For better or worse, the Oakland A’s will open the 2017 season relying on several inexpensive short-term veteran stopgap players. They aren’t terrible players, but no one expects them to lead a team to a pennant. Rather, they’re here to temporarily fill spots in the lineup, whether to keep them warm for upcoming prospects or just to make an otherwise bad team slightly more competitive and/or watchable.
My question today: How have these types of players performed for the A’s in the recent past? I went back 10 years, looking at the 2007-2016 seasons. My loose criteria: established veteran player, but not a true star, acquired cheap on a 1-2 year MLB commitment, and installed in the lineup from the beginning of the season. When the A’s are just trying to fill space with a competent, experienced veteran, how successful have they been in their picks?
Before we get to the list, let’s eliminate some names to get a feel for what kinds of players I’m not looking for here:
- Pitchers. I’m only looking at position players here.
- Young players with upside remaining, like Brett Lawrie.
- Players who were acquired because they were expected to be good, not just stopgaps: Khris Davis, Ben Zobrist, John Jaso, Craig Gentry (part-time), Jed Lowrie (v.2013), Yoenis Cespedes, Matt Holliday, Milton Bradley, Mark Kotsay, and Jason Kendall. They were more expensive to acquire, many of them were brought in for multiple years, and they were generally meant to either bolster good teams or uplift bad ones rather than just fill space.
- Midseason acquisitions, like Adam Dunn, Sam Fuld (v.2014), Geovany Soto, Stephen Drew, Brandon Inge, and Scott Hairston. (Exception: A couple guys made the list after being acquired midseason and then re-signed for the next season.)
- Minor league acquisitions/free agents who made good, like Stephen Vogt, Brandon Moss, Jack Cust, and even Jack Hannahan. These guys got at-bats because they played well enough to force them, not because they had previous MLB track records. Also waiver guys like Rajai Davis (v.2008) and Marco Scutaro.
- Players I consider bench/backup guys, like Nick Punto and Sam Fuld (v.2015). They ended up starting a lot — Punto in a platoon role, Fuld as an injury backup — but I’m calling a subjective veto here. They just aren’t what I’m picturing in my head for this post. Gabe Gross and Jake Smolinski are in this category too.
- Billy Butler seems like he should fit this list, but 3 years, $30 million is not a stopgap contract. Surely the A’s thought he would be good. Also, let’s just not talk about him anymore unless we absolutely have to.
- Finally, I’m not interested in the aging DH demographic here. The 37-year-old former superstar is its own unique beast, and anyway the A’s haven’t signed one this winter so the comparison is moot. That cuts out Hideki Matsui, Jason Giambi (v.2009), Nomar Garciaparra, Mike Sweeney, Mike Piazza, and any talk of Frank Thomas.
* * *
Let’s remind ourselves of the current cast in question. Here are the 2017 stopgaps:
- Rajai Davis, CF — hoping for some steals and defense
- Trevor Plouffe, 3B — hoping for some dingers and defense
- Matt Joyce, OF — hoping for some OBP (2-year deal)
(If outfielder Alejandro De Aza makes the team/lineup, then he has enough of an MLB track record that he fits on this list even though he’s currently on a minor league contract.)
And returning from last year, now essentially serving as one-year stopgaps — esp Alonso, who could have been non-tendered. However, their playing time doesn’t seem as certain as that of the new free agents:
- Yonder Alonso, 1B -- hoping for some OBP and defense
- Jed Lowrie, IF — hoping for ... anything at all (OBP? a trade?)
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Alright, that’s enough setup. Here’s the list, in chronological order. Each stopgap gets a grade based on how well he turned out, from A (became an outright star, 3+ WAR) to C (totally cromulent, 1 WAR) to F (went full Coghlan, -1 WAR). The WAR numbers are averages between bWAR and fWAR.
