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How Brandon Moss helped Oakland A’s find a bargain in LHP Ryan Buchter

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They took on Moss’ dead money but still spent less than they would have in free agency.

Pronounced BOOK-ter
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

The Oakland A’s spent most of this offseason trying to add a left-handed reliever. They couldn’t find the deal they wanted in free agency, so instead they got creative with a trade. On Monday, they acquired their man in Ryan Buchter, and in exchange it cost them three things — they sent over pitchers Jesse Hahn and Heath Fillmyer, and they took back most of the contract of Brandon Moss.

Last week, Athletics Nation member “invisibleinkwell” wrote a FanPost about how the A’s should take on a dead-money contract. Even with Oakland’s meager payroll, they had money left to spend but saw few worthwhile targets available. Rather than leave that surplus resource untapped, or waste it on pointless stopgaps, the idea was that Oakland should take on another team’s deadweight contract and charge them a good prospect for the service. The other team would benefit by clearing money for a free agent they wanted, or dipping under a luxury tax line, or whatever their goal, and the A’s would essentially buy a prospect with money they weren’t using anyway.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what the A’s did in this trade, but instead of purchasing a prospect they did it for the MLB reliever they craved. Buchter, who will pitch at age 31 this year, is coming off two strong seasons and is under team control for four more. He won’t reach arbitration until next winter, and he could still be around for the next good A’s team.

The Cost

In this case, Moss served as the salary dump. We have fond memories of him, but he hasn’t been the same since leaving Oakland and last year he graded out as one of the worst players in the entire sport. He managed to hit 22 homers, but he couldn’t get on base, he struck out at a career-high clip, and he provided no defensive value while playing mostly DH. All told he was valued below replacement-level by both WAR scales.

Moss, 2017: 401 PAs, .207/.279/.428, 84 wRC+, 22 HR, 9.2% BB, 31.9% Ks

His career isn’t necessarily over, but the All-Star days are and his days of starting might be as well. On the A’s roster he doesn’t seem to fit at all, with each of his positions filled — Khrush Davis DH, Matt Olson 1B, Matt Joyce LF, Stephen Piscotty RF. Furthermore, the bench needs to focus on versatility beyond just the easy corner spots, especially if it’s limited to three men like it was last year.

The one thing Moss offers (dingers) is the one thing Oakland needs the least, as they hit the fourth-most in MLB last year and already feature sluggers up and down the lineup. If he was a righty then he could at least salvage some platoon time with Matt Joyce in LF, but no dice there either for the lefty swinger. It was already going to be tough to shoehorn out-of-options rookie DH Renato Nunez into the picture, and Moss makes even less sense on this squad than Nunez does. Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle opines that Moss might be flipped before spring training (as does Ken Rosenthal), and A’s general manager David Forst agrees that there isn’t an immediately obvious fit for him here.

The Reward

So what did the A’s buy in exchange for taking this dead contract? Buchter has two full years of experience, mostly with the Padres before moving to Kansas City last summer, and he posted a sub-3.00 ERA in both seasons. With San Diego he was a strikeout monster, racking up 11 Ks per nine innings, but he also allowed his fair share of walks and in 2017 the dingers began to add up too.

Buchter, 2017: 2.89 ERA, 65⅓ ip, 65 Ks, 26 BB, 10 HR, 4.54 FIP

He appeared to change styles with the Royals, as chronicled by Patrick Brennan of Royals Review. Buchter mixed more cutters and sliders in with his 93 mph fastball, and scrapped his curveball almost entirely. As a result his strikeout rate was nearly halved, down to 6.0 K/9, but his walks went down too and the contact his opponents made became weaker — in particular, his rate of infield popups skyrocketed. Despite the major shift in strategy, though, his low ERA (and poor FIP) remained oddly consistent, so hopefully the A’s can expect success regardless of which version of him they get this year.

Buchter, 2017 (SD): 3.05 ERA, 38⅓ ip, 47 Ks, 18 BB, 7 HR, 4.57 FIP
Buchter, 2017 (KC): 2.67 ERA, 27 ip, 18 Ks, 8 BB, 3 HR, 4.49 FIP

A few more splits:

2017 (SD): 14.6% HR/FB ... 12.5% popup/FB ... 33.7% hard contact
2017 (KC): 7.0% HR/FB ... 20.9% popup/FB ... 24.4% hard contact

One fact did remain true between both versions of Buchter, and that’s his flyball tendency. In Kansas City he turned more of them into popups and fewer into homers, but either way the ball mostly goes in the air when he’s pitching. That continues a trend we’ve seen among Oakland’s bullpen acquisitions this winter; here’s a list of the top flyball rates in MLB last year, among the 355 pitchers who threw a minimum 50 innings:

2. Emilio Pagan, 56.9%
5. Ryan Buchter, 53.5%
17. Yusmeiro Petit, 48.9%

Top of the list was A.J. Griffin. Cut the list down to just the 150 relievers who threw 50 innings, and Pagan moves up to 1st, Buchter to 4th, and Petit to 11th. The fan theory is that the recent increase in hitters’ flyball approaches (think Yonder Alonso last year) has done the most damage to groundball pitchers who keep the ball down in the zone where it’s easier for the hitter to elevate. Stocking up on hurlers who work up in the zone could potentially be the antidote to the current dinger revolution.

One way or other the A’s added a quality reliever, one who has converted 42-of-45 save/hold chances in his career (93.3%). They got the lefty they desperately needed, with all due respect to Daniel Coulombe. And they didn’t settle for just a LOOGY, as Buchter has shown virtually no platoon splits in his career and can neutralize hitters on both sides.

More from Eno Sarris at FanGraphs in 2016: Buchter’s fastball has an elite spin rate, and at the time he preferred to live or die trying to get hitters to chase on that pitch. The walks are not due to lack of control or command, but rather refusing to give in and groove one down the middle. Jeff Sullivan offers this update, including how Buchter pounded righties inside in 2017. Sarris again, now at The Athletic, makes a loose Sean Doolittle comp.

The Dollars

Most importantly, they got him for a price they could afford. Top setup men this winter are getting $7-9 million per year, and Slusser notes that the oft-rumored and still-available southpaw Tony Watson “[appears] to be out of the A’s price range.” Buchter, however, is still on a minimum salary. Let’s use Watson himself as a generous arbitration comp to see what Buchter might cost long-term:

Watson, arb 1: $1.75 million
Watson, arb 2: $3.45 million
Watson, arb 3: $5.60 million

Remember that Watson got those raises by being an excellent reliever every single year without fail, so this represents a best-case scenario for Buchter’s earnings. Tack on about $550,000 for his 2018 pre-arb salary, and the total is slightly over $11 million for four seasons. In addition, the A’s absorbed the salary of Brandon Moss, who is guaranteed $8.25 million between 2018 and a buyout for his 2019 option. The Royals are chipping in $3.25 million, which means Oakland is on the hook for $5 million.

Add all of that up, with Buchter’s estimated future earnings plus Moss’ dead money, and the A’s bought their lefty reliever for a theoretical 4yrs/$16M at most. That’s an absolute steal compared with free agency, especially when considering there’s no actual commitment past 2018 on the off-chance that he gets hurt or flames out. It’s really more like 1yr/$5.5M, with three team options totaling around $10-11 million. (After all that, the team’s 2018 payroll is still a hair under $60 million.)

The A’s also had to give up a couple of lotto tickets in the deal, but not enough to tip the scales. Hahn was out of minor league options and unlikely to make sense in the Opening Day rotation, so this constitutes getting something for him now rather than losing him for nothing at the end of March. Fillmyer is a decent prospect, but he’s one droplet in a sea of righty rotation arms in Oakland’s system. He’s also on the 40-man roster already, taking a spot and burning an option year, even though he hasn’t yet pitched in Triple-A and wasn’t that great in Double-A last summer. They’re not nothing, and Fillmyer had fans here at AN, but this was a small price to pay to find a legit reliever on the half-off clearance rack.

For their part, the rebuilding Royals saved a few bucks (maybe to overpay Eric Hosmer, lol) and now have a couple interesting new pitchers to try out. No one got fleeced in this trade, but it’s a good, cost-effective deal for the A’s and fills their last critical need of the offseason.

Welcome to Oakland, Ryan! And welcome home for now, Brandon!