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Reviewing the outfield market: How did the Oakland A’s do this winter?

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Entering the offseason, one of the biggest story lines surrounding both the Oakland A’s and the league at large involved the market for outfielders. Specifically, it was expected to be a terribly thin market with few quality options, meaning that any team in need of outfield help might have to overpay drastically in either trade or free agent dollars.

Unfortunately for the A’s, the outfield was one of their biggest areas of need. Khris Davis had LF locked down, but beyond that the next-best sure thing was platoon righty Jake Smolinski. They needed to add at least two more bodies, and that’s exactly what they ended up doing by signing Rajai Davis and Matt Joyce — a couple of relative discount options, naturally.

That leads me to two questions:

  1. Were the A’s correct to sit out the top end of this winter’s OF market?
  2. If so, did they get the best possible values and fits in Rajai and Joyce?

To begin, here’s a reminder of what the A’s ended up doing:

Matt Joyce, RF: 2 years, $11M ($5.5M average)
Rajai Davis, CF: 1 year, $6M

Joyce brings a high OBP and a lefty bat but poor defense. Rajai doesn’t hit much, but he’s fast, fun, and plays decent defense up the middle. Both are 1-2 WAR players if all goes well, but are unlikely to exceed that range. Both are also reasonably good fits for the current roster.

Let’s place them amid the overall OF free agent market (from ESPN’s tracker):

Player, Team: Years/Dollars (Annual salary)

Big fish

Yoenis Cespedes, NYM: 4/$110M ($27.5M)
Dexter Fowler, STL: 5/$82.5M ($16.5M)
Ian Desmond, COL: 5/$70M ($14M)
Josh Reddick, HOU: 4/$52M ($13M)

I left out Mark Trumbo because he’s not really an outfielder, he just plays one on TV.

Big rentals

Jose Bautista, TOR: 1/$18M, potential 3/$60M ($20M)
Carlos Beltran, HOU: 1/$16M
Matt Holliday, NYY: 1/$13M
Carlos Gomez, TEX: 1/$11.5M

Mid-sized multi-year

Brandon Moss, KC: 2/$12M ($6M)
Matt Joyce, OAK: 2/$11M ($5.5M)
Eric Thames, MIL: 3/$16M ($5.3M)

Bargain Bin

(1-year, seven figures)

Michael Saunders, PHI: 1/$9M
Jon Jay, CHC: 1/$8M
Rajai Davis, OAK: 1/$6M
Colby Rasmus, TB: 1/$5M
Ben Revere, LAA: 1/$4M
Chris Heisey, WAS: 1/$1.4M

Beginning with our first question: Should the A’s have gone big? Cespedes was clearly out of Oakland’s price range, and as it turns out Fowler and Desmond were too — many on AN wanted Fowler on a four-year deal, but I can’t imagine an argument that his five-year contract would have been a wise gamble on this payroll. I advocated for Reddick on a three-year deal at the beginning of the offseason, and frankly I wouldn’t have complained about giving him what Houston did, but at four years I’m also not mad the A’s passed.

As for the big rentals, I doubt Beltran would have come here and I can virtually guarantee Holliday wouldn’t have. Many on AN wanted Bautista and/or Gomez, but I wasn’t into the idea for various reasons that don’t really matter now because it’s not happening. So, my answer to the question is that, yes, sitting out the top end of the market was the right move, if a bit obvious for a team that always does so. Your opinion may vary based on your interest in Bautista or Gomez, but neither one was an obvious slam dunk move that the A’s were fools to pass up.

On to the thrift store! Thames is his own unique case and I’m not really worried about him either way — bully for the Brewers for taking the gamble and it might pay off in spades, but again, it wasn’t a deal the A’s had to make. That leaves an obvious comp in this section: Brandon Moss or Matt Joyce, for essentially the same price.

(WAR marks are averages between bWAR and fWAR)

Moss, 2016: .225/.300/.484, 28 HR, 105 OPS+, 1.1 WAR
Moss, last 3 yrs: .229/.314/.441, 24 HR/yr, 105 OPS+, 1.2 WAR/yr

Joyce, 2016: .242/.403/.463, 13 HR, 131 OPS+, 1.5 WAR
Joyce, last 3 yrs: .229/.343/.378, 9 HR/yr, 103 OPS+, 0.6 WAR/yr

Moss is a year older, entering his age-33 season. Joyce’s long-term numbers include a blend of his 2015 dud and his 2016 career year, and the WAR mark in particular belies an otherwise consistent 6-of-7 years in the 1-3 WAR range. Both are best used as platoon lefties at this point, which is exactly what the A’s needed.

