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Oakland A's offseason priority: Outfield now and the future

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The Oakland Athletics need outfielders very soon.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

One of several areas the Athletics will want to upgrade next season is in left field, where FanGraphs rated the A's as throwing a replacement player out onto the field. Jake Smolinski was Oakland's most valuable left fielder by WAR (0.5) despite only 85 plate appearances playing the position.

The 2016 outfield incumbents

vs. LHP vs. RHP
LF Jake Smolinski Sam Fuld
CF Billy Burns Billy Burns
RF Josh Reddick Josh Reddick
OF4 Coco Crisp Coco Crisp
OF5 Sam Fuld Jake Smolinski
OF6 Mark Canha Mark Canha
Other Tyler Ladendorf Tyler Ladendorf
Prospect Matt Olson Matt Olson
Prospect Jaycob Brugman Jaycob Brugman

Craig Gentry is out of options, and between hitting .120/.196/.200 in 56 MLB plate appearances and .256/.319/.327 in 446 Triple-A plate appearances, I don't see the A's paying Gentry the $1.6 million Matt Swartz projects he would get in arbitration.

Mark Canha may get plenty of time at first base instead of the outfield if the A's also decline to tender a contract to Ike Davis in his final arbitration year. Swartz projects Davis would earn $3.8 million in 2016, no raise on his 2015 salary, after an underwhelming performance on offense and 75 games missed while on the disabled list for separate quad and hip injuries.

Coco Crisp moves into a fourth outfielder situation for the moment, though I have to believe the club will make their plans on the assumption that Crisp will not be an everyday player.

I'm not even sure if the A's will even offer Sam Fuld the $2 million Swartz projects he'll earn at arbitration, a $0.25 million raise, despite Fuld's good outfield performance. If the A's are serious about making free agent moves in the outfield that will fit in this roster, I can see the A's electing to hang on to that $2 million. It's a close call, however.

Outfield outlook

Any decisions taken on the outfield will have long-term effects as prospects begin to move into the system. For now, Matt Olson is the only prospect in the A's system that has a high likelihood of breaking into the major leagues, ranking second in MLB.com's Oakland prospect list at its midseason update. Jaycob Brugman is playing in the Arizona Fall League and ranks 21st, but the outfield cupboard is so bare he would be the fourth or fifth outfielder in Oakland by 2017. Fourth round draft pick Skye Bolt, ranked 19th on the MLB.com list, just finished his first professional season at Short Season-A.

2016 2017 2018 2019
LF Sam Fuld Jake Smolinski Jake Smolinski Jake Smolinski
CF Billy Burns Billy Burns Billy Burns Billy Burns
RF Josh Reddick Matt Olson Matt Olson Matt Olson
OF4 Coco Crisp Tyler Ladendorf Tyler Ladendorf Tyler Ladendorf
OF5 Jake Smolinski Jaycob Brugman Jaycob Brugman Jaycob Brugman
OF6 Mark Canha Mark Canha Mark Canha Mark Canha
Other Tyler Ladendorf
Prospect Matt Olson Skye Bolt Skye Bolt
Prospect Jaycob Brugman

Free agents

At first glance, the outfield free agent list at MLB Trade Rumors is quite lengthy, sporting 33 names, not including Ben Zobrist. But if you pare that list down to players that have put up, say, at least one 2-WAR season (on FanGraphs, for our purposes) in the last two seasons, that list becomes quite a bit shorter:

2015-16 OF free agents with at least one 2-WAR season in last two, sorted by 2015 fWAR
Player Age fWAR
Qualifying Offer
(decision)
Option (decision)
2015 2014
Yoenis Cespedes 30 6.7 3.3
Jason Heyward 26 6.0 5.2 Yes (reject)
Justin Upton 28 3.6 4.0 Yes (reject)
Dexter Fowler 30 3.2 1.4 Yes (reject)
Alex Gordon 32 2.8 6.6 Yes (reject) $12.5MM player option (Prob. Decline)
Colby Rasmus 29 2.8 0.9 Unlikely (50-50)
Austin Jackson 29 2.3 0.9
Ben Zobrist 35 2.1 5.5
Nori Aoki 34 1.5 2.3 $5.5MM club, $0.7MM buyout (50-50)
Denard Span 32 1.4 4.0 Unlikely (50-50)
Marlon Byrd 38 1.0 2.2 $8MM club (50-50)
Steve Pearce 33 0.3 4.9
Drew Stubbs 31 -0.1 2.5

