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Duncan's offseason plan: The return of Ben Zobrist

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The A's should look to bring Ben Zobrist back.
The A's should look to bring Ben Zobrist back.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

This is part of our 2015 -2016 offseason plan project. For information on how to post your own, click here.

I don't think people appreciate how much money the A's have to spend this winter. The A's have pretty consistently increased payroll every year. The only times in the past decade payroll has dropped were after the 2007 and 2011 seasons – when the A's front office planned on deep rebuilds. The front office's insistence that they won't be trading Sonny Gray and Josh Reddick hints that such a rebuild is not in the cards for Oakland, so you can imagine payroll will at least stay static.

Before non-tender decisions, the A's have around $64 million in commitments, to a payroll that was $83 million last year. Assuming a raise in available payroll to $90 million, that's $26 million to play with. That's a huge opportunity.

That said, this is a decidedly conservative offseason plan, based off the idea that the 2015 A's were deceptively close to contending. A bad bullpen, a lack of depth, and some bad luck sunk the 2015 A's, and there's no reason to blow the entire thing up just because certain aspects of the plan didn't work out. The prospects are in place to contend in the future, but punting on 2016 does not seem necessary.

I won't be targeting big name guys, like Jason Heyward or Chris Davis. This is partially because huge contracts on a small-market team make me super uncomfortable – wrapping up 30%+ of your payroll in one player has franchise destroying implications if the deal goes south. This is also partially because I think you can make a better team by spreading out your money on mid-tier free agents.

Non-Tender Decisions

  • Ike Davis, $3.8MM - non-tender
  • Sam Fuld, $2.0MM - tender
  • Jesse Chavez, $4.7MM - tender
  • Josh Reddick, $7.0MM - tender
  • Craig Gentry, $1.6MM - tender
  • Danny Valencia, $3.4MM - tender
  • Fernando Abad, $1.5MM - non-tender
  • Eric Sogard, $1.7MM - non-tender
  • Brett Lawrie, $3.9MM - tender
  • Felix Doubront, $2.5MM - non-tender
  • Fernando Rodriguez, $1.3MM - tender
  • Jarrod Parker, $850K- tender
  • A.J. Griffin, $508K - tender
  • Evan Scribner, $700K-tender

So much money to save!

Eric Sogard: Replacement level infielder who can be replicated by cheaper, younger players. Hard pass.

Sam Fuld: He gets tendered a contract in interest of trading him away. Teams could use a one WAR 4th outfielder type, and would absolutely be willing to part with something for his services. No reason to let him go for free.

Fernando Abad: He's certainly not good enough to be a good middle reliever I don't trust him as a LOOGY, and there are better marginal LH relievers out there. No reason to waste $1.5MM on him.

Evan Scribner: I love his elite K/BB ratios, but the HR rate is historically awful. Should compete with Rodriguez for the final spot in the bullpen.

Free Agents

I legitimately think the A's are going to be extremely active on the free agent market this year. There are holes to be filled, there's plenty of available money to sign good free agents, and there are plenty of A's-y types on the market this year. Plus, there's simply not enough valuable trade bait on the MLB roster to have a 2014 type tradefest, and they won't dig into their minor league depth due to the mini-rebuild they're doing.

The forces are perfect for the team to actually sign headline talent, and that's exciting for a team that gets a ton of flak for its usual inability to be competitive on the open market.

This list is also going to be a bit heavy on old friends – targeting former A's isn't a conscious decision, it's just that this free agent class is especially heavy on former A's.

Sign Ben Zobrist to a 4 year, $74 million contract.

This is obviously a huge commitment to a guy who is 34 years old, but Ben Zobrist is really, really good. Zobrist apparently has about 20 teams courting his services, so I think the 4/$74MM is pretty realistic for what he'll demand – that's more than he's worth, but y'all wanted the A's to be a player on the free agent market, and every free agent is an overpay. He still fits like a glove on this A's roster. The major weaknesses in 2015 were second base and left field, and (surprise!) those are his two best positions. Of course, I'm still in love with the flexibility Zobrist gives a roster as well. With young players coming up, being able to move Zobrist around to open up playing time is an underrated aspect of his game.

