The term “bottom feeders” has been ascribed to the A’s plan for assembling their starting rotation this off-season. It’s a rather pejorative way to describe a team’s strategy for such an important piece to what Oakland hopes is a contending season coming off of 97 wins.
The phrase arises from the fact that the A’s are not rushing to add pitchers, waiting out the market as some of more desirable free agents settle in elsewhere, that the front office has made it clear it does not intend to spend a lot of money on the rotation — it lends itself to a belief that the A’s will let all the desired pitchers land on other teams and will then accept whatever scraps are