So, who would you have rather had? Joyce provides the OBP this lineup badly needed, and he’s coming off the better 2016 season. Moss would have given more power, some extra defensive versatility (with 1B capability, and probably superior RF work as well), and of course some fan nostalgia for a former All-Star and favorite. He could be in the same lineup as Joey Wendle!

And how about the one-year bargains? As it turned out, the answer to this market was to wait it out, because the best deals were had at the end. Based on predictions from FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors, Saunders was expected to get up to three years before settling for one in mid-January, and FanGraphs in particular thought Rasmus would get multiple years at $10M+ per and that Moss would get nearly twice the salary he wound up with (both signed in the last week or so). Meanwhile, earlier signers like, Joyce, Jay, and Rajai got right around what they were supposed to.

So, perhaps the A’s could have gotten Saunders or Rasmus cheap, but would they have been the right fits? They would have filled the role Joyce now has, and frankly I didn’t mind the A’s making that shrewd pickup so early in the winter just to keep all of our stress levels down a bit (can you imagine if Brett Eibner had been penciled in as a starter through mid-January?). Saunders finally stayed healthy last year but tanked in the second half, and Rasmus provides power the A’s already have while Joyce brings the OBP they actually need. Between these three, I’m fine with the one the A’s got.

Beyond that, they needed a CF, and after Carlos Gomez the only other options were Jay, Rajai, and Revere. Between the three, I’m perfectly happy with the one the A’s got — I’m a hundred times more stoked for Rajai in CF than I would have been for Jon Jay, with all due respect, because stolen bases are a fun distraction in a potential losing season and it’s our boy Rajai do I have to explain this?

If you let me go back in time and pick any two of the contracts signed this winter, I would definitely take Rajai as one of them. He was the perfect choice for this team in this moment. For the other, I’d be awfully tempted to pick Moss instead of Joyce, but I’d put it at about a coin-flip — as mentioned with Rasmus, we already have power but really, really need someone who can get on base. (Now, as for Moss vs. Trevor Plouffe, well, clearly the A’s had different priorities in mind than we did.)

Oh, and a few names still available:

  • Peter Bourjos
  • Michael Bourn
  • Coco Crisp
  • Jeff Francoeur
  • Sam Fuld
  • Franklin Gutierrez
  • Angel Pagan

Nope, I do not have remorse that Oakland picked Joyce and Rajai over any of those guys, though many of them were excellent in their primes.

And what about the trade market? The following prominent outfielders were dealt:

Adam Eaton: CHW to WAS for 2 Top 50 prospects + a 1st-rounder
Jarrod Dyson: KC to SEA for RHP Nate Karns
Cameron Maybin: DET to LAA for 1 nominal prospect
Mallex Smith: ATL to SEA to TB ultimately for LHP Drew Smyly

Staying put: Kiermaier, Inciarte, Hamilton, Pompey, McCutchen, Gardner, Bruce, CarGo, Blackmon, Ozuna

All I need to see there is Dyson. The Mariners gave up a pitcher about halfway between Jesse Hahn and Kendall Graveman, and to me that means that the starting point of a conversation for a solid starting CF was Graveman — that is, Hahn doesn’t get it done, so conceptually you have to do Graveman for Dyson plus a sweetner. If that’s what it took, then the A’s made the right call passing.

And with that baseline set, I don’t even want to imagine what the price would have been for one of the higher-profile options, like Hamilton or even Kiermaier (I don’t think Inciarte was realistically available after all. and maybe none of the three were). The OF free agent market didn’t get too wild because there simply wasn’t anyone to get too wild about, but the trade market was so extreme that most teams, not just the A’s, realized it wasn’t worth it. Wait a year or two until prices come down a bit, and get by in the meantime with stopgaps and prospects.

Final verdict: I’m happy. Listen, I have faith in Oakland’s young players and 2012 taught us that you never know when the future will begin, but I think it would have been rash to go too big this winter.

This was the kind of seller’s market that you jump into only if you absolutely have to in order to sustain a current window, like the Mets and Cards did with big contracts for Cespedes and Fowler, or like the Nats did by paying a premium to acquire Adam Eaton, or to a lesser extent the Mariners with Dyson. Or, if you’re trying to open a legitimately budding window, like Houston with Reddick and Beltran. (Dunno what the Rockies are doing though.)

For a rebuilding team like the A’s, this was a time to grab a couple cheap veterans to fill out the lineup. They’ll make the team slightly better and more watchable today, but they won’t get in the way of the kids when they’re ready (either in terms of playing time or payroll flexibility). And once you’re resigned to getting a couple stopgaps, Oakland did about as well as we could have hoped.

Moss would have been a blast (that’s a dinger pun), but in terms of fit, value, and pure fun, Rajai and Joyce look like the ideal combo.