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Why the A’s recent signings make so much sense

On the surface, they’re not exciting. Below the surface, they’re not exciting. But this is exactly what the A’s should be doing.

Over the past week and change, the A’s added two new players. First was former Athletic Santiago Casilla. If you don’t remember seeing that name on the back of a jersey, you’re forgiven. Casilla used to go by Jairo Garcia. The change in name and subsequent change in teams did him well, and he’s coming off seven excellent season in San Francisco. The A’s also added Trevor Plouffe, a third baseman coming off a bad and injured season in 2016.

If you’re uninspired by these moves, you’re not necessarily wrong. But they are exactly what the A’s should be doing. Here’s why.

The A’s budget isn’t fluid year to year

We’ve been over it before, but it’s always worth repeating. The A’s spending $5 million on Trevor Plouffe in 2017 doesn’t mean they have $5 million less in 2018 to spend. The A’s money can go in one of two places each year: to some jabroni who plays a childhood game for money the average human being could retire on, or effectively into the pockets of ownership.

That doesn’t mean that every signing is a good signing, but it does mean that the money needs to be spent. The A’s tried their hand at a big name splash, coming up just short of signing Edwin Encarnacion. What’s a team to do when they’re declined by one of the few good bets on the market? Gamble on a few bounce back candidates that can’t possibly hurt the team long term, but could provide a spark in the short term.

This might be the worst free agent class in history

Casilla isn’t Rich Hill and Trevor Plouffe isn’t Coco Crisp, and there’s a reason for that. This free agent class is a hot pile of garbage from top to bottom. With the pickings being so slim, and they are that slim, it’s a win for the A’s to snag a reliever who had a 2.42 ERA in seven full seasons across the bay, and a third baseman one season removed from being an average third baseman.

Big time free agents often suck

Last year,  Jason Heyward was paid $23 million to hit 28 percent worse than league average. He was basically Eric Sogard at a different position. Here’s how the top 10 most expensive free agents from 2015 fared.

Name Position 2016 Age 2015 fWAR 2016 fWAR Years Dollars
David Price SP 31 6.4 4.5 7 $217,000,000
Zach Greinke SP 33 5.8 2.2 6 $206,500,000
Jason Heyward RF 27 6 1.6 8 $184,000,000
Chris Davis 1B 30 5.6 2.7 7 $161,000,000
Justin Upton LF 29 3.5 1.4 6 $132,750,000
Johnny Cueto SP 30 4.1 5.5 6 $130,000,000
Jordan Zimmerman SP 30 3 1.3 5 $110,000,000
Jeff Samardzija SP 31 2.6 2.6 5 $90,000,000
Wei-Yin Chen SP 31 2.7 0.8 5 $80,000,000
Mike Leake SP 29 1.7 2.5 5 $80,000,000

Of those ten, six or seven could be conceived as disappointing. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking analysis, and it doesn’t make free agents a bad investment. But for teams not on the verge of contention, the risk in signing big money guys is amplified, and that's propagated by the loss of a draft pick.

There is a world where the A’s are better off not signing EE. We all wanted him, and he would have been a great bet, but history tells us diving in the free agent pool is a risky business. Attaching a draft pick to that dive on a team thats unlikely to really benefit from a single free agent can be a recipe for disaster.

Small money free agents often sometimes don’t suck

Perhaps more germane would be to look at players who fit the mold of the guys the A's did sign. What's the upside for a Trevor Plouffe? Go back a year and look at David Freese, a third baseman who signed a one year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates prior to 2016. Last season, he put up a wRC+ of 110 with solid defense, grading out as an average player on an absolute steal of a deal. The Pirates were so happy with his performance, they extended him for two additional years.

Plouffe's career mirrors Freese's almost exactly - Freese was terrible in his age 30 season, amassing -.4 fWAR thanks to some awful defense. That year proved to be a blip, making Freese an absolute bargain.

If betting markets cared about the Oakland A's on a granular level, odds would be against Plouffe bouncing back. That's the cold hard truth, but it's the crux of bounceback players. There's history that shows Plouffe can indeed bounce back, to beat a dead horse to death, he's cheap.

Ryon Healy is in his correct role

Positional changes can be hard on players, though I suspect borderline superhero Ryon Healy will have little trouble adjusting across the diamond, especially since he’s played there recently. Still, if third base isn’t in the cards, moving him sooner than later is the right move.

Creativity is limited

It's hard to get excited about these moves, and that's understandable. It is important to remember that during the offseason, there's only so much a team can do to plod towards contention and often times, over-acting can do more damage than good. The A's have taken steps to not take huge risks in what's looking like a non-contending year, while still amassing pieces that could make a surprise run or be flipped at the deadline for future prospects. Taking one year risks in an overpriced and under-talented free agent class is a smart bet that makes sense considering the A's current standing.