Shannon Stewart | OF | 2007
Acquired: Free agent — 1-year, $1M
The A’s had just gone to the ALCS in 2006, so the 33-year-old Stewart was part of the attempt to keep the good times rolling post-Thomas/Zito (they did not keep rolling). The lineup almost completely fell apart, especially the outfield (Kotsay and Buck hurt, Bradley traded, Swisher playing CF), but Stewart plugged along all year and chipped in a league-average batting line. He also had a big veteran moment, breaking up Curt Schilling’s no-hit bid in the 9th inning.
Emil Brown | OF | 2008
Acquired: Free agent — 1-year, $1.4M
The RBI Machine! The A’s were already halfway into their next rebuild, and Brown was just keeping a spot warm. He actually got the job done better than you might remember — his 47 first-half RBI were a fun sideshow early on, and then he eventually stepped back when better OF/DH options emerged (Carlos Gonzalez, Rajai Davis, Frank Thomas v.2). I can’t give higher than a D+ for sub-replacement-level, but it could have been worse than Brown.
Orlando Cabrera | SS | 2009
Acquired: Free agent — 1-year, $4M
The A’s made a splash by adding some big-name vets (Holliday, Giambi, Nomar), but it didn’t work out. The 34-year-old Cabrera was the temp replacement for Bobby Crosby, who finally washed out of the starting shortstop job. Cabrera’s defense was alright but he didn’t hit at all, with an utterly empty .280 average. He was dumped in a late-season trade for Tyler Ladendorf.
Coco Crisp | OF | 2010
Acquired: Free agent —1-year, 5.3M (+ team option)
WAR: 3.3 WAR (despite missing half of season)
That’s right, Coco began his A’s career as a stopgap outfielder on a team that was going younger coming off 87 losses. He was a 30-year-old injury bounce-back signing after missing most of ‘09 with shoulder problems, and then he opened his A’s tenure on the DL after fracturing his finger in spring training. But he was worth the wait, because he was a big plus on both sides of the ball and quickly elevated himself to star status — both statistically, and among the fanbase. He was so good that he stuck around for six more years and two more contracts, as a leader on the field, in the clubhouse, and in our hearts.
Josh Willingham | OF | 2011
Acquired: Trade (WAS) — two C-grade prospects ($6M salary)
Perhaps he belongs in the “expected to be good” category; after all, he’d been a perennial 2-3 WAR player. Also, the A’s were halfway making a push to build on their .500 performance from 2010, though not mortgaging the future to go all-in. Either way, the 32-year-old came in cheap to briefly fill the hole of corner slugger, and he did so admirably -- a then-career-high 29 HR. He was a bright spot in a snoozer of a season.
And then, under the old free agent draft compensation rules, his loss netted the A’s Bruce Maxwell (now on the team) and Daniel Robertson (used as the headliner for Ben Zobrist, who was then turned into Sean Manaea). The fringe prospects Oakland traded for him in the first place didn’t pan out (RHP Henry Rodriguez, OF Corey Brown).
David DeJesus | OF | 2011
Acquired: Trade (KC) — Vin Mazzaro and a prospect ($6M)
Like with Willingham, the 31-year-old DeJesus wasn’t a pure stopgap, on a 2011 team kinda sorta trying to compete. There was at least some hope that he’d actually be good — after all, he was coming off a 127 wRC+ the previous year and was a good defender. But he didn’t follow it up here, though he was better than I remember. At the plate he was more boring than awful, within reach of league-average.
Under those silly old draft comp rules, his loss netted the A’s Matt Olson. Getting that draft pick on the other side was absolutely part of the strategy behind getting DeJesus, but times have changed and the types of midlevel players we’re talking about here don’t earn draft compensation anymore. Oh, by the way, young starter Vin Mazzaro really, really didn’t pan out.
Jonny Gomes | OF | 2012
Acquired: Free agent — 1-year, $1M
WAR: 2.1 (part-time)
The A’s added several outfielders this winter (Cespedes, Reddick, Smith, re-signed Coco), so perhaps Gomes really belongs in the “bench/backup players” category. But he feels right here and it’s fun to remember the good times.
