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2015-16 Oakland A's offseason priority: Starting pitching

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The Athletics had a great rotation this year until they all get hurt or traded. What moves will the Oakland Athletics make for next year?

Scott Kazmir pitches for the Oakland Athletics against the New York Yankees in July. The A's will want to replace Scott Kazmir's production in 2016.
Scott Kazmir pitches for the Oakland Athletics against the New York Yankees in July. The A's will want to replace Scott Kazmir's production in 2016.
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Thirteen pitchers threw a start for the Oakland Athletics in 2015, the most for Oakland since 14 different players started on the mound in 2009. Two others, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, had hoped to start again in 2015, but injuries prevented them from doing so.

Oakland Athletics pitchers as starters, 2015
Pitcher Missed starts Free Agent W L GS IP ERA FIP WAR K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% HR/FB
Sonny Gray injured 2020 14 7 31 208.0 2.73 3.45 3.8 7.3 2.6 0.7 52.7% 9.3%
Jesse Chavez injured 2017 7 15 26 150.1 4.37 3.96 2.1 7.6 2.8 1.1 43.5% 11.6%
Kendall Graveman injured 2021 6 9 21 115.2 4.05 4.60 0.4 6.0 3.0 1.2 50.0% 13.9%
Jesse Hahn injured 2021 6 6 16 96.2 3.35 3.51 1.6 6.0 2.3 0.5 52.6% 7.1%
Chris Bassitt injured 2021 1 8 13 75.1 3.58 3.41 1.5 6.7 2.5 0.5 45.8% 5.5%
Aaron Brooks bullpen 2021 3 4 9 48.1 6.33 4.93 0.1 6.3 2.4 1.5 42.5% 14.5%
Drew Pomeranz bullpen 2019 2 3 9 44.2 4.63 4.19 0.6 7.3 3.4 1.0 38.1% 9.4%
Felix Doubront acquired July 2018 2 2 8 41.0 6.37 5.33 -0.1 8.1 4.4 1.8 32.5% 16.0%
Sean Nolin injured 2021 1 2 6 29.0 5.28 5.13 0.0 4.7 3.7 1.2 42.3% 9.3%
A.J. Griffin injured 2019
Jarrod Parker injured 2018
Not returning
Scott Kazmir traded traded 5 5 18 109.2 2.38 3.16 2.3 8.3 2.9 0.6 45.9% 7.1%
Barry Zito injured retired 0 0 2 6.0 9.00 11.47 -0.4 3.0 7.5 4.5 41.7% 33.3%
Cody Martin rotation claimed 0 2 2 6.0 16.50 11.47 -0.4 3.0 6.0 4.5 42.9% 42.9%
Brad Mills demoted FA 0 0 1 5.0 5.40 6.53 -0.1 1.8 1.8 1.8 35.0% 11.1%

Three of these starters seem to be sure bets to return to the 2016 rotation based on their 2015 performance: Sonny Gray, Jesse Hahn, and Chris Bassitt. The rest are in the mix for the rotation, generally speaking, though some have much more they need to show at spring training than others.

Jesse Chavez, Drew Pomeranz, Felix Doubront, and Sean Nolin are out of options, which will affect how the A's operate in the trade market this offseason. Pomeranz is more likely to return to the bullpen, and Doubront might not even be tendered a contract come the December deadline. Sean Nolin has yet to show he can be healthy for a full season.

Jesse Chavez might be on the trade block this offseason when the rotation logjam. On September 5, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Chavez was "unlikely to be in next year's rotation" with "several scouts in attendance specifically to see him."

If you wanted to add a free agent

Say you wanted to add a free agent pitcher to replace Scott Kazmir's performance. How do you make that work with the available roster? Here's one way:

  • In rotation: Sonny Gray, [new pitcher], Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman
  • In bullpen: Drew Pomeranz, Sean Nolin (Fernando Abad traded/waived)
  • Optional assignment: Aaron Brooks, A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker
  • Traded: Jesse Chavez
  • Non-tendered: Felix Doubront
  • Prospects not on 40-man: Sean Manaea, Dillon Overton

On a competitive squad, you're going to need eight or nine starting pitchers at some point. I would not count on Pomeranz to be a potential starter based on his injury history as a starting pitcher, nor Jarrod Parker based on his lengthy recovery. Sean Nolin might be the fifth starter anyway, which would allow Kendall Graveman to be optioned to Triple-A Nashville, waiting for the inevitable injury to a starter.

Which free agent?

Perhaps more important than the financial outlay is how many years to give to a free agent pitcher. I've organized the free agents (list from MLB Trade Rumors) into how many years they're likely to get, and now that the 2016 Steamer projections are out, I'll post the versions that assume every starter pitches 200 innings and makes 32 starts, and just give a few of my stray thoughts here.

4+ years
2015-16 free agent starting pitchers, 2016 Steamer projections (200 IP, 32 starts)
Player Age
Qualifying
Offer
WAR ERA FIP HR SO BB WHIP K/9 BB/9 Years
David Price 30 traded 4.7 2.97 3.17 23 210 40 1.07 9.4 1.8 5+
Zack Greinke 32 yes (reject) 4.1 2.99 3.26 20 188 43 1.11 8.5 1.9 5+
Jordan Zimmermann 30 yes (reject) 3.3 3.48 3.62 22 165 39 1.18 7.4 1.7 5+
Mike Leake 28 traded 1.7 3.75 3.86 19 137 51 1.29 6.2 2.3 4+
Johnny Cueto 30 traded 2.8 3.51 3.88 22 160 51 1.21 7.2 2.3 4+
Wei-Yin Chen 30 yes (reject) 2.7 3.79 4.17 28 156 46 1.22 7.0 2.1 4+
Jeff Samardzija 31 yes (reject) 2.4 4.21 4.19 28 164 51 1.27 7.4 2.3 4+

There are so many high-level starting pitchers in this year's free agent market that it would not be impossible to see the A's become a surprise entrant in a four-year contract. Johnny Cueto, of course, experienced a downturn in performance after his trade to Kansas City that could prevent him from getting a fifth year at free agency.

