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How did Oakland A’s fare in free agency last winter?

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland A’s were active in free agency last winter, signing a pile of short-term stopgaps in a thrift shop spending spree. Did they pick the right guys? Let’s look back and find out!

The first player to consider is the big fish who got away: Edwin Encarnacion. Oakland made a legitimate push to sign the top-notch hitter, offering two years at over $20 million per (plus the loss of the draft pick that became speedy SS Kevin Merrell), but he ended up in Cleveland.

Encarnacion is having a fine season for the Indians, with a 127 wRC+ and 28 homers. His batting average has slipped as his strikeouts have risen, but he’s still getting on base at a .371 clip. He’s certainly helping at the plate and Cleveland is probably glad to have him as they look forward to October, but he’s taken a step back from his peak. As almost strictly a DH, he hasn’t even reached 2 WAR yet on either scale.

Would it have helped the A’s to add him to the lineup? At the time my answer was no, and nothing has changed. There are already too many corner/DH sluggers on the roster, and spending a franchise-record amount of cash to add another one always seemed like a dubious use of resources. As it turns out, the 34-year-old has been good but not great, and that simply wouldn’t have helped much on this rebuilding club — maybe a meaningless extra win or two at the expense of trying out Ryon Healy, at a time when no-glove hitters don’t seem to have much trade value.

Mystery comp time!

Player A: .251/.371/.485, 28 HR, 21.4% Ks, 127 wRC+
Player B: .248/.358/.486, 16 HR, 20.6% Ks, 129 wRC+

Of course Player A is Encarnacion, seeing as I already mentioned his numbers. Player B is Matt Joyce since May 1, and he’s not even the team’s best hitter. The point is that the A’s can (and did) get this production much cheaper, even if the move still made sense for a contending Indians team and has worked well enough for their needs. Sure, Oakland could have had a chance at a bounce-back to superstar status, but this gradual decline to the wrong side of their personal cost-effectiveness threshold was always a distinct possibility. Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make.

Here’s the rest of the free agent market. Some of these players were probably never truly available to the A’s because not everyone wants to play here even when the team is good, but let’s not get too caught up in that.


Look back: Free agency review from February

The A’s signed Matt Joyce (2/$11M) and Rajai Davis (1yr/$6M), going the cheap route to fill two spots. Joyce brought potential as an underrated hitter, and Rajai would play some CF defense until someone else could.

Both additions made sense, and both have delivered. Joyce has provided a quietly potent bat, including a solid OBP in a lineup starved of it and as much power as he’s ever displayed. Rajai hasn’t hit much but has helped the team’s weak fielding and been fun for the fans to watch, and now he’s slid back into his perfect fourth-outfielder role. Neither signing was flashy but they have both proven successful relative to cost and expectations.

But what else did the A’s miss out on? Josh Reddick (4/$52M) found his four-year deal in Houston and has proven successful so far, and he’d be an upgrade over Joyce. But now Chad Pinder is looking like a potential answer in RF, and the MLB-ready outfield ranks have been replenished through trade with Dustin Fowler and Boog Powell. I was in favor of bringing Reddick back, and I wouldn’t be complaining if he were here, but some interesting inventions have been born of necessity in the meantime.

Similar points could be made about two others who had strong advocates on Athletics Nation. Eric Thames (3/$16M) panned out as a bargain productive slugger at first base for Milwaukee, but Yonder Alonso ended up being as good or better for even cheaper and now the path is cleared for Matt Olson. Carlos Gomez (1/$11M) clicked on his one-year show-me deal with Texas, but only to the level of a solid regular; the A’s got what they needed from Rajai for half the price and have now moved on with a young CF in Powell. Perhaps they could have gotten a modest trade return for Gomez in July, but otherwise they didn’t miss out on anything. All the same could be said for Jon Jay (1/$8M), or a prime rental acquisition of Jarrod Dyson.

Beyond those names, the success stories run thin. Dexter Fowler (5/$82.5M, plus draft) and Yoenis Cespedes (4/$110M, plus draft) have played well to start their mega-contracts but have both spent time on the DL. Here are a few flops, all of them below a 90 wRC+ and sub-replacement on fWAR:

  • Ian Desmond, COL (5/$70M, plus draft)
  • Mark Trumbo, BAL (3/$37.5M, plus draft)
  • Jose Bautista, TOR (1/$18M, plus draft)
  • Carlos Beltran, HOU (1/$16M)
  • Brandon Moss, KC (2/$12M)
  • Michael Saunders, PHI(1/$9M)

Furthermore, Colby Rasmus (1/$5M) only played 37 games before getting hurt and is now going to “step away” from baseball.

Entering the season, my conclusion was that the A’s made just about the best free agent outfield picks possible given their specific needs. The market was particularly expensive and they only needed short-term stopgaps while they figured out their rookies (and unexpected turns like Pinder moving from infield to outfield). Joyce and Rajai haven’t been the outright best players from this free agent class, but I’d have a tough time arguing there’s anyone Oakland should have signed instead of them.


