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On roster congruity, Jerry Dipoto, and the Oakland A’s

Should the A’s front office be more cognizant of how they construct the roster?

MLB: General Managers Meetings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In Oakland, the offseason has been predictably slow. With a team seemingly out of contention, a free agent class that lacks depth and firepower, and a league asking increasingly high rates for star players, the A’s just aren’t in the market for big moves. It’s a large departure from seasons past, a welcome respite for some but a boring stretch of baseball-less time for others.

If you fall into the latter category, take a few minutes to pretend to be a Mariners fan. Since arriving in Seattle at the end of the 2015 season, Jerry Dipoto has done his best Billy Beane, trading 31 out of the 40 men on the Mariner’s roster, reshaping a team that has had some of the worst luck in the sport.

The reconstruction of the Mariners has certainly been interesting to watch - Dipoto has attempted to do what the A’s tried to do in 2015, with decent results to start. The parallels between the 2015 A’s and the 2016 Mariners stop there. The M’s had far more assets than the A’s, and more resources to boot.

What is interesting and worth comparing to the A’s is the Mariners’ methodology. This offseason, Seattle ditched defensive hacks Seth Smith and Nori Aoki in favor of stud defenders Jarrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger. Those two, matched with Leonys Martin, should give the team one of the best defensive outfields in the league, even if it might be light on offense.

That defense makes particular sense when you peep at their pitching staff. Last season, the Mariners ranked 6th in flyball percentage. They doubled down on that type of staff, acquiring Drew Smyly, a very good pitcher who happened to lead the league in flyballs last season. Their staff will be rounded out with Yovani Gallardo, a “pitcher” the Mariners acquired for some reason. Gallardo doesn't induce flyballs quite like the rest of the staff, but he’s sure to make those track start outfielders use those legs.

The A’s are not like that. Granted, the A’s are at a very different stage in their path to contention, but for the past two years, there’s been a distinct mismatch in personnel. Not that there’s a roster match for poor defense, but the fact of the matter is, the A’s haven’t been an example of congruence.

For example, the A’s have a pitching staff that gets groundballs at a reasonable rate (9th in the bigs last season), one that stands to get a fair amount of groundballs this year too. So how’s that infield defense looking?

lol. It’s not necessarily going to be the disaster it was last season, but it’s certainly not designed with defense in mind. Trevor Plouffe has upside defensively, but he’s coming off an injured season where he was a butcher with the glove. Marcus Semien graded out well defensively last season, but his value is largely carried by his bat. Jed Lowrie is Jed Lowrie, blocking a potential defensive stud at second, while at first, Ryon Healy should be fine but is unlikely to be a better defender than Yonder Alonso.

It can’t be overstated how different a spot the A’s are in than the M’s. The Mariner’s window of contention is closing and with stars Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz aging and a minor league system that lacks firepower, the Mariners are doing all they can to reach the promise-land ASAP. Meanwhile, the A’s aren’t exactly sure where their contention window is. They’re searching through the living room, into the kitchen, but have yet to locate how exactly they’ll squeeze into the playoffs. That uncertainty makes moving future assets for present value a silly proposition.

Still, looking at the A’s current roster and what they have in the minor leagues, it’s hard to see a match between player types. You have defensive stud Matt Chapman, whose bat has issues due to contact problems, but has as much offensive upside as anyone in the system. It’s not clear where Franklin Barreto will play, and he projects to be an OK defender...somewhere. The pitching staff is a hodgepodge of talented but different pitchers while their lineup is just a hodgepodge.

David Laurila put together an interesting roundup on MLB General Manager’s opinion on choosing a direction, and for whatever it’s worth, David Forst doesn’t seem to believe in picking something a specific path.

David Forst, Oakland Athletics: “I would say it’s important. At the same time, it’s tough for us. We’ll put the best product on the field we can, but also commit to our young players. We’re coming off an offseason where we didn’t trade any young players. We recognized that, particularly on the pitching side, this young group is the key to us competing again. At the same time, we’re not in a position to tear it down. Neither Billy [Beane] nor I wants to do that. Ownership isn’t interested in a complete teardown, like how the Cubs and the Astros did.

“A total rebuild in that style is really hard for an organization. Losing 100 games three years in a row is not an easy thing on a fan base, it’s not easy on an ownership group. Like I said, it’s not something we’ve ever been interested in doing. Ultimately, we’d like to get to a new park where our resources change and we don’t have to take that step.

“We’ve had success at times, certainly going into 2012, where we… I wouldn’t say we were treading water, but we toed the line and kind of did both, and things came together. That’s what we’re hoping for now, that the young players mature together and we have the right pieces around them. We’re constantly balancing that. Is it the perfect strategy? No, but it’s ultimately what we have in Oakland.”

There’s a lot to parse there:

-Ownership cares about the state of the on-field franchise, and they aren’t cool with tanking. This isn’t exactly news, and it’s probably where the term “representative product” originates. Somewhat hilariously, the A’s have lost 93 games the past two years. It’s also a little alarming as their stated intent is to not tank, not end in last place, and instead to bottom out at mediocrity yet they still have.

-The A’s intention in the past offseason is verified here, which again isn’t news but is worth repeating. They believe in that young core, specifically the young staff. This should be a big year in terms of the A’s future, and we should know based on how a bunch of those guys progress whether the next window of contention is anywhere close.

-The stadium crutch is sad, possibly valid but sad.

-Most relevant to this article is that the A’s plan is to mix and match, without a specific direction.

That’s interesting! There are multiple ways to think about it.

  1. The strategy of not picking a specific direction is the A’s only way. They’re dependent on finding underrated players. Creating a matching roster can be expensive as certain player types aren’t always available. Buying a piece that’s in high demand requires overpaying, something the A’s just can’t afford.
  2. That strategy causes the A’s to miss out on value. There are ways to maximize talent by putting complementary pieces on the field, and the monetarily challenged A’s should try to do that always. It’ll up players value, it’ll give them a better chance at winning, and the A’s need to maximize where they can.

There’s a middle ground, of course. There are times to go for it, and times to wait. If there’s a time to wait, it’s coming off two 69 (nice) win seasons with no discernible path playoff path in the upcoming season.

But baseball moves quickly, and the A’s could be in contention before you know it. If they do, it’ll likely be with a largely hodgepodge roster, something we’ve loved before, but something that might succeed less frequently than a more aligned approach.

Is the A’s strategy right? I honestly don’t know. It certainly is interesting to watch, though.