Gomes didn’t end up in a strict platoon role, as he started nearly half the team’s games. He had arguably his career year, with 18 HR, a .377 OBP, and a 142 wRC+ (those last two ended up being career-highs). The 31-year-old came in to be a part-time righty corner slugger, and he exceeded all expectations.
Chris Young | OF | 2013
Acquired: Trade (ARI) — Cliff Pennington and a prospect ($8.5M)
He was supposed to help a contending team, but not as a featured core player or anything. Instead, the 29-year-old completely bombed. His previously good defense suffered as he was moved around the outfield, and he was awful at the plate (except against Houston!). He’s bounced back recently in the AL East, but he was a dud here, and his grade is knocked down a bit because he was also relatively expensive. Meanwhile, Pennington was a useful bench player for Arizona, while the prospect (SS Yordy Cabrera) flamed out so hard that he literally switched to pitching.
Chris Coghlan | OF | 2016
Acquired: Trade (CHC) — Aaron Brooks ($4.8M)
WAR: -1.5 (in only 51 games)
Oh lordy. Sometimes they just don’t work out. His fielding was bad, and he posted a microscopic .487 OPS in 172 plate appearances. His time in Oakland would have made him one of the 5 worst players in all of MLB last year. But then the A’s traded the 31-year-old back to the Cubs, and he went right back to being the solid role player we thought we were getting (1.0 WAR in 128 PAs). He got dumped off a last-place team in June because he was too awful even for them, and four months later he was in the starting lineup in the World Series. Life, man.
Bonus: Let’s loosen up on the criteria a bit to add a few more names. These players were either on 2-year commitments or at least had an extra year of team control available through arbitration. So, they weren’t literally 1-year stopgaps, but they kind of were in spirit. Their grades only reflect the one year listed in their headers.
Kevin Kouzmanoff | 3B | 2010
Acquired: Trade (SD) — Scott Hairston and a prospect ($3.1M)
WAR: 2.4 WAR
Perhaps the 28-year-old Kouz had some breakout potential left, and he had three total years of team control when acquired, but in hindsight I think he fits on the list. He wasn’t always the most popular player, but he was undeniably productive in 2010 — he led the team in homers (16, lol) and played excellent defense at the hot corner.
However, by June of the next year, the collective .279 OBP he’d posted in an A’s uniform was too low to stomach (especially combined with quickly eroding glovework), and he was demoted and later dumped. Still, if you look at him as a 1-year stopgap in 2010, then he was quite a success. Meanwhile, Hairston was no big loss and the prospect (OF Aaron Cunningham) didn’t pan out. Oh, and the A’s got an infield prospect named Eric Sogard in the deal too.
Side note: Let’s marvel at the defensive ability of that 2010 squad: Suzuki, Barton, Ellis, Pennington, Kouz, Coco, Sweeney, and Rajai. And Jack Cust. They were tied for first in MLB in Defensive Runs Saved, over 50% better than the next-best team.
Seth Smith | OF | 2012
Acquired: Trade (Col) — 2 fringe MLB pitchers ($2.4M)
WAR: 1.6 (platoon role)
He was part of their outfield overhaul, and he carried his weight in a corner platoon role with Jonny Gomes. He wound up playing well enough to extend beyond 1-year status, since he was arbitration-eligible, but he didn’t repeat his performance in 2013 and was dealt to San Diego (where he bounced back once more). Meanwhile, the two pitchers they traded for him in the first place (Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman) didn’t do much, and they got an established setup man back from the Padres (Luke Gregerson).
Ike Davis | 1B | 2015
Acquired: Trade (PIT) — no other players involved ($3.8M)
The A’s were gearing up to trade Brandon Moss as part of their All-Star fire sale, and Ike was the preemptive stopgap replacement. It started off well, but then injuries caught up to Ike, as they always do, and he fell off a cliff. The 28-year-old was done by mid-August and non-tendered that winter. I liked Ike and wanted him to work out here, but on the bright side his spot was taken by Mark Canha the rest of the way so at least he successfully bridged the gap to the next interesting prospect.