The A’s signed Trevor Plouffe (1/$5M) to start the season at third base, and Adam Rosales (1/$1M) to be a utilityman. I don’t really feel like talking about Plouffe, so here’s what I had to say about his tenure when he was DFA’d in June:

Plouffe came in, briefly filled a spot in the lineup until the top prospect was ready, then faded away exactly when necessary, all for a relatively nominal fee that didn’t financially preclude any other moves. My main worry was that his tenure would be dragged out too long and hold back the future, in the way I have felt some veterans got too much leash in 2015-16, but that isn’t what happened.

I wasn’t a fan of the signing, but it worked out fine because we reached our best-case result of Matt Chapman taking over midseason and locking down the job. All the free agent 3B had to do was bridge the gap to Chapman, so there’s no point in discussing the specifics further.

As for Rosales, what’s not to like? He cost basically nothing, he filled in when needed, he had a couple big moments while being the same ol’ lovable Rosie we all know, and then at the end the A’s even managed to cash him in via trade for a live arm to tinker with in the lower minors. If it hadn’t been Rosie in that role then it would have just been someone less interesting.

Both of these transactions earn a Pass on the Pass/Fail system.


Look back: Free agency review from February

The A’s signed Santiago Casilla (2/$11M), a right-hander with lots of late-inning experience. For a while this year he generally got the job done, but by now he’s 20-of-27 in save/hold chances (plus a blown tie) with a worse-than-average ERA (4.37) and FIP (4.28). Oakland paid middle-relief price for a late-inning guy, and they got what they paid for.

What else was out there? Let’s begin with pitchers who match that righty setup/closer profile. The Giants went big on Mark Melancon (4/$62M), who’s battled injuries and is facing offseason surgery but has generally pitched well. When healthy he’s been an upgrade over his predecessor Casilla, but at this point I prefer Oakland’s payroll flexibility entering 2018 — some of which, yes, I’d advocate spending on the bullpen, but no need to commit it to one specific arm way back when.

In terms of more reasonably priced options, the correct answers turned out to be:

  • Greg Holland (1/$6M, plus option), who bounced back into an All-Star closer once more.
  • Joe Smith (1/$3M) and 42-year-old Koji Uehara (1/$6M) have succeeded in setup roles.
  • The scrap heap: Tommy Hunter (1/$1.4M), Bud Norris (1/$1.75M), Anthony Swarzak (1/$900K), and David Hernandez (1/$535K). Hunter is perfect in 18 save/hold situations, Norris has spent time as a closer, and the latter two were flipped for prospects at the deadline.
  • Fernando Rodney (1/$2.8M) has been decent as a closer but literally nobody wants him in Oakland so.
  • The Phillies acquired Pat Neshek for nothing in a salary dump (1/$6.5M), he made the All-Star team, and then they flipped him for three prospects.
  • Finally, he’s a lefty but Jerry Blevins (1/$6.5M, plus option) still fits here despite some blown saves.

Beyond that, there’s a list of arms who have ranged between Meh and Dud, including Brad Ziegler, Daniel Hudson, Joaquin Benoit, Sergio Romo, Junichi Tazawa, Neftali Feliz, Drew Storen, and Shawn Tolleson. Of that group, Benoit at least drew a trade at the deadline.

The A’s were clearly looking for a guy with a track record here, and the bullpen was already quite full so they weren’t looking to test out a bunch of $1M flyers. Someone like Tommy Hunter may have turned out better, but the more realistic comps here are the ones that were already somewhat proven names entering the year — that’s mainly Smith, Uehara, Blevins, and Neshek in terms of the success stories. Taking a gamble on Holland would have been smart in their situation as well, with a relatively low buy-in for a high ceiling.

Personally, back in February I pointed out three names I might have preferred. I liked Blevins and Ziegler in free agency, and when I saw the Phillies steal Neshek I immediately wished the A’s had done it. I was two outta three! Unfortunately I specifically noted that Ziggy (5.11 ERA) would have been my top choice, so, oh well. Casilla has still been better than at least half of the short-term late-inning options that were available last winter, and while he doesn’t have a lot of fans on Athletics Nation I assure you it could have been worse.


Look back: Free agency review from February

The A’s didn’t sign anyone. Should they have?

No, not really. Rich Hill (3/$48M) has paid off for the Dodgers but should not have been on Oakland’s radar for that price given his high risk. Ivan Nova (3/$26M) has been good in the NL, and Andrew Cashner (1/$10M) has somehow succeeded even though he stopped striking anybody out, but AN wasn’t clamoring to get either of them. Among the budget-conscious options, Charlie Morton (2/$14M) worked out pretty well for Houston, but just about every other free agent starter was average at best and some were much worse.

Oakland has suffered plenty of injuries in their rotation and then traded Sonny Gray, but even still I’m glad they sat out this part of the free agent class. They’ve had plenty of young arms to fill in the gaps along the way.

Overall grade: B ... The A’s have been bad this season, but that’s mostly because their focus is on building their next good team from within. In terms of their moves in free agency, they got the perfect stopgap outfielders, hit middle ground on their reliever, and didn’t block their huge 3B prospect, all while bringing in several old familiar faces and avoiding any major expensive pitfalls. There was no wild breakout performance, unless you consider tendering Alonso the functional equivalent of giving him a one-year free agent deal, but Oakland really got the job done last winter.