If Jeff Samardzija's poor 2015 was just a spectacularly ill-timed blip in what will be a great career, the A's could have a chance to jump in if they they think forfeiting the sandwich pick to the Qualifying Offer rules is worth it.

2+ years
2015-16 free agent starting pitchers, 2016 Steamer projections (200 IP, 32 starts)
Player Age
Qualifying
Offer
Notes WAR ERA FIP HR SO BB WHIP K/9 BB/9 Years
Hisashi Iwakuma 35 yes (reject) 3.3 3.48 3.54 22 165 36 1.17 7.4 1.6 3+
Brett Anderson 28 yes (50-50) 2.8 3.56 3.64 15 142 58 1.32 6.4 2.6 3+
Ian Kennedy 31 yes (50-50) 2.6 3.77 3.77 24 199 64 1.24 8.9 2.9 3+
Scott Kazmir 32 traded 2.8 3.90 3.96 25 176 60 1.25 7.9 2.7 3+
Yovani Gallardo 30 yes (50-50) 1.6 4.53 4.48 25 133 66 1.42 6.0 3.0 3+
John Lackey 37 yes (reject) 3.1 3.71 3.69 22 166 49 1.22 7.5 2.2 2+
J.A. Happ 33 traded 2.7 3.68 3.69 20 170 59 1.26 7.7 2.7 2+
Mike Pelfrey 32 1.7 4.63 4.47 22 118 61 1.43 5.3 2.7 2+
Marco Estrada 32 Was in bullpen, promoted 1.0 4.48 4.93 36 152 61 1.33 6.8 2.8 2+

Pitchers getting two- or three-year deals are here because they may be good pitchers who are too old to be receiving a very long deal, have an injury history that suggests caution, or have only recently displayed an ability to throw quality innings.

Marco Estrada recently took a career detour when the Brewers moved him to the bullpen in 2014 and started there with the Blue Jays in 2015. He returned to the rotation in May and had a 3.28 ERA as a starter in 2015. MLB Trade Rumors' Mark Polishuk thinks a two-year, $20 million deal may be on offer for Estrada this winter.

The same might be considered for J.A. Happ, who finished extremely well after being traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates (1.85 ERA in 11 starts) but from 2011-14 had an ERA+ of 91 or worse.

1+ years
2015-16 free agent starting pitchers, 2016 Steamer projections (200 IP, 32 starts)
Player Age
Qualifying
Offer
Notes WAR ERA FIP HR SO BB WHIP K/9 BB/9 Years
Cliff Lee 37 Coming off flexor tendon injury 3.5 3.55 3.56 23 173 39 1.17 7.8 1.8 1+
Brandon Morrow 31 Coming off shoulder injury 2.3 4.02 3.88 22 169 62 1.30 7.6 2.8 1+
Rich Hill 36 Only 104.2 MLB IP since 2010 2.1 3.93 4.01 20 198 92 1.35 8.9 4.1 1+
Mark Buehrle 37 Undecided on retirement 1.6 4.36 4.59 27 105 44 1.35 4.7 2.0 1+
Chad Billingsley 31 Coming off injury 1.1 4.55 4.60 27 129 58 1.38 5.8 2.6 1+
Aaron Harang 38 Undecided on retirement 0.7 4.61 4.78 31 140 62 1.38 6.3 2.8 1+
Alfredo Simon 35 Played through knee injury 0.6 4.80 4.92 28 117 68 1.44 5.3 3.0 1+
Sean O'Sullivan 28 0.1 5.04 5.07 32 123 64 1.44 5.5 2.9 1+
Kyle Kendrick 31 0.9 5.10 5.09 33 119 58 1.47 5.4 2.6 1+

If Cliff Lee does return from his flexor tendon tear, I wonder if there are enough clubs interested in taking a flyer him to offer an incentive-heavy one-year major league deal, or a minor league deal with such a major league option and a spring training opt out.

The pitchers listed were the ones Steamer deems to be in the starting role. Others on the MLB Trade Rumors list were evaluated as relievers with 65 innings each, and are not included in this table.  The pitchers omitted are Mat Latos, Joe Blanton, Bud Norris, Bartolo Colon, Chris Capuano, Trevor Cahill, Doug Fister, Kyle Lohse, Tim Lincecum, Jerome Williams, Justin Masterson, Dillon Gee, Chris Young, Hector Noesi, Shaun Marcum, Ryan Vogelsong, and Jeremy Guthrie.

Chris Young always seems to find a way to outperform his FIP. It's probably that whole ridiculously high fly ball percentage (2015 as starter: 55.1%, highest min. 90 IP (out of 140)) and 12.3% infield fly ball percentage (21st of 140) and 8.0% HR/FB percentage (17th lowest). With some good outfield defense, going from Kauffman Stadium to the Oakland Coliseum could keep those figures right there.

An offseason plan

Let's say there's $40 million to spend. I've identified three offseason needs now: (1) starting pitching, (2) a left fielder, and (3) the bullpen. I feel like $40 million is enough for one big signing and one mid-tier signing while leaving the third to trades and the waiver wire. If the A's go that route, I tend to think the bullpen would be the place to leave to the vagaries of the waiver wire.

The A's might hold back some money in order to make a move at the 2016 trade deadline if they do think they are competitive.

What do you think? Would signing a pitcher likely to get four or more years the right call, or should the A's look for a shorter term option? Is doing nothing even an option?