What do you see when you look at Felix Doubront? When the Oakland A's acquired him last season, I saw the mythical "replacement player," brought in at a moment's notice at little-to-no cost to absorb some playing time that no one else was using. When Billy Beane picks someone up off the scrap heap, there's always the chance that he thinks the player can be polished into the next gem, but in this case I figured Doubront was purely an innings eater to get them through the year when injuries were taking their toll on the rest of the staff. I still think that.
Given that opinion, I thought it was unlikely that Oakland would pay to keep him around in 2016, as he was estimated to be worth around $2.5 million in arbitration this winter. His upside seems minimal, and on top of that he's out of options so he's not even a guy who can be stashed in Triple-A when the roster crunch comes next spring. He made sense when there was an immediate midseason need, but certainly the long offseason would produce a better plan. With today's deadline to commit to keeping arbitration-eligible players under contract, he was an obvious candidate to be non-tendered and sent into free agency.
Instead, the A's did commit, signing him for $2 million with only $500,000 guaranteed. Furthermore, now that Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz have been traded to fill other needs, there could suddenly be space for a swingman in the bullpen.
The situation has changed, so what do you see now when you look at Felix Doubront? Where before I saw a guy who wasn't a good fit on the roster or the payroll, now I see the perfect insurance policy. Let's have a look at the A's current rotation:
Sonny Gray -- rock solid
Rich Hill -- high-risk in terms of age and injury history
Jesse Hahn -- shut down last summer with elbow inflammation
Chris Bassitt -- missed time last season with shoulder soreness
Kendall Graveman -- finished year on DL with oblique strain
Sean Nolin -- missed much of season to injuries
Aaron Brooks -- healthy, but is he a starter?
Sean Manaea -- preferably a midseason call-up
Those are intended to be pessimistic takes, and the first five names could make an excellent rotation if they all stay healthy. But realistically, something will go wrong -- it could be Hill flaming out, or Hahn remaining injured, or any number of other things. Every rotation has risks, but this one is particularly full of it.
So how do you build up depth when you have a boom-or-bust group like this? Do you bank on the boom that they'll all stay healthy, and risk being left high-and-dry if they get hurt? Or do you prepare for the bust by bringing in help, either by paying a premium for a relatively reliable veteran free agent or by spending prospects on a trade? Sonny is a lock and Hill has been promised a starting job, but how many other rotation spots are you willing to keep open for the remaining guys?
Honestly, I don't yet know the answer to that, and I don't even think the A's do. The team says it's still looking to add arms, so perhaps there will be another new starter when all is said and done. There is a lot of time left to make moves, and as we've learned the roster can change quite a bit over these next few months.
That leaves three possible outcomes to Doubront's contract. The first is that the rotation still has a hole in March, in which case $2 million is a bargain price for a No. 5 starter. The second is that the rotation is full in March, but there is space for a lefty swingman in the bullpen, in which case it's nice to have a No. 6 starter hiding on the roster (like with Chavez in the past, but with less upside). The third outcome is that there's just no room left for Doubront at the end of March, in which case $500,000 isn't a prohibitive sum to flush away. Between the unexpectedly low guaranteed money, and the unexpected departure of Pomeranz, Doubront suddenly makes sense on the roster where I didn't think he did yesterday.
And, as insurance policies go, Doubront at least brings some degree of reliability. His recent track record:
- In 2012, he made 29 starts. He finished the 6th 17 times, and the 5th 23 times.
- In 2013, he made 28 starts. He finished the 6th 16 times, and the 5th 22 times.
- In 2014, he went on two separate month-long DL stints for two separate injuries. He made 14 starts but only finished the 6th six times.
... Which brings us to 2015. He made eight starts for Oakland, but in one of them he was hit in the foot by a batted ball and left early. In five of the remaining seven starts, he completed the 6th inning. He often allowed 3-4 runs, but he usually got through six frames. In the other two starts he got shelled for seven runs each time, but even then he still made it into the 5th inning. He also made a mop-up appearance in which he entered in the 2nd inning and threw 6⅓ quality frames in garbage time. He's probably going to give up some runs, but when you send him out there you can be confident that your bullpen won't have to work overtime to rescue him. Consider this: Pomeranz made 19 starts in his Oakland career, and he finished the 6th inning only four times. Also consider: The A's were 4-3 in Doubront's seven proper starts, and while many other factors went into those wins it surely helped that he delayed the onset of gascanitis that the bullpen brought into most games. There's value in just being able to hang in there.
I'm no more excited about Doubront than I was last week, which is to say that I hope we don't see him making a lot of starts this year. Ideally he won't make any starts at all, and indeed I anticipate that the A's will make more moves and lessen the need for him. But after seeing Barry Zito and Brad Mills and Cody Martin take their turns last year, I've got a healthy appreciation for a proper insurance policy, one who can actually last deep enough into the game to give his team a chance to win. And for $500K guaranteed and $2 million at the most, you really could do a lot worse than Doubront in that role.