The A’s don’t spend on big money free agents. They just don’t - the team’s biggest free agent signing in the past many years was that of Billy Butler, the 17th most expensive player in his class. It’s unlikely the A’s will go after a top-10 free agent in any given class.
It’s still fun to talk about things we probably know won’t happen, and if there’s ever a time to consider the A’s doing things a little bit differently, it’s after an ownership change. David Kaval’s presence in the A’s front office is unlikely to change how the A’s are run from a monetary perspective, but f it. Let's chat.
That brings us to Mark Melancon, or insert big-name/big-money free agent here. There are nuances between all free agents, but we’re here to look at the big money guys, and Melancon makes a whole bunch of sense if you narrow it down to that type of player. Should the A's take a chance on Mark Melancon?
The money will be big. Brett Cecil, a different but far inferior reliever, was just given a 4 year, $30.5 million contract by the Cardinals. Melancon is predicted to land something in the range of 4 years, $60 million. That’s a lot of money for any team and for the A’s, it would mean that’s mostly it in terms of moves for 2017.
There is a silver lining. Melancon was traded at the deadline, thereby making him ineligible to receive the qualifying offer. Should the A’s get weird with it and sign a big name guy, they could be subject to losing a draft pick. That’s not the case with Melancon, and while the A’s do have a protected first pick, holding onto draft picks should supersede any win now moves. With Melancon, win-now and win-later is less of a mutually exclusive proposition.
The A’s have routinely hedged their free agent bets by signing multiple cheap, short contract players in lieu of one big name guy. Sometimes it fails, but the occasional gem nullifies the even the worst signings in a blink.
It’s harder to succeed with that strategy when the free agent class is concocted of equal parts overpaid, underwhelming, and unsure. There’s no reason to think the difference between contending and pretending will be found at the A’s usual price-point, and the production normally found at that level will probably cost more and require longer contracts.
If diving into the free agent pool requires a longer snorkel even for the lower end guys, it might be high time to check out something that’s more of a sure thing. Spending in this class is a risk, so you might as well take a more calculated one in a guy who has been quietly one of the best at his position for nearly half a decade.
In this make believe scenario, the most important factor is Melancon's actual production. There are no sure things in baseball, especially with pitching, but there are precedents and reasons to be optimistic that make Melancon attractive.
Injuries are the bane of a pitcher’s existence, the unpredictability of said injuries the bane of a front office’s. We do know that there’s a correlation between velocity and UCL injuries, which would make Melancon less of a risk than a Kenley Jansen or an Aroldis Chapman.
In terms of stuff, Melancon relies on an excellent cutter with pinpoint command to be successful. Sound familiar?
Ok, maybe Melancon isn’t the greatest reliever of all time, but there’s a recipe for success in a dominant pitch that rarely misses its intended location. And the fact that he relies on command and not velocity means he can stay successful as he ages. That's not a guarantee by any means, but this is a post pointing out the positives, so let's focus on the pros. He's been one of the best at his position for four years straight without overwhelming stuff. Who's to say that has to stop? The highest ERA he's posted the past four seasons is 2.23. Not. Too. Shabby.
There's no doubt the A's could use another bullpen arm. The 2016 pen was solid, but was an arm away from being a top tier pen. They were also constantly overworked, and it seemed on a regular basis, the A's had to turn to a less than ideal arm in a close game. Melancon could have a reverberating effect on the A's, teaming up with Ryan Dull, Sean Doolittle, and Ryan Madson to shorten games.
The contingency plan
There’s also the matter of return on investment should the A’s rebuild take longer than hoped. The Yankees signed Andrew Miller in 2014 with hopes that he’d lock down the most important outs late in October. Old age got in the way of that team-wide goal, but Miller was every bit as good as advertised, and the league noticed. The Yankees got a franchise altering package in return for Miller. Forget contingency plan, signing an ace reliever might be the best way to build up your farm system right now.
Melancon won't attract the same haul Miller did, the Pirates received considerably less than the Yankees did at the deadline. But if he's healthy and productive? Still a damn fine asset to have. Ace relievers are the coveted asset du jour, and having one of the best in baseball is a good plan.
He's not Aroldis Chapman
He's not Aroldis Chapman, noted scumbag. This isn't exactly rare, most signs point to most other free agents being decent human beings too. But it's important.
It's probably not going to happen. If the A's were to invest at a premium level, it'd probably be wise to do so at a more relevant position. But hey, it's the offseason.