Yonder Alonso | 1B | 2016
Acquired: Trade (SD) — Drew Pomeranz and two prospects ($2.7M)
It didn’t go well for the 29-year-old in his first go-round here, but the A’s decided to bring him back for another try next season. His fielding looked good to many of us on AN, though it was rated poorly by the numbers. His bat was terrible by any metric. He literally filled the 1B hole, but didn’t contribute much along the way. Here’s hoping for a bounce-back! Meanwhile, adding insult to poor OBP, Pomeranz became an All-Star starter and one of the throw-in prospects (LHP Jose Torres) rose all the way from High-A to make his MLB debut. (Bright side: The A’s also got Marc Rzepczynski in this deal, who was then turned into 2B prospect Max Schrock at the trade deadline.)
Jed Lowrie | 2B | 2016
Acquired: Trade (HOU) — one C-grade prospect ($7.5M)
The first time Lowrie came to Oakland, he was expected to be good for a contending 2013 squad (and he delivered). The second time, at age 32, he was just a solid veteran who happened to be available cheap and the A’s found a spot for him at 2B. Unfortunately, the sequel followed the same script as Ike Davis’ season: Lowrie started off well and looked like a nice replacement for a guy they’d traded away (Brett Lawrie), but then he got hurt because he always gets hurt; his bat disappeared, and he was done by early August.
Add it all up, and he was the second-most expensive player on this list while posting the third-worst WAR, noticeably below replacement level. That’s a fail. Meanwhile, the prospect (RHP Brendan McCurry) had a good year in relief and reached Triple-A.
Bonus 2: And a few more exceptions. These are the guys who were acquired midseason, but then the A’s doubled down, tendered them new contracts (they were arbitration-eligible), and gave them starting roles the next year. Sam Fuld (v.2015) would fit here if I hadn’t classified him as a bench guy above. Remember that the grades strictly apply to the stopgap year in question and don’t factor in the previous partial-season.
Conor Jackson | 1B/OF | 2011
Acquired: Trade (ARI) — one C-grade prospect ($3.2M)
They picked him up in mid-2010 and he didn’t hit much, but they doubled down on him again in 2011 and ... he didn’t hit much, again, in 102 games at premium offensive corner positions. The bounce-back never came, so he just filled space for a while until he was dumped in August. That cleared a spot at 1B for Brandon Allen to step in and save us all.
Alberto Callaspo | UTIL | 2014
Acquired: Trade (LAA) — Grant Green ($4.9M)
He was a decent midseason addition to a contending 2013 team that needed infield depth, so the A’s brought him back for his final year of arbitration. But he already wasn’t a good fit by the time the season started, and he had a brutal year in every conceivable way. He didn’t hit (69 wRC+) but he still led the team in plate appearances at DH. His fielding at 2B was bad, and he was actively toxic on the bases. His go-ahead RBI hit in the 12th inning of the Wild Card Game would have totally redeemed him if it had wound up as the game-winner, but even that didn’t work out.
Danny Valencia | “3B” | 2016
Acquired: Claimed off waivers (TOR) ($3.2M)
The Blue Jays were saddled with too many good hitters, so the A’s lucked into a red-hot Valencia on waivers in late-2015. That earned him a stopgap job in 2016, and he kept right on hitting (118 wRC+). However, his defense at the hot corner was so historically bad, just visually noxious, morale-crushingly porous, that he lost his spot to rookie Ryon Healy in early July right as you’d have expected him to be gearing up for a trade deadline audition. Still, he was a productive player and added much-needed dinger excitement. He would have gotten a C+, but under the Fuentes Proviso, he gets bumped up one notch for socking Billy Butler in the face like we all wished someone would.
Adam Kennedy | 2B/3B | 2009
Acquired: Trade (TB) — one PTBNL (minimum salary)
This one is a little different. Kennedy was an in-season acquisition, but it was all the way in early May to fill in for an injured Mark Ellis at 2B. When Ellis returned, Kennedy shifted over to 3B to replace an ineffective Jack Hannahan. Kennedy’s defense wasn’t much, but at the plate he was a relative bright spot in a lineup that otherwise completely fell apart — 103 wRC+, 11 HR, .348 OBP. The A’s needed emergency stopgap at-bats at positions that aren’t always easy to find on the fly, and he delivered 587 solid plate appearances.
