During the offseason, it's fun to dream about the Oakland Athletics signing big free agents or making trades for high-profile performers and/or prospects. The dreaming starts to feel more legitimate when they sign a real-life All-Star to a multi-year contract, even when that All-Star is Billy Butler rather than Hanley Ramirez; heck, that marks two straight years that Billy Beane has signed a free agent with an All-Star resume for more than a one-year bounce-back deal*, after Scott Kazmir last winter.
However, the reality is that Beane's key additions are just as likely to come from under-the-radar moves for players who have fallen out of favor with their old teams. Fernando Abad is a good example from last winter, as he had a better season than higher-profile adds such as Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson (not to mention the guy he replaced, Jerry Blevins). On the offensive side of the ball, Stephen Vogt and Sam Fuld are recent scrap-heap pickups who made quality contributions (ignoring the cost of re-acquiring Fuld later in the summer; Beane acknowledged his skills by signing him in February).
Two such players were designated for assignment this week, and it's worth taking a look at both while they're available. The first is Tampa Bay Rays utility man Sean Rodriguez, and the other is Boston Red Sox catcher Ryan Lavarnway. Due to being DFA'd, both players are in a state of limbo in which they must either be traded or waived by the end of next week. That doesn't necessarily mean they can be had for free, but it means that they have each lost the game of musical roster chairs on their own teams and are likely to be on the move somewhere for bargain prices.
Trying to identify Beane's future diamonds in the rough is a difficult task, because if we could spot them then they probably wouldn't be far enough under the radar. However, I've noticed a couple of trends in Beane's dealings. First, if there's a player who I like, he has a good chance of ending up in Oakland a year or two after I want him. Butler met that criteria, as I wanted him last winter and unexpectedly got him a year later. And now, Rodriguez does as well, since I really wanted him all of last season. Another recent Beane trend, intentional or not, is to pick up players who were once top prospects but have since fallen on tough times; both Rodriguez and Lavarnway were on Top 100 prospect lists in their younger years.
Let's kick the tires on each player.
Rodriguez started his career in the Angels organization, but was sent to Tampa Bay in their ill-fated trade for Kazmir. While Kazmir was breaking down in Anaheim, Rodriguez was establishing himself as a useful and versatile player; in 2010, he racked up 3.7 bWAR while playing every position except pitcher and catcher. He'll turn 30 in April.
Let's see how long it takes me to sell you on Rodriguez. His primary positions are second base and shortstop, and he plays both of them well (or neutral, at worst). Not there yet? He's a right-handed hitter with a career .746 OPS against lefties. OK, how about now? In a pinch, he can fill in at first or third. Baseball-Reference reports that his OPS goes up in high leverage, medium leverage, and late-and-close situations. He hit a walk-off homer against the A's last year after entering as a late-inning defensive replacement. In the 2013 ALDS, he homered off of Jon Lester to open the scoring in Game 1. He's in his final year of arbitration and probably won't make much more than $2 million in 2015, if he even reaches that mark. He's only been on the DL once in his entire career, and it was for the minimum 15 games. What more do you need to know?
Granted, Rodriguez is not a perfect player, and that's why he's been DFA'd. His career batting line of .225/.297/.372 is uninspiring, and he strikes out too much; his .258 OBP from last year is even uglier. But against lefties, that career line improves to .247/.342/.404 and his walk-to-strikeout ratio nearly triples. He also hit a career-high 12 long balls last season. Given that we're all debating the merits of guys like Andy Parrino and Tyler Ladendorf, the latter of whom has never even appeared in the Majors, a solid and versatile defender with a bit of pop who can hit lefties sounds like exactly what this team needs. With Rodriguez platooning with Eric Sogard, Beane would only need to find one more player to start at shortstop in order for the middle infield to stop being a glaring weakness. Basically, Rodriguez could take Nick Punto's role, for which he is better suited anyway, and he'd do so at a lower salary.
I don't have nearly as much to say about Lavarnway, but he's still an interesting player. He's also a right-handed hitter, but he's primarily a catcher. He's known more for his offense than his defense, but it's not like the organization is brimming with MLB-ready catching talent on the defensive side of the ball.
Unfortunately, that offensive reputation hasn't translated in the Majors so far. His career line of .201/.249/.315 is downright awful, and at age 27 he's running out of upside. But he's had success in Triple-A and much of his 2014 season was lost to a wrist injury, so the book isn't completely closed on him yet. The A's need right-handed bats wherever they can get them right now, and if they happen to play premium defensive positions then all the better. I'm not half as excited about Lavarnway as I am about Rodriguez, but if Billy decided to give the backstop an audition next spring then I wouldn't object.
Neither player is a free agent, so it's not as simple as offering the best contract or the most likely playing opportunity. Furthermore, if either one hits waivers then he'll have to pass through several other AL teams before the A's get a crack at him, meaning a trade for a low-lever minor leaguer would be the best avenue for acquisition. But both are intriguing players, and they're just the kinds of guys who Billy has made a career out of grabbing when no one else wants them.
* if you count one-year deals to aging former All-Stars hanging on for final curtain calls, the list goes back much further: Bartolo Colon prior to '12, Hideki Matsui and Brian Fuentes prior to '11, Ben Sheets prior to '10, Jason Giambi and Nomar prior to '09, Mike Sweeney and Keith Foulke prior to '08, Mike Piazza prior to '07, and Frank Thomas prior to '06. Esteban Loaiza was the last former All-Star to receive a multi-year free agent deal, prior to '06.