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True A’s Targets Are Names We Haven’t Heard Yet

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MLB: Miami Marlins at Colorado Rockies
“I will be a free agent Ozuna rather than than latah.”
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

You hear about Christian Yelich and Marcel Ozuna, debate the merits of taking a shot at Lorenzo Cain or Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn, yet from where I sit all these names are smokescreens for the real off-season moves to come. These just aren’t the types of players the A’s are going to target and I am here, teetering on my soap box, to explain why.

Sure, the A’s would love to surge into the wild card picture following 3 years in last place, and the 2017 Minnesota Twins are the most recent precedent to show it is not a far fetched dream. But in the middle of the first true rebuild the A’s have undergone in the Billy Beane era, nothing big is going to be mortgaged in the hopes of squeezing out a few more wins and taking a shot at a one-game playoff. 2020 is going to remain more essential than 2018 because the A’s true goal is to compete with the likes of the Astros for the likes of the AL West crown, and that isn’t going to happen in 2018 but could soon thereafter if Oakland stays the course.

For this reason, Ozuna really makes no sense at all. He is only under contract through 2019 yet he is talented and proven enough to command a legitimate return to a team in search of excellent young prospects. Why would the Marlins move him for mediocre talent? Moreover, why would the A’s offer top prospects, who can be under contract control through 2023 and beyond, for a player whose contract expires just as the A’s might be ready to give Houston a run for its money?

Yelich, on the surface, makes more sense, because he is basically a proven version of a top prospect. Yelich still has 4-5 years left on his contract, but unlike Franklin Barreto or even Matt Olson, his ability to thrive in the big leagues is known. Trouble is, for all these reasons the Marlins are only going to move him for multiple high level talent. You’re not looking at debating whether it’s Barreto or Holmes, Neuse or Mateo, Beck or Luzardo. You’re looking at likely needing to part with 3 pieces who currently stand as potential core, foundational players. Sure, you get one back for certain in Yelich, but losing 3 to gain 1 (and even the 1 has less contract control than any of the rest) is precisely what the A’s need to avoid doing.

As for the free agents, the ones worth signing are the kind Oakland eschews: overpaying players in their 30s for past performance and committing to long term deals for starting pitchers. Cain would immediately put the A’s much closer to the 2018 wild card conversation, but if the A’s wanted a player who could help them now at the expense of likely declining by the time the team was ready to be highly competitive, they would have re-signed Josh Reddick. The problem with Reddick was that he wanted a 4-year deal and was likely to be at his best when the A’s weren’t, then was likely to decline (or in the case of his defense, continue to decline) as the A’s surged. All this applies to Cain, who is a year older than Reddick and will be more expensive.

Oakland needs quality starting pitching more than anything, but the A’s brass has never been keen to commit long term money to SPs because they are inherently fragile and thus unpredictable. Cobb, Lynn, Darvish — however good they might be (and in each case there are question marks), they are going to require multi-year deals and the longest the A’s are usually comfortable with is 2 years. Yes, “things are changing” with regard to how the A’s operate, as evidenced by their continued interest in securing Matts Chapman and Olson to early long term deals, but Oakland’s reluctance to commit big money to SPs isn’t just the result of being poor and unable to try. It’s also a pedagogical belief that it is usually money ill spent.

Where does that leave the A’s this off-season? Some of the names we have discussed probably are realistic, such as Doug Fister or Justin Masterson on a 1-year deal. Mostly, though, I suspect the A’s will be targeting young cost-controlled players they believe can breakout (as Byron Buxton did this year for the Twins), and possibly older disappointments they think can be the next Edwin Encarnacion, J.D. Martinez, Didi Gregorius, Charlie Morton, Collin McHugh — players any team could have acquired on the cheap at one time because they just weren’t all that good until suddenly they were.

So if you’re hoping to predict the A’s next flurry of acquisitions, designed to make them better in 2018 but also perhaps better beyond next season as well, my guess is that you should forget about Ozuna and Yelich, Cain and Cobb, and try to identify who can be acquired without sending off more than one key prospect, without committing multiple years and significant payroll to someone in their 30s, but who has the talent to make the team a lot better — even if that talent has yet to truly prove itself.

Who are those guys? 5 years ago it was Brandon Moss, before him Josh Donaldson. More recently it was Scott Kazmir following Bartolo Colon. Stephen Vogt was a career 0 for 25 when the Tampa Bay Rays handed him to the A’s. You can build a group of All-Stars off the “Baseball’s Least Wanted” list if you choose well, and you don’t have to reverse your rebuild to do it. Who is out there, unwanted, who is ripe for the choosing? Identify them and name them, because I suspect that in the most proprietary of closed door meetings, they are the guys Oakland’s brain trust is actually focusing on right now.