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The A’s have done well in free agency, but the stakes are about to change

A look back at how the A’s have done and a look forward at what we can expect.

Washington Nationals v Oakland Athletics Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

For the first time in three years, the A’s actually have a chance to contend. The team remains a long shot to actually make it, but with the strength of the A’s youth, it’s possible.

With those hopes come increased responsibilities in free agency, and while the A’s have done a good job finding surprise value adds on the free agent marketplace in the recent past, repeating that success will be a more difficult proposition headed into 2018.

The A’s have done well in free agency, even recently

One of the first pieces I ever wrote for this site was about how the A’s have been sneaky good in free agency. That was written the season after the A’s signed Billy Butler. Bold move.

Anyway, in spite of that disastrous move the truth is, the A’s are still pretty darn good at finding free agent bargains. Since that offseason, this is how the A’s have done.

2016 Free Agents

Player Position 2017 fWAR
Player Position 2017 fWAR
Santiago Casilla RP .1
Rajai Davis CF 0
Trevor Plouffe 3B -1.2
Matt Joyce COF 2.4
Adam Rosales UTL -.5

2015 Free Agency

Player Position 2017 fWAR 2016 fWAR
Player Position 2017 fWAR 2016 fWAR
Ryan Madson RP 1.9 0.4
John Axford RP -.2 0.3
Rich Hill SP x 3.8

It’s important to remember that hoo boy, free agents often suck. Look at the 2015 class - it’s got a lot of disasters mixed in.

If you’re skeptical of the above list constituting doing “well”, that’s kind of the crux of the issue. The A’s have looked to find bargains, and haven’t discriminated in their quest to do so. They’ve signed old guys, young guys, reclamation projects and minor league free agents. So long as there’s a slot open, the A’s have basically said sure, let’s see if you can find your groove in Oakland. They’re able to take bets, weathering those who don’t pan out and trading on those who do for future value.

It’s a strategy that has had more or less no downside. The A’s haven’t taken any financial risks, they’re not preventing young guys from playing, they just tried to plug in as many guys as possible, see who had value, and trade them for future pieces.

And most importantly, bad signings didn’t take them out of contention, a luxury of sorts that they’re hopefully going to lose.

This offseason will be different

If you want a perfect example of how the A’s free agency game has changed, look at the A’s 2015 class.

That year, the A’s looked to shore up their poor 2014 pitching, specifically in the pen. To do so, the A’s signed Rich Hill for the rotation and John Axford and Ryan Madson in the pen.

All three were risks of varying levels. Hill was a 35 year old reclamation project, Axford a reliever with stuff but limited control and recent success, and Madson an oft injured solid reliever. What made each signing so understandable was the limited opportunity cost of each. The A’s needed high risk, high reward players to pan out, and failures by any of them wouldn’t sink the A’s, a team that was flailing from the start. The downside of those players didn’t matter.

That’s not true this year. The A’s aren’t playoff favorites, but it’s not unreasonable to hope that they can be contenders. The downside and opportunity cost of free agents now matters unlike in 2016, where a bad free agent signing just meant another meaningless loss or two. Losses hopefully will matter in 2018, and bringing in an extra one or two could prevent the A’s from playing meaningful October baesball.

That makes the decision making process more fine and important. Whereas before the A’s could take risks with the downside being a few more unimportant losses, the organization now has to be precise.

Also of note is that there are just fewer roster spots than before. With a better team and more long term players, the A’s will have fewer slots to add players. They can’t choose Axford and Madson, they have to choose Axford or Madson. That might seem like an obvious choice, but predicting free agents is a brutal proposition as history will show. Some of it is luck dependent, and the A’s will now have to hit on closer to 100% of their signing as opposed to recently, where all that mattered was hitting on some of their signing.

The A’s have been good at finding talent on the free agent marketplace before, but they’ve lost some of the luxuries that have aided them in recent years. Signings will be rarer and carry more weight, and the A’s will have to hit on each in order to contend deep into the season.

A top of the rotation pitcher?

The A’s need an ace, or at the very least a reliable number one guy. There’s upside in the rotation to fill that role if things go right, and a Sean Manaea takes another step forward or A.J. Puk shoots through the system.

That’s far from assured though, and the A’s are probably best suited to pick up at least one rotation arm.

History says the A’s know pitching, and some of their most impressive free agent successes have been turning low risk projects into high profile top of the rotation guys. All of Scott Kazmir, Rich Hill, Bartolo Colon, and Brandon McCarthy fall under that umbrella, which is an incredible amount of success for one team in such a short time frame.

It’s harder to find these guys now than it was before, and the A’s have to be more precise. But if the A’s can find another iteration of the Rich Hill type? Look out, baseball.