* * *
Let’s break down the list by grade:
B+: Willingham, Gomes, Kouz
B-: Smith, Valencia
C+: Stewart, DeJesus, Kennedy
D: Cabrera, Alonso
D-: Young, Ike, Jackson
F: Coghlan, Lowrie, Callaspo
Average grade (17 players): C-
Average WAR: 0.7
How good have the A’s been at picking their one-year stopgaps? And what does a likely spectrum of outcomes look like for players like Rajai, Plouffe, and Joyce?
We can’t easily compare the A’s record with other teams, so we’ll have to base this on subjective expectations. My grades are more or less based on the question, “Did he manage to put up the 1-WAR season you paid for?” That seems like a fair standard for this caliber of player, and indeed the range of outcomes was generally around 0-2 WAR with a couple outliers at -1 or 3+.
Averaging together all the grades (using grade points, like 4.0 for an A or 3.3 for a B+), the 18 players averaged 1.75, or a C- mark. That sounds about right, as they collectively came up just short of that 1-WAR threshold. Another way to look at it: half could be deemed successes, with one true jackpot mixed in (Coco); and half busts, with only two of them holding injury as a serious excuse (Ike, Lowrie). Predicting baseball players is tough, and a 50/50 hit rate in this particular arena is probably about as mediocre as it sounds.
And what to expect from the 2017 crew? Let’s just consider at the newcomers: Joyce, Rajai, and Plouffe. This analogy works better with four so I’m adding in Alejandro De Aza, who I have a hunch will get playing time, even though he doesn’t technically fit my criteria since he’s on a minor league contract. Replace De Aza with Alonso or Lowrie in the next paragraph if you think one of them will get the at-bats instead.
Based on these prior results, we can reasonably expect one good, solid 2-WAR gem, one mediocre performer putting up 1+ WAR, and two outright busts who are replacement-level or worse (one of them possibly injured). Here are a couple realistic scenarios: Plouffe shocks us with a good year, Joyce is decent in a platoon role, and Rajai and De Aza flounder in CF (Rajai gets hurt, De Aza fills in). Or, Rajai manages a .300 average like in 2009, Plouffe and Joyce bust, and De Aza fills in for the latter decently. We won’t necessarily get a perfect distribution of results like that, but if you’re looking for a baseline to set your expectations then there you go.
It’s tempting to wonder if the payoff is worth the reward. Could you reliably get the same results with just waiver/MiLB pickups, and save the $3.9 million they spent per stopgap (or the $5.5 million average on this year’s main trio)? Go with a lineup of De Azas and Hannahans, and hope you get more Moss than Montz? My hunch is that it’s unlikely, that the hit rate would probably be lower enough that you’d be all but punting the lineup spots rather than at least coin-flipping them.
As for using a prospects instead? The whole premise of these signings is largely based on the prospects not being ready yet, with the stopgaps keeping their positions warm and then moving aside at the right time. In theory, if there’s a prospect truly worth rolling with then these guys won’t stop him from getting his chance.
* * *
Looking at that grade breakdown gave me another thought that sent me down a whole new rabbit hole. How have the successes and failures been distributed over time?
‘07: Stewart (C+)
‘08: Brown (D+)
‘09: Kennedy (C+), Cabrera (D)
‘10: Coco (A), Kouz (B+)
‘11: Willingham (B+), DeJesus (C+), Jackson (D-)
‘12: Gomes (B+), Smith (B-)
‘13: Young (D-)
‘14: Callaspo (F)
‘15: Ike (D-)
‘16: Valencia (B-), Alonso (D), Lowrie (F), Coghlan (F)
Almost all of the good picks from the last decade came between 2010-12, and over the last four years they’re batting 1-for-7 — and the only good one (Valencia) was a waiver pickup whom I fudged to get on the list at all (though to be fair he was way too good to be on waivers).