Information about the likely recipients of qualifying offers comes from Mike Axisa's column for CBS Sports, though Jon Heyman recently reported that as to Colby Rasmus "it still is thought more likely than not that Houston declines to give him the $15.8 million qualifying offer." The same is the case for Denard Span.

Upper tier free agents

You should probably put away your dreams of signing Yoenis Cespedes, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, or even Alex Gordon. All four are likely to get deals of five years or more in excess of $20 million average annual value, and that's not something I see the A's doing at least until the cornerstone is laid for a new A's stadium. Ben Zobrist also belongs in the upper tier mainly because his age makes a high salary contract quite risky, even if it is for only four years.

Middle tier free agents

Perhaps the A's will spend money to find an everyday contributor that's more of a sure bet for the next three or four years. In that case, there's Dexter Fowler, Colby Rasmus, Austin Jackson, Nori Aoki, and Denard Span. One of the harder parts of signing free agents for the A's will be overcoming the reputation that Oakland is only a place to rebuild one's career and also Oakland's most recent performance, and now well-publicized issues with clubhouse chemistry.

Fowler, Span, and Rasmus are the only three in this tier that have had whispers of considerations for qualifying offers. Fowler has a fairly extensive injury history and Span is recovering from season-ending hip surgery and was on the disabled list three times this year. Injury insurance issues have come up in discussions surrounding a possible Sonny Gray extension, and I wonder if the same would be a problem for the A's signing Fowler or Span, aside from their price tags.

Rasmus reportedly found the Astros clubhouse chemistry much more in keeping with his personality. In the New York Times, Billy Witz details just how Houston and Rasmus have been a perfect fit for the self-described "free spirit." The Astros clubhouse sounds like the Oakland clubhouse of the old days, with no egos and everybody on the same page.

Austin Jackson, and Nori Aoki strike me as players who will probably be positive contributors, but not the huge impact you might want for the salaries they end up being paid. But that's just me talking off the top of my head.

Lower tier free agents

If the A's want to just re-assess in a couple of years and possibly grab players they could trade if they bounce back, there are a few options at the lower end.

From the bottom up, you can probably forget about Drew Stubbs, who bats right-handed and struck out at a 43 percent rate this season in 140 plate appearances. The A's already have the younger Jake Smolinski in the right-handed bat role.

Hang onto the right-handed batting Steve Pearce, however, because his versatility could be enough for the A's to try for a bounce-back deal. Pearce played in left field, second base, and first base. He still hit 15 home runs despite only playing 92 games due to injuries. MLB Trade Rumors' Jeff Todd draws two-year deal comparisons ranging from $5 to $10.5 million in average annual value. Such a move at least would give the A's a chance to re-assess in two years.

I'm not sure what to make of Marlon Byrd. His age suggests no, but the Giants went out of their way to make sure his $8 million option didn't automatically vest.

An offseason plan

Beginning with the assumption that Oakland payroll starts around $56 million after non-tendering Ike Davis, Felix Doubront, Sam Fuld, Craig Gentry, and Evan Scribner, one possible offseason could look like signing Colby Rasmus to a $15 million average annual value deal, which would bring payroll to around $71 million. That would give the A's perhaps $10-20 million more to spend on making further upgrades to the bullpen or rotation.

Or the A's could jump into the lower tier, signing Steve Pearce for 2/$10 million, which gives the A's $20-30 million to spend on upgrades in other needed areas. A great value if Pearce jumps back to something like a 3-WAR player, no major loss if he ends up as a utility player.

And as always, there are trade possibilities. But that's a question for another day.