He is just the perfect A's player, and it is proof that the universe is a cruel and unfair place that the A's were terrible the year they finally got him onto the roster. Redeem yourself, universe. Get Zobrist back and give him a good roster around him.

Plus there's a cool "have your cake and eat it too" aspect of having Zobrist and Sean Manaea on the same team. It's like the Padres having both James Shields and Wil Myers. Except hopefully the 2016 A's aren't like the 2015 Padres in any other capacity. It's still cool though!

Sign Trevor Cahill to a two year, $10 million contract

This seems like a (huge) overpay, but the market is tight for bullpen pitchers. Whatever his actual cost ends up being, Trevor Cahill 2.0 is a worthy target for an A's team that needs an extensive bullpen makeover. In case you weren't following the Cubs' postseason run, Cahill somehow acquired the ability to throw 97 MPH sinkers this year, while retaining his trademark pinpoint command. That's a legitimate weapon out of the bullpen. He's also still 27, somehow.  He'll make a good middle reliever, potentially even a setup man.

Sign John Jaso to a 2 year, $10 million contract

Jaso is coming off a 136 wRC+ year, is cheap, and is left-handed – a weakness of the roster. Weirdly enough, the A's are really heavy on right-handed hitters – the complete opposite of 2013 and 2014, although I guess that's what happens when you turn over the entire roster. Jaso gives you a stellar offensive presence at 1B/DH, the type the A's needed after the departure of Brandon Moss. He's obviously not a catcher anymore, but that's okay. The A's need left-handed bats and they need a first basemen. Jaso fills both boxes. Maybe the A's can convince him to shave off his disgusting dreadlocks. It's a win-win!

Sign J.A. Happ to a 3 year, $33 million contract

J.A. Happ is really good now. Who knew? To further prove that the Pirates pitching coaches are using dark magic to reanimate declining pitchers, J.A. Happ put up a 1.85 ERA/2.19 FIP in his time with the Pirates. Maybe those numbers won't hold up long term. That's perfectly reasonable. Even taking out his tenure with the Pirates, Happ is otherwise a perfectly league-average pitcher, dependable and boring.

The A's need a dependable, average pitcher to anchor the rotation. Every pitcher on the upper end of the depth chart got injured in some capacity last year. The downside of a J.A. Happ signing is that the A's get a fine #4 starter who will give at least 150 innings of average ball. The upside is that he made legitimate improvements to his mechanics, and he turns into a Scott Kazmir-style #2 starter.

A Scott Kazmir reunion is another possibility for this slot, but his second half struggles the past two years worry me. I'd prefer J.A. Happ, but there's not a ton of difference between the two. The A's obviously need a veteran starter to anchor the rotation a bit, and there are definitely a few choices in the mid-tier starter market.

Extend Josh Reddick to a 4 year, $50 million contract

Self-explanatory. I would be very surprised if the A's don't at least try to extend the guy, and $50 million seems realistic given his skillset and value. This would kick in next year, so I won't include that in the financials.

Trade Proposals

Jesse Chavez and Danny Valencia to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for Zach McAllister and Tyler Naquin

First of all, this saves about $8 million, for use in the free agent splurge. McAllister was a marginal starter with potential, and is now a quality setup man. He put up a 2.49 ERA as a reliever last year, backed up by a 3.06 FIP. He struck out 84 batters in 69 nice innings, and if something significant goes wrong with the rotation he can fill in. He's like Chavez, only younger and better.