Does this negate my earlier conclusion that stopgaps are still better plans than just grabbing a bunch of minor league free agents and holding your breath, since most years the “safe” bets didn’t help much? My answer is still no — going bare-bones cheap probably just means that 2010 and/or 2012 go worse, and at stopgap prices even those occasional hits are still easily worth the misses.
This should go without saying, but there is at least some correlation between these players and their teams’ fortunes. The stopgaps (including aging DHs) for the 2007-09 teams were duds and so were the clubs; they picked better in 2010 and 2012 and both squads were pleasant surprises; and their 2016 roster tanked as hard as the stopgaps did. The extra boost from a bargain like Coco or Gomes can help push a low-budget team over the top.
It wouldn’t be a rabbit hole if I’d stopped there, though. We’ve come this far, so may as well strive for 4,000 words by tying it all together into a larger look at the A’s record on veteran acquisitions. Here’s the same year-by-year breakdown, but factoring in all the guys I disqualified in the intro (stars, midseason trades, waiver guys, etc.). Now we’re looking at all veterans who got substantial playing time.
I’ve split them into four categories: stopgaps (including the aging DHs and bench guys), stars (took more to acquire), gems (waiver/MiLB guys who broke out), and midseason acquisitions. The Gems column is by definition cherry-picked to only include the successes, so all you’re looking for in that column is quantity. For players who spent multiples years in Oakland, they're listed in their first seasons with the A's regardless of when their best/worst seasons occurred. A couple of the stopgaps are also listed in the acquisitions column if they were picked up the previous midseason.
Just like with the stopgap guys, these players will be graded relative to the reasonable expectations they arrived with. That means a guy acquired in an expensive trade will be held to a higher standard than one who was signed on a minor league deal. If he was a Star or Gem who spent multiple years here, then his grade reflects his entire tenure even though he's just listed in his debut year. (Unless he had completely separate stints, like Thomas v.2008 or Lowrie.) And it’s color-coded! Green is good, black is mediocre, and red is bad.
|2009||Holliday (B-)||Kennedy (C+)
|2012||Cespedes (A-)||Gomes (B+)
|Young (D-)||Callaspo (C-)||Vogt (A-)|
|2014||Gentry (C-)||Punto (C)
- The A’s have been quite successful when going after star hitters. Even Holliday was good — we loathe him now, but he was on a 5-WAR pace when he was traded. The one exception was 2015, when just about everything Oakland tried backfired.
- Speaking of 2015, this chart really illustrates just how unlikely it is for everything to go so wrong all at once (and it doesn’t even include the bullpen). That season really was a disaster, requiring both questionable decisions and horrible luck. The 2014 section also has some remnants of the first stage of that collapse.
- As the A’s began signing more stopgaps in 2009-11, they stopped finding waiver gems! But that’s more likely because the prospects were finally ready for playing time, like Suzuki, Barton, Pennington, Weeks, and Sweeney.
- The midseason acquisitions haven’t gone great, though most were minor deals. The two most significant were Callaspo and Fuld, who were only decent.
- Aging former-star DHs aren’t a great investment, or at least not the ones the A’s have gone for. After striking gold with Frank Thomas in 2006 (he was a Hall of Famer, after all), they’ve gone 0-for-7: Piazza, Sweeney, Thomas v.2, Giambi, Nomar, Matsui, and midseason acquisition Dunn.
- If you sign three or four stopgap veterans, at least one should be decent-to-good.
And finally, one more time: If the stopgaps are such a coin-flip, then why not just go for unproven waiver gems? My impression isn’t that the A’s have shown a remarkable skill at developing waiver guys into stars, but rather at picking the right ones who just needed an opportunity. If someone like De Aza or Jaff Decker proves to be such a gem, then he can force his way up just like a prospect would — remember, Moss didn’t make it up in 2012 until June.
In the meantime, they’ll spend a few mill on an Ike or a Smith instead and hope he at least fills the space — and half the time, he does so effectively. If he’s not carrying his weight, then he won’t be a roadblock for a prospect or other breakout candidate who needs a spot.