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Oakland A's have been sneaky good with recent free agents

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With one glaring exception.

A great signing.
A great signing.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

When you think of the Oakland A's, you don't think much about what they do in Major League free agency. The A's are of course known for their dramatic and unexpected trades, minor league free agency finds, dumpster diving successes, and young, sometimes unexpected talent. But a quick look at recent history tells you the A's have actually been quite successful in signing free agents. Let's peek!

2015 Years/Dollars (mm) Total Value (bWAR) Changes in bWAR^
Rich Hill 1/$6 ? ?
Ryan Madson 3/$22 ? ?
John Axford 2/$10 ? ?
2014 Years/Dollars (mm) Total Value (bWAR)
Billy Butler* 3/$30 -0.9 -0.6
2013 Years/Dollars (mm) Total Value (bWAR)
Scott Kazmir** 2/$22 5 3.9
Eric O'Flaherty 2/$7 -1.3 -2.8
Nick Punto 1/$3 0.4 -1.7
2012 Years/Dollars (mm) Total Value (bWAR)
Bartolo Colon 1/$3 5 2.3
2011 Years/Dollars (mm) Total Value (bWAR)
Coco Crisp 2/$14 7.3 1.2
Jonny Gomes 1/$1 1.9 1.4
Bartolo Colon 1/$.9 2.7 0.6
2010 Years/Dollars (mm) Total Value (bWAR)
Brian Fuentes 2/$10.5 -0.6 -1.4
Grant Balfour 2/$8.1 4.3 3.3
Hideki Matsui 1/$4.25 0.6 -1
^Reflects the changes commensurate to contract length, i.e. Eric O'Flaherty's contract was for two years, so I compared his value from his 2 years with the A's with his 2 previous years
*Contract still in effect
**Returned Prospects

Now I know what you're thinking: F#&%!ng Billy Butler. I also know your second thought: that list is solid, but there are still enough negative numbers to give me pause. Let's compare this list with the top free agent signings of 2014!

Name: Age Years/Dollars 2015 bWAR Change in bWAR from 2014 to 2015
Max Scherzer 31 7/$210 7.1 1.1
Jon Lester 31 6/$155 3.1 -1.5
Pablo Sandoval 29 5/$95 -0.9 -4.3
Hanley Ramirez 31 4/$88 -1.3 -4.8
Russell Martin 32 5/$82 3.3 -2.2
James Shields 33 4/$75 1.9 -1.4
Victor Martinez 36 4/$68 -1.6 -7
Nelson Cruz 35 4/$57 5.2 0.6
Ervin Santana 32 4/$55 1.6 0.4
Chase Headley 31 4/$52 1.1 -2.4
Brandon McCarthy 32 4/$48 -0.3 -1.9
David Roberston 30 4/$46 0.5 -0.7
NIck Markakis 31 4/$44 1.9 -0.1
Melky Cabrera 31 3/$42 1.4 -1.7
Francisco Liriano 31 3/$39 2.7 1.1
Andrew Miller 30 4/$36 2.2 0.4
Billy Butler 29 3/$30 -0.9 -0.6

Yes, I randomly cut this list off at Billy Butler because a) it was a lot of manual work and b) I, like you, think of most things in terms of Billy Butler (i.e. a house in San Francisco is about 1/3 of a Billy Butler). Obviously, this list is still in play and guys like Panda or Hanley can turn it around. But it's still of major note: of the 17 players listed, only five were squarely above average (>2.5 bWAR) in their first season. Of the 12 free agents the A's have signed (counting Bartolo twice), 5 were squarely above average. This is significantly more impressive because a) the players they sign are much lower on the years/dollars scale and b) some of those players aren't signed to play full time.

It's also noteworthy how many players lose major value after signing: even if a player puts up a solid season (think Jon Lester), their new team can't be stoked on the loss of value from a year prior. The A's have been excellent in this regard, as 5 of their signees have seen significant jumps in value after they joined the A's. This is a pretty rare thing, most guys get worse as they get past their free agent years. It is necessary to note that the A's have seen dropoffs too, five guys have put up significantly worse numbers with the Green and Gold than they did on their previous commensurate deal. The lower dollars and years prevent this from being a major problem.

It also can't be stated enough how low risk most of the A's signings have been. With the exception of maybe Butler, every contract has been short and cheap. Should the free agent turn into a pumpkin, the A's can simply cut him with little damage. For guys on the list above, that's not the case - cutting an expensive multiyear deal would have long term repercussions.

What fueled the A's playoff runs?

Prior to the awful 2015 season, the A's made three straight playoffs. Where did they find their value?

Team WAR Amateur Free Agent WAR Free Agency WAR Drafted WAR Traded
2012 A's 4.1 19.2 5.4 24.3
2013 A's 1.5 15.4 6.1 22.3
2014 A's 2.8 8.1 4.4 31.2

So it's pretty clear, the A's recent success was fueled in large part by their success finding free agents. This surprised me mainly because the A's are so low in payroll. Without a major domestic free agent signing, the A's have done a better job than almost anyone at finding value on the market in spite of the financial handicap. In 2015, only playoff two teams had greater value from free agency than the 2012 and 2013 A's. The Yankees and Dodgers received 17.7 bWAR and 17.5 bWAR respectively from their free agents, showing just how significant the value the A's purchased was. What's more, the 2012 A's paid roughly $29 million for their collective free agent value, the 2013 A's roughly $17 million. Compare that with the 2015 Yankees paying $137 million and the Dodgers $56 million, and you really get a picture of how fortunate and successful the A's have been in Free Agency.

Secondary Value

As you know from an excruciating existence as an A's fan as well as a beautifully formatted table above, the A's get most of their value from trades. In July last year, the A's picked up their #8 and #24 ranked prospects (per MLB.com) by trading former free agent signing Scott Kazmir to the Astros. The A's won't hesitate to trade should they find themselves out of the race, and this year's class could be part of a refueling effort. Best case scenario? The A's recent signings lead to a competitive team. Should that not work out, the A's could gain valuable prospects by trading their newly inked pitchers.

So what does this all mean?

What does this all mean going forward? Nothing is certain of course, the A's newest batch of signees could be absolute duds putting up negative value for precious payroll. But the A's have certainly given us reason for hope.