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Reviewing the starting pitching market: Were the Oakland A’s right to sit it out?

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Hill finally struck it rich, but with another team.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

One offseason strategy the Oakland A’s routinely employ is taking a chance on a cheap veteran starting pitcher. The plan is to buy low on a flawed player with strong upside, especially an injury bounce-back candidate, which gives them minimal risk if the player flames out but also the chance for a grand reward at a bargain price — like a breakout star on a contending team (Brandon McCarthy, Bartolo Colon), or a valuable trade chip at the deadline (Scott Kazmir, Rich Hill).

However, the A’s didn’t pick up their annual veteran flyer this winter. They brought back Ross Detwiler to stash at Triple-A, but he’s not even on the 40-man roster; I’m talking about a free agent with an MLB contract, and maybe even a guaranteed rotation spot (like Hill had last spring). The question at hand: Were they right to sit out this market, or should they have grabbed a raffle ticket?

Let’s take a look at how the market played out.

Player (L/R), TEAM: Years/Total Dollars (Annual Dollars)

Top Dogs ($20M+)

Rich Hill (L), LAD: 3/$48M ($16M)
Edinson Volquez (R), MIA: 2/$22M ($11M)
Ivan Nova (R), PIT: 3/$26M ($8.7M)

Small 2-year deals

Jason Hammel (R), KC: 2/$16M ($8M)
Charlie Morton (R), HOU: 2/$14M ($7M)
Travis Wood (L), KC: 2/$12M ($6M)

1-year deals

Bartolo Colon (R), ATL: 1/$12.5M
Andrew Cashner (R), TEX: 1/$10M
R.A. Dickey (R), ATL: 1/$8M
Derek Holland (L), CHW: 1/$6M
Tyson Ross (R), TEX: 1/$6M
Brett Anderson (L), CHC: 1/$3.5M
Jeff Locke (L), MIA: 1/$3M
Jered Weaver (R), SD: 1/$3M
Scott Feldman (R), CIN: 1/$2.3M
Trevor Cahill (R), SD: 1/$1.8M

Still available

Including 2016 FIP and bWAR

  • Doug Fister (R), 4.75 FIP, 0.0 bWAR
  • Colby Lewis (R), 4.81 FIP, 2.4 bWAR
  • Jake Peavy (R), 4.36 FIP, -0.9 bWAR

The first thing to notice is that there was no upper tier, the type that the A’s are priced out of. They could have afforded any free agent, including an expensive double-down on Rich Hill.

But this wasn’t the right time to put big money on that kind of high-risk hurler, not in a rebuilding season with a ton of young starters ready to try out in the bigs. Drop some small money chasing a bonus bargain, sure, but otherwise there is plenty of upside to explore in-house without spending eight figures per year. Oakland made the right call letting someone else pay Hill, and also by letting someone else give three years to Ivan Nova (whom I may have been interested in on a shorter deal).

The rest of the mid-sized options (Volquez, Hammel, Morton, 44-year-old Colon, 42-year-old Dickey) fall more into the camp of eating innings than offering some kind of breakout upside. And again, filling innings isn’t so much the issue this year, it’s whether the innings can be filled any better than they already are. Perhaps they could have picked up a stopgap (like so many of their position players) with the intention of trading him at the deadline, but at some point you have to give some playing time to the squillion SP prospects you’ve already acquired before you can focus on getting more.

None of the dirt-cheap options (Brett Anderson and below) appeal to me more than giving Andrew Triggs some innings, nor do the remaining unsigned options (though maybe we could pay Colby Lewis to sit out and never face us again?).

That leaves Travis Wood, and a few injury bounce-backs -- Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, and Derek Holland. I’d have been happy with Wood as a lefty swingman, but it’s possible that he turns out as simply a market-rate reliever by the end of his contract. I have no interest in paying Cashner at the price he got. Holland hasn’t pitched a full season since 2013, and I don’t think there’s enough upside left to make him the next big hidden gem. As for Ross, I’d have given him a shot for $6M but don’t mind letting the Rangers find out once and for all whether he was a product of Petco.

And the trades? (Literally half of this trade list is just Seattle’s Jerry Dipoto chasing his own tail.)

Chris Sale (L): CHW to BOS for all the prospects
Taijuan Walker (R): SEA to ARI for SS Jean Segura
Drew Smyly (L): TB to SEA for OF Mallex Smith + 2 MiLB
Yovani Gallardo (R): BAL to SEA for OF Seth Smith
Nate Karns (R): SEA to KC for OF Jarrod Dyson
Dan Straily (R): CIN to MIA for 3 minor leaguers
Jaime Garcia (L): STL to ATL for 3 minor leaguers
Clay Buchholz (R): BOS to PHI for 1 prospect

Several of these guys were traded for things the A’s didn’t have to offer: Sale (elite prospects), Walker (5-WAR SS), and Smyly, Gallardo, and Karns (outfield help). Buchholz was a $13.5M salary dump, the Reds sold high on Straily after a career year, and Garcia is a one-year rental. The only one I’d be even mildly interested in is Garcia, as a potential July trade chip, but by the time you’ve spent three prospects and a $12M salary on him, how much surplus value are you really hoping to find on the other end?

All told, that leaves Wood and Ross as two starters I’d have been down with but also don’t mind passing on.

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Final verdict: Sitting out was the right call. There simply weren’t any opportunities to be missed this winter on the free agent market, and the trade market required things Oakland didn’t have.

More importantly, though, the A’s were out of space. You can never have too much pitching, but you can have too many players for one 40-man roster, and they were already bursting at the seams as it was. They have spent an enormous amount of time and trade capital putting together a horde of young pitching that is now ready to start logging big league innings in April, and now is the time to let them loose and see what they can do.

Even having already lost Daniel Mengden before spring training even started, probably for at least half the season, Oakland still has a lengthy list of options to run through:

  1. Sonny Gray
  2. Sean Manaea
  3. Kendall Graveman
  4. Jharel Cotton
  5. Andrew Triggs
  6. Jesse Hahn
  7. Raul Alcantara
  8. Midseason: Daniel Mengden, Chris Bassitt, Felix Doubront
  9. Next up: Daniel Gossett, Paul Blackburn

There are plenty of ways that group can go wrong, but adding another mediocre innings-eater wasn’t going to help, assuming you could even find a way to slip one onto the roster without having to DFA someone else from the list to make room. The one thing they are not lacking is quantity — they’re at least three injuries away from needing Ross Detwiler, and there are multiple midseason reinforcements expected as well in case that does happen (plus the next wave of prospects coming in hot behind them).

Adding one of this winter’s free agents would have increased that quantity (and the payroll), but it’s tough to say it would have upped the quality in any way. I’ll take Cotton over anyone on the free agent list except Hill, I’ll try out Triggs or Alcantara over any of the bargain-bin flyers, and I’ll test Hahn’s dormant upside before I spend on any of the injury bounce-back guys.

With this much depth, may as well let the kids play and let your fortunes lie on their performance, for better or worse. The A’s picked up some veterans over the offseason, but this time they got hitters to fill up a thin lineup instead of a starter to further jam an already crowded rotation.

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