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Oakland A’s face offseason decisions in arbitration

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Which players are worth keeping at their estimated salaries?

Is it time to move on from Josh Phegley behind the plate?
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason won’t get going for another month or so, but Monday morning brought one of the first tools to help us begin our winter scheming — the MLB Trade Rumors salary arbitration estimates. These are educated, generally accurate guesses as to what paydays might be in store for veterans who haven’t played in the majors long enough to reach free agency but also don’t yet have an official 2018 contract.

Not all cases end in a one-year deal around the approximated amount. Some players may instead agree to long-term pacts to buy out their arbitration years, or be traded to avoid the situation altogether, or non-tendered and released because they aren’t worth the new, inflated price. But this is the starting point as you consider which names you’d like to keep around and how that might affect the payroll.

The deadline to contractually commit to these players is around the beginning of December, with specific dollar amounts being negotiated over the ensuing several weeks (resulting in a formal hearing in front of an arbiter if necessary, though the A’s rarely get to that point). Oakland’s full list:

  • OF Khris Davis ($11.1M)
  • SS Marcus Semien ($3.2M)
  • RHP Kendall Graveman ($2.6M)
  • RHP Blake Treinen ($2.3M)
  • RHP Chris Hatcher ($2.2M)
  • RHP Liam Hendriks ($1.9M)
  • C Josh Phegley ($1.1M)
  • OF Jake Smolinski ($0.7M)

Note: Khrush and Hendriks are in their 2nd arb years. Hatcher is in his 3rd-of-4 (as a former Super 2). Everyone else is in 1st year of arb.

Should these players be tendered new contracts for 2018 at these prices? My take on each below, separated into three categories: yes, maybe, and no.

Obviously yes

No question on this first group of guys. Even if you don’t want them on next year’s team, you still tender and then trade them rather than just cutting them for nothing. They are obviously, undoubtedly, mathematically worth their projected salaries. Tender now and ask questions later.

Khris Davis ($11.1M): The situation is complicated around Khrush. His performance is excellent but limited by its one-dimensional nature, he overlaps with young DH Ryon Healy in the ideal lineup, he’ll be 30 next year, and he’s already being mentioned as an offseason trade candidate. But the decision to at least tender him is simple, as opposed to letting him walk for free.

Beyond that obvious starting point, we’ve already begun debating what to do with Khrush long-term (see comment section here) and there’s a wide range of defensible opinions. Personally, my stance continues to be that this is the perfect moment to lock up a productive, popular, but inefficiently priced player to a three-year deal. The payroll is as empty as we’ve ever seen it, and it’ll stay that way for a while since half the roster is filled with minimum-salary youngsters; I don’t think his trade value is game-changing, and any in-house LF/DH replacement will almost certainly be a 2018 downgrade; and the team keeps stressing its desire to reduce the constant turnover of the last couple decades. Gotta start somewhere on a culture change, and this early opportunity checks enough of my boxes to be worth the low-to-medium risk.

As a bonus, the superfluous Healy would be a good bench bat against lefty relievers or a top-notch Triple-A stash, and there would still be plenty of money to adequately address the 2018 pitching staff. Or, trade your best pure slugger of this century for a reliever, and see what kind of response you get from a fanbase that’s still pissed about Yoenis Cespedes more than three years later. Warriors games start next week and extend nearly halfway through baseball season.

Marcus Semien ($3.2M): This is still a bargain for a starting-caliber shortstop, much less entering age-27. The next wave of middle infield prospects isn’t expected to be quite ready for Opening Day, and there might even be space for veteran 2B Jed Lowrie to come back, so until further notice Semien is the guy at SS. Similar to Khris’ situation, the more interesting question is whether to simply tender Semien or extend him long-term.

Kendall Graveman ($2.6M): Even after missing nearly half of 2017 to injury, Graveman is one of the more reliable options in the rotation. He’s got the most MLB experience and the biggest career-highs in starts and innings, and he’s never been meaningfully worse than league-average in a season. This arbitration price is closer to zero than it is to what he’d be worth on the open market entering age-27, though in this case I see no reason right now to buy out any future years with a long-term extension.

Blake Treinen ($2.3M): The July acquisition was excellent out of the A’s bullpen, by any measure from ERA to FIP to save/hold rate. Entering age-30, with no recent injury history, he’d get 2-3 times that salary on the open market to be someone’s setup man. Case in point: The story I’ll be following is whether Treinen can manage to be better next year than Ryan Madson, the $7.7M win-now veteran reliever he was acquired for. It’s an entirely realistic possibility.

Arguable

There are legitimate pros and cons to be considered here. They’re all cheap enough that they may well be retained if only for depth, but they’re worth a closer look.

Liam Hendriks ($1.9M): On the grand scale, a pitcher’s FIP is a better future predictor than his ERA. If his strikeouts, walks, and homers are good, then the rest usually follows eventually. But there will always be exceptions, and so far in his bullpen career Hendriks has found ways to give up more runs than expected. But this is 6th-inning money at most, which makes it tough to argue against keeping him even if you think there’s no remaining breakout potential entering age-29.

Josh Phegley ($1.1M): This one isn’t a matter of talent, or value, or anything of that nature. Phegley has managed only 83 games the last two seasons combined while battling a wide assortment of injuries, and there’s simply no reason to gamble on him further. Reliable veteran righty backup catchers are easily available in free agency for this amount of money (or not much more), and first and foremost I want someone who will stay healthy alongside lefty Bruce Maxwell. I would opt to non-tender Phegs, though I wouldn’t reject bringing him back to Nashville as a minor league free agent for depth.

Jake Smolinski ($0.7M): As it turns out, Mark Canha didn’t get enough MLB service time this year to reach arbitration. I only see one spot available for this pair of righty platoon corner outfielders, and Canha was already my pick; my opinion is only reinforced now, even though the actual dollar difference is negligible. I’d non-tender Smolinski, and I don’t even think there’s room to stash him in Nashville with as many as 10 or more OF options already on board in MLB/AAA.

Nope

Nope.

Chris Hatcher ($2.2M): He was worth a flyer to take setup duties for the rest of a lost season, but he was mediocre at best. I can’t imagine an argument in favor of signing him at this price or keeping him on the 40-man roster, though I would happily bring him back as a minor league free agent and stash him in Nashville next summer as veteran depth (like Simon Castro and Michael Brady this year).

(Update: There are varying opinions on Hatcher in the comments section, and reason to believe the A’s may want to keep him after all. Scroll down there to read more about him!)