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Oakland A's exit strategy: Sell the infielders

If things go south for the Oakland Athletics again, the A's have the right contracts to sell to keep their heads above water.

Jed Lowrie, batting for the Houston Astros in the 2015 ALDS.
Jed Lowrie, batting for the Houston Astros in the 2015 ALDS.
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

In an ESPN Insider article, Eno Sarris chatted with A's paramount baseball person Billy Beane about why the Oakland Athletics won't do a total rebuild in the way the Astros and Cubs. By "total rebuild," Sarris and Beane mean a "tear-it-down, sell-all-assets rebuild."

One thing that stuck out is given Oakland's limited season ticket base, the front office has wide error bars on how much it can spend, and they have to make adjustments as the weeks go on:

"We've realized that if we're a little bit over, and we're playing well, we can catch up to it," [Beane] admitted. "But if we're not, we need to be ready to have an exit strategy, too, in terms of payroll. I check with [Oakland team president] Mike Crowley every two weeks during the season, asking where we are at, how we're doing, what we need to do."

(Emphasis added.)

An exit strategy is important because it allows the club to contain poor years to just the one year, without having to worry about making it up in the bottom line in subsequent seasons. Beane hints at this to Sarris, " 'I've been in a situation where we spend more than we had,' he said, 'and recovery from that is a long way. At some point, the bottom falls out.' "

Coming off Oakland's worst season since 1997, the resulting retarded attendance and a 2016 payroll in the low $80 millions could prompt such an exit strategy. Even with Oakland selling at the 2015 deadline, MLB computed Oakland's year-end 2015 payroll at around $84 million, according to Cot's Contracts.

If things don't turn all the way around in 2016, the way out of Oakland's current salary level to reset for 2017, the A's have quite a few players earning significant dollars that can be traded to make way for prospects on the verge of promotion to the major leagues (2016 arbitration estimates from MLB Trade Rumors):

Player 2016 2017 2018
INF Jed Lowrie $7,500,000 $6,500,000 Buyout Contract
RF Josh Reddick $7,000,000 FA Arbitration Estimate
SP Rich Hill $6,000,000 FA Contract
3B Danny Valencia $3,400,000 $6,000,000 FA Arbitration Estimate
1B Yonder Alonso $2,500,000 $4,000,000 FA Arbitration Estimate
CF Sam Fuld $1,925,000 FA Arbitration Settlement (2016)
INF Eric Sogard $1,500,000 $2,500,000 FA Arbitration Settlement (2016)
TOTAL $29,825,000 $19,000,000

Reddick might actually be a candidate for an extension, based on there being no immediate outfield prospects in the minors aside from Matt Olson, who played 59 games at right field in Midland last season but has mostly played first base.

The others are all tradeable for anywhere between a simple salary dump for a minor leaguer to legitimate prospects, depending on how they do during the year. If the club is faltering by mid-season, for example, a July move to promote Renato Nunez, Joey Wendle, Sean Manaea, and Matt Olson could result in trading Danny Valencia, Jed Lowrie, Rich Hill, and Yonder Alonso, lopping off the prorated portion of their estimated $19.4 million in salaries in 2016, and $16.5 million in 2017.

The group in place might compete anyway, but if having a club that grows up together in the minor leagues is a great virtue, then it's easy enough to trade away the 2016 edition of the club that did not.