The MLB offseason has been slower than Billy Butler with an elephant strapped to each leg, but the Milwaukee Brewers finally spiced things up on Thursday with a pair of significant moves. They took the top remaining name off the trade market by acquiring outfielder Christian Yelich from the Marlins, and they signed one of the best remaining free agents in outfielder Lorenzo Cain. They are officially in win-now mode, if they weren’t already.
None of that news directly involves the Oakland A’s in any way, though many folks on Athletics Nation were actively interested in seeing Oakland pursue one or both of Yelich and Cain. But now that they’re off the board and the league’s landscape has changed, it’s worth taking a look around to see what new opportunities might arise.
In this case, the Brewers already had a packed outfield and just added two new stars to the mix. They could keep everyone if they really wanted, as noted by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, but there’s a line somewhere between depth and excess and they’d probably be on the wrong side of it. A team that isn’t going to outspend everyone can’t afford to stack too many resources in one area, especially when they still have needs elsewhere on the roster.
Milwaukee’s depth chart now includes six names legitimately vying for playing time:
- Lorenzo Cain
- Christian Yelich
- Domingo Santana
- Ryan Braun
- Keon Broxton
- Brett Phillips
Braun could potentially spend some time at 1B (per Rosenthal), but not all the time with Eric Thames already there. Phillips has minor league options remaining, but he played well in a debut trial last year and seems ready for more. Broxton is out of options.
And that brings us to the point: Should the A’s strike while the iron is hot and help the Brewers clear up this logjam? After all, last time Oakland relieved Milwaukee of a spare outfielder who was burning a hole in their pocket, it was Khris Davis. And they pulled the same trick once already this winter, picking up Stephen Piscotty from the Cardinals after he was pushed out of St. Louis’ outfield by newcomer Marcell Ozuna.
Looking through our recent comment threads, the Athletics Nation community displays a full range of opinions on this matter. Personally, I’m still standing firm in my view that I don’t want the A’s to make any major additions to their lineup.
This year is the time to let the kids play and see which ones are going to be part of the long-term core. They debuted several strong rookies in 2017 and there are more coming this season, so let’s see what they’ve got. Besides, no matter what the lineup does, the pitching staff is almost certainly several steps away from allowing the team to contend. Splashy acquisitions can wait until next winter when we know where the real holes are. I promise there will be other good players available then too.
Let’s do the quick rundown on the outfield. Piscotty is in one corner long-term, and Matt Joyce is in the other short-term. Khrush will probably DH a lot, but he and/or Chad Pinder (or Jake Smolinski or Mark Canha or maybe Renato Nunez) are available to platoon with Joyce. In center, Dustin Fowler and Boog Powell are the top candidates, though neither is a sure thing. Assuming for now that Piscotty will lock down right field for the foreseeable future, there are only two spots to worry about.
I’m not interested in doing anything about center until we’ve seen what Fowler can do this year. We just gave up Sonny Gray to get him, and Powell seems like a perfectly fine backup plan for now. They’re both lefties so they can’t properly platoon, but maximizing marginal value like that can’t be your main focus when Kendall Graveman is logically in the mix to start on Opening Day.
As for left field, I see no rush to upgrade on the perfectly solid Joyce and his assortment of platoon-mates. One problem that teams rarely have is figuring out how to fill left field, because it’s a step easier on the defensive spectrum than just about anything else; it’s the first base of the outfield. When prospects are blocked at their positions, stick ‘em in left. When your CF or SS or gets forced out by a new rookie, stick ‘em in left. Pinder, Powell, Nunez, Semien, Neuse ... it’ll figure itself out. And if it doesn’t, then once again I promise there will be more good left fielders available next winter.
Still, there are arguments to be made in favor of each available Brewer, especially since none of them have hit arbitration yet. Santana’s blend of OBP and power would help the lineup, even if his poor defense limits his upside. Broxton could be the righty CF to back up Fowler, or Phillips could be the great CF defender who pushes Fowler to LF.
On the other side, you could argue that Santana is just a different arrangement of the skills already brought by Joyce and Khrush, and one that will start getting expensive in arbitration next winter. Broxton was replacement-level last year and seems no better a bet than Powell, and Phillips seems redundant next to Fowler as long as the latter is being discussed as a CF.
Either way, Milwaukee wants MLB starting pitching, and the A’s simply don’t have it to spare. Even if Oakland could swing a deal for any of these guys, it would effectively end any chance of competing in 2018 anyway due to lack of anyone with a prayer of throwing 150 innings. (Let’s please not joke about signing a starter to a long-term free agent contract.) And if we’re playing for 2019, then why not try out the guy we just traded Sonny Gray for, and some of the other prospects we’ve spent years developing?
The A’s can’t compete by spending at every position, and this is what it takes to unearth those cheap options. Some of them are obvious, with a top prospect like Eric Chavez or Matt Chapman panning out exactly like you’d hoped. Others take a bit of experimenting and patience, like trying out Josh Donaldson at a new spot and spending a whole year hoping it’ll work. And when you can’t get it done with your farm, those are the areas you pay for as a last resort when it’s time to contend. But if you go and splurge on Yelich or Cain or Ozuna now, or spend your hard-earned pitching on Santana or Phillips, then you lose the chance to find out if one of those many in-house options can get the job done for the minimum possible expenditure. This is the year to take that chance at as many positions as possible, and the A’s already have the personnel to do so.