The A's opened the 2014 season with the highest payroll in franchise history -- $83.4 million. Over the last few months, they've added more than $8 million to that figure (Samardzija, Hammel, Lester and Gomes), and the $91.4 million bill footed by ownership ranks 19th in baseball. This may run counter to what some of us still believe, that the A's are among the poorest teams in baseball. Well, let's shift that perception. Over the last two seasons, the A's have ranked 5th and 7th in net operating income -- the amount of dollars pocketed by ownership. Things are not only good on the field, the coin purse is swollen too.
While improved attendance and on-field success have certainly played a part in the team's financial well being, the main culprit has been their ability to continue to pinch pennies in the era of unprecedented revenue-sharing. The A's were able to increase their payroll from $60.7 million (2013) to $83.4 million (2014) thanks to a $25 million stipend directly tied to the unfurling of massive national TV deals signed a few years ago. The extra money allowed the A's to go out and sign Scott Kazmir (hooray!) and Jim Johnson (*crickets*
On Thursday, the A's unloaded what would have been the team's third-largest contract in Yoenis Cespedes -- owed $10.5 million in 2015 -- and have just $31 million committed to payroll next season. That money pays for Kazmir, Coco Crisp, Eric O'Flaherty, Sean Doolittle, and Nick Punto's option buyout (add $2.5 million more to the total if you want to keep Punto around next year). That's the fifth-lowest committed dollars in baseball, as only the Pirates, Cubs, Marlins and Astros have less; you may notice that three of those clubs are deep into rebuilding phases. The $31 million figure is misleading, however, as a number of key players -- including Donaldson, Moss, Samardzija, Jaso -- are going to see significant raises this offseason through arbitration.
1st Year Arb Guys
Eric Sogard, Fernando Abad, Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker and Josh Donaldson
Sogard is a replacement-level second baseman, which will likely earn him somewhere in the range of $800K -- Mike Baxter is a fair comp.
The arbitration process doesn't love non-save bearing relievers. Instead, it overcompensates closers. For example, David Robertson, Luke Gregerson, Tyler Clippard and Sergio Romo -- all elite set-up men at the time -- received $1.6 million during in their first arbitration year, while Steve Cishek and Ernesto Frieri each received $3.8 million. The only difference between them? Saves. (Good thing Sean Doolittle signed a 5-year/ $10.5 million contract in April.) Needless to say, it's unlikely that either Cook or Abad make more than $1.2-1.3 million in spite of how good they've been.
Jarrod Parker is an interesting case because no mid-tier starter on his way back from Tommy John has entered arbitration missing the prior season. Daniel Hudson would have earned that distinction this last offseason, but he was non-tendered and re-signed by the D'Backs to a minor league deal. The recovery rate of two-time Tommy John players like Parker and Hudson is much lower than those undergoing the procedure for the first time. In fact, almost all of those pitchers have ended up in the bullpen. The A's will likely work out an inexpensive deal with Parker given his risk. He's unlikely to make more than $1.5 million.
The largest first-year arbitration-eligible Athletic is Josh Donaldon. Josh is a "Super Two," which means he'll receive four years of arbitration instead of three -- Brandon Moss is the A's other Super Two. Arbitration cases are built on precedent. Assuming Donaldson doesn't completely tank for the rest of the season, he'll have two MVP-candidate campaigns under his belt heading into arbitration. Ryan Howard set the first-year arbitration record in 2007, receiving $10 million one year removed from winning an MVP and hitting 105 home runs and driving in 285 RBI over his first two seasons (the arbitration process is yet to embrace advanced statistics, so Donaldson won't come anywhere near that figure despite his other talents.) Also of note, Buster Posey received $8 million in arbitration after his MVP 2012 season.
Star-level players who don't take home MVP brass are usually awarded between $5-6 million. Let's give Josh the benefit of the doubt and sign him up for $6 million.
Projected total: $10-11 million
2nd Year Arb Guys
Jesse Chavez, Josh Reddick, Craig Gentry
Before 2014, Chavez had spent most of his career in the bullpen. However, three-quarters of a season in a championship-level rotation and an ERA under 3.50 should net him a salary of $3-4 million.
Reddick is coming off two injury-plagued seasons. His first-year arbitration salary -- $2.7 million -- was aided by the all-star level offensive production and gold-glove defense he played in 2012. His salary next season, more than anyone else, depends on how well he finishes the last two months. Reddick's tab will likely be around $4 million.
Gentry has a skill-set under-appreciated by the arbitration process -- defense and mashing lefties. He hasn't hit a home run this year, and his .299 slugging percentage is unimpressive. He'll get rewarded a bit for his defensive chops and speed, but I don't anticipate his 2015 salary to be more than $3.5 million
Projected Total: $10-11 million
3rd Year Arb Guys
Jeff Samardzija, Brandon Moss, John Jaso, Kyle Blanks, Sam Fuld
This bracket is where the bulk of the A's money will go this offseason. Samardzija will command between $10-11 million after putting together his best season to date -- his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is 3.81 for his career, and 3.33 in 2014. His earlier arbitration figures were obfuscated by the fact that he began his career as a reliever. A similar pitcher, Matt Garza, received a $10.25 million contract in 2013, and although Shark is better, Garza was already at $9.5 million the year before.
Brandon Moss is going to get PAID. He's heading into his third round of arbitration, although he won't become a free agent until after 2016. He's on pace to hit 30 home runs for the second straight year -- and Lord knows dingers get you paid. After a top-5 MVP finish in 2012, Chase Headley received a considerable raise from $3.48 million to $8.58 million. I expect Moss' $4.1 million contract this season to swell to the $8-9 million range.
Jaso is the final "big ticket" item for the A's to account for. He received $2.3 million this offseason, and is polishing off another fine offensive season -- in fact, he's been the second-best offensive catcher behind Buster Posey since 2012, per wRC+ (133, min. 900 PA). He'll likely earn $5-6 million next season.
As for the rest, who knows whether or not the A's keep Fuld and Blanks? But, if they do, they shouldn't cost more than $3 million combined.
Projected Total: $28-30 million
Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson, Jonny Gomes, Alberto Callaspo
The projected totals above would balloon next year's payroll to approximately $80-85 million. Barring trade -- and you can never bar that -- the A's front office will have between $10-20 million to spend on the open market, if they are to match the current payroll.
With the departures of Alberto Callaspo and Jed Lowrie, the A's biggest need heading into 2015 will be middle infield. Second base has been an offensive black hole, and while we all love Eric Sogard, he's been flirting with the Mendoza Line for most of the season. He's better suited for late-innings defensive duties than playing everyday. Bringing back the aforementioned up-the-middle duo of Callaspo and Lowrie is an option, but other available names include switch hitters Emilio Bonifacio and Asdrubal Cabrera, and then there's power-hitting Gold Glove shortstop J.J. Hardy.
The A's will also be in search of another right-handed power bat. The obvious fits are Josh Willingham, Jonny Gomes and Michael Cuddyer. Cuddyer would be the most expensive, but he can also play all over, something the A's value more than other clubs.
(Also, other fiscally-minded teams have begun signing their young stars to long-term deals. It wouldn't be surprising to see A's pursue long-term pacts with Sonny Gray and Derek Norris.)
The A's are too sneaky a team to project a next season for -- having the most ADD General Manager in baseball doesn't hurt either. However, the conflating of success and money in 2014 seems to point to the A's once again setting a new payroll record in 2015. None of the names mentioned above would require a long-term commitment, which fits well into the A's current business model.
Projected Payroll: $80-85 million
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