Tyler Naquin is an intriguing, under-the-radar prospect. The 24 year old is MLB ready after putting up a .349/.419/.468 line in AA and a .263/.353/.430 line in AAA, with 7 HRs and 13 SB between both levels (378 PAs). He's probably a 4th OF - he plays all three positions - but potentially more. I'm really intrigued by him, in a Josh Reddick circa-2011 way. He should probably be stashed in AAA to start the year, but I really think he's a MLB regular in the making.

Indians would take this deal because they're on the verge of contending, but they have absolutely no in-house plan at third base. Giovanny Urshela was their everyday third baseman last year, and he's still a decent prospect, but he put up replacement level value. If the Indians are serious about contending while their rotation is still young enough and good enough, they urgently need an upgrade there. Danny Valencia is relatively cheap (in terms of talent) and good (5.5 WAR pace with the A's).

Billy Butler to [whoever will take him] for salary relief.

Just save a good $5 million on the deal and open up the roster spot. That's all I ask.

If no one is offering to take on most of the contract, it's fine with me to give him a chance in the beginning of the season. Release him if he hasn't improved by May, eat the contract, replace him with a prospect.

Sam Fuld traded to [whoever] for [whatever]

Like I said above, just get something back. No reason to non-tender a guy with trade value.

Jesse Hahn to the Marlins for Marcell Ozuna (??)

This probably isn't enough to get him and I wouldn't want to give up much more value for the guy, so I'm not including it in my final roster. All I ask is that Beane keeps checking the pulse of a potential deal here.

The Marlins want a #2 starting pitcher in exchange for him, and Hahn's not that far off. Ozuna's pretty close to what Derek Norris was when the Norris/Hahn deal went down, so maybe their value matches up?

I'm just floating this, because I don't have a great grasp of what Ozuna is worth. Two years ago he was regarded as elite, now he's regarded as a pretty okay trade chip.  That's probably due to the fact that he was supposed to be a big breakout candidate in 2015 and ended up with a 89 wRC+ on the year. A big expectation/reality gulf can kill some value. That said, he's really only had one subpar half in the past 2 years. He put up a 115 wRC+ with plus defense in 2014, and put up a 115 wRC+ with plus defense in the second half of 2015. It's just that pesky first half of 2015 that killed his value.

If the Marlins like Jesse Hahn, that's a huge opportunity for the A's to swoop in and get a young, controllable outfielder. If they want more, the A's should move on.

Summary

Here's how the financials pan out: with the non-tenders, the payroll falls all the way to $50 million before free agents and trades. Exchanging Valencia and Chavez with McAllister and Naquin drops the payroll to $42.8 million (!!!). The cumulative cost of the free agent spree is $39.5 million, which bumps payroll up to $82.3 million. This is assuming the A's can't get salary relief for Billy Butler, which is pretty likely.

That's about a million less than 2015's opening day payroll, so there's plenty of wiggle room there. Payrolls usually grow around 5% every year, so there's also money for possible deadline trades if the A's end up contending.

The 2016 A's roster ends up looking pretty similar to the 2015 A's roster, except better in a couple of crucial ways.

Here's the 25-man roster:


Vs. RHP Vs. LHP Rotation
C Steven Vogt Josh Phegley SP 1: Sonny Gray
1B Mark Canha Mark Canha SP 2: Jesse Hahn
2B Ben Zobrist Tyler Ladendorf SP 3: Chris Bassitt
SS Marcus Semien Marcus Semien SP 4: J.A. Happ
3B Brett Lawrie Brett Lawrie SP 5: Kendall Graveman
LF Andrew Lambo Jake Smolinski Bullpen
CF Billy Burns Billy Burns Sean Doolittle
RF Josh Reddick Josh Reddick Trevor Cahill
DH John Jaso Ben Zobrist Zach McAllister
Bench Bench Drew Pomeranz
Coco Crisp Coco Crisp Ryan Dull
Tyler Ladendorf John Jaso Sean Nolin
Jake Smolinski Steven Vogt Evan Scribner
Josh Phegley Andrew Lambo