-2018), when he's 34-36 years old, making $15M, and likely producing at a league average, but no longer elite, level.
One main selling point of Option A is that the team improves the offense without sacrificing anything from its farm system, which is probably vital for a perpetually low-budget team like the A's. The prospects are all still down there, they just aren't ready, as Chris Carter's 0-for-19 meek beginning shows. A 2011 Opening-Day outfield of Crawford, Crisp, Jackson/Sweeney/Davis, with Cust at DH, sounds great to me, and it gives the A's the luxury of giving Carter and Taylor all of 2011 in AAA. Their performance does not indicate that they are ready to be good major league regulars, and that's what the A's need them to be.
The other obvious pros of Option A are that Crawford's addition probably improves the team by five wins, which is huge. To me it's essentially a three-team division for 2011 with the Mariners being in clear need of an overhaul. It would be a shame to not "go for it" in a wide-open three-team division. Signing Crawford also has the positive impact of keeping him away from perhaps his most logical suitor, the Angels. Assuming the Rangers lose Cliff Lee to the Yankees, I'd give the A's even odds with the Rangers/Angels to win that division in 2011.
The Cons of Option A:
Throwing all the money into one elite guy means this:
Relying on Rosales to take over 2b and prove that his very good rookie season wasn't a fluke. Relying on Tolleson to take over Rosales' super-utility role in the IF. Relying on the three-headed monster of ConRaj Sweengleson to produce a league-average right fielder. Relying on Good Cust to show up for all of 2011. Not having the funds to upgrade Kouzmanoff's .300 OBP at 3b.
Pushing all your chips to the middle. Investing a staggering 40% of the 2011 payroll on one player - a player who's never cracked an .850 OPS before. He's your once-in-a-half-decade, swing-for-the-fences gamble, and if he doesn't work out, there's no re-do or opportunity to dip into free agency for a star again until the time Bryce Harper's a 25-year-old free agent in 2017. If Crawford suffers a debilitating injury Eric Chavez style, he's a $100M+ sunk cost of suck, crippling the team's ability to contend and it's long-term flexibility.
My rebuttal is that the A's need to occasionally take the right huge risk and gamble correctly for them to win. It's not 2001 anymore, the information gaps have closed and the financial powers have asserted themselves, and the A's can't systematically win anymore like they did in 1999-2002. Their blueprint of the past five years is a recipe for perpetual 70-85 win seasons.