The Oakland front office has said publicly they intend to compete in 2015 while ensuring they can still afford to compete in 2016 and 2017. "Just bringing back our group and just supplementing it with little pieces, wasn't going to give us a chance to compete, and was also going to leave us further down the path of having an older, more injury-prone club, frankly," Assistant General Manager David Forst told Fangraphs' Eno Sarris at last month's Winter Meetings. Forst also told Sarris, in the context of the potential for a new ballpark in the future, "[W]e never have more than a two- or three-year plan, it's not realistic to have a five-year plan."
So what does the three-year plan look like? In the table below is my estimate on the next three years of payroll and notes on what needs will arise as players head to free agency. For 2015 arbitration-eligible players who have not yet reached a settlement, I am using the projected arbitration salaries under Matt Swartz's model at MLB Trade Rumors. 2016 and 2017 arbitration-eligible players are an educated guess.
|Top-3 SP||Top-3 SP|
|3rd C||3rd C|
The A's for the moment open 2015 with a Fangraphs mid-point projection of 82-80, good for third place in the AL West behind the Seattle Mariners by six games and the Los Angeles Angels by two. As with any standings projection, the range of performances is tighter because a projection is only showing that 50th percentile result when what will really happen is that a few teams will greatly exceed expectations, a few will greatly disappoint, and a few will hit their number on the nose. We just don't know which ones yet. Oakland could outperform expectations and make the Wild Card round, or even greatly outperform expectations and win the division. They are equally likely to fall short and play under .500 baseball.
In 2016, the A's clear about $9,000,000 of salary space to replace Scott Kazmir and John Jaso. Perhaps one of the A's starters acquired this offseason steps into a top rotation spot, or perhaps Raul Alcantara will be fully recovered from his 2014 Tommy John surgery. I'm not too worried that a third catcher will be that expensive. Bruce Maxwell may well fit that role playing in Triple-A, getting an occasional cup of coffee to spell an injured player.
It's 2017 where Oakland has to work its thriftiness to the max. The 2017 outfield projects as PTBNL, PTBNL, and PTBNL, with fourth outfielder PTBNL, but they only clear $12 million in salary thanks to all of your favorite players reaching arbitration, including Sonny Gray. The A's save money if Billy Burns or Boog Powell can play well enough, but the farm is otherwise barren on outfield talent. This will be something to look at for this year's early round draft picks. Ike Davis also departs, and while Billy Butler could take over on the infield, Oakland has high hopes that either Rangel Ravelo's bat improves to let him play first base, or Oakland's #3 Baseball America prospect Mass Olson is ready by then.
The most obvious upgrade for 2015 is at second base, with the A's reportedly one of three teams considering Cuban infielder Hector Olivera, "industry sources" tell Baseball America's Ben Badler. His age and recent time off for treating a blood disorder would suggest something less than the six-years, $68.5 million with an opt-out after four years Yasmany Tomas received from the Arizona Diamondbacks, Badler says. Let's say it's something like four years and $50 million. That would put the A's at $87 million for opening day, so there is still room to accept salary from another team if the A's are looking for that last trade to get to the postseason for a fourth consecutive year.
But by 2017, the A's will appear to have more middle infielders than they know what to do with. In 2016, Joey Wendle, Daniel Robertson, and Chad Pinder may get opportunities to break into the major leagues. Signing Olivera to a long-term deal could be fine if Olivera turns out to be good enough to be tradeable at his contract price in 2016 or 2017, but if he turns out to be a bust, he's an expensive roadblock to those good prospects coming up the pipeline. If the A's have to carry Olivera or at least some of his salary, that hurts Oakland when they need to reload their entire outfield in 2017.
If the A's ultimately go after Olivera, I will accept that as a sign that Oakland is extremely confident in its international scouting and ability to manage whatever health risks Olivera has. Still, how much of an improvement are we talking about? Is Olivera a Scooter Gennett (~2 WAR), a Daniel Murphy (~3 WAR), or a Chase Utley (~4 WAR)?
If Olivera is good enough but the middle infield prospects are butting up against Olivera's roster spot, Olivera can be traded away at the appropriate moment to let the prospects in and continue to enhance the farm system's value. If Olivera is below expectations, however, the A's will have to eat some salary to move him out of the way, which will impact Oakland's ability to compete in 2016 or 2017.
How else could the A's spend $20 million without spending on a new second baseman? They can go for Zobrist and his $7.5 million salary, leaving room to spare for a mid-season trade to cover a contingency, such as a sudden run of injuries at one position or a rotation performing below expectations.
The A's could just wait, spending the money to afford a top-of-the-line starting pitcher to replace Scott Kazmir in a deep 2016 free agent class that includes the names Price, Zimmermann, Fister, Porcello, Cueto, Latos, and Iwakuma.
Eric Sogard's Steamer projection on Fangraphs is 1.4 WAR and 442 plate appearances, which would be the most he has had in his career. Sogard had just 329 plate appearances last year when he struggled with the bat in the early going and was supplanted for a time by an Alberto Callaspo-Nick Punto platoon. There are some reasons to expect a bounce-back from his 0.3 WAR campaign in 2014. Sogard has only had two full seasons, with BABIP's of .301 and .251, and a career BABIP of .265. Steamer projects a .279 BABIP, which pretty much splits the difference on those full season numbers.
Sogard's defensive numbers last year were also suppressed when he was forced to play as a very poor defensive shortstop in August when both Jed Lowrie and Nick Punto were on the disabled list. At best, Sogard hits and fields like he did in 2013 and steals bases and walks like 2014. At worst, Sogard repeats his 2013 performance, is thrown out on the basepaths more often, and gets a little bit worse with the glove. In the middle is the Steamer projection.
On purely financial grounds, I'm neutral on whether or not the A's should sign Hector Olivera if given the chance. The A's have several options in the minor league system to move into the middle infield in 2016 at minimum salary if they don't sign Olivera. If they do sign Olivera and want to get Daniel Robertson or Joey Wendle in place, the A's can trade Olivera, the risk being that they might have to eat salary if Olivera is only a 2 WAR player, or is untradeable if he is actually worse.
From a fan perspective, I would like to see Oakland sign Hector Olivera simply because A's fans have been begging for a new second baseman for at least the last two years, and I'm not sure the A's have a better use for the available money that won't come at either a major cost in prospects to acquire players or a major cost for an unpalatable contract length.
If the A's don't spend on Hector Olivera, we'll just have to prepare for the possibility that Oakland can spend more money this year, but there just might not be any player available on a short-term deal that is an improvement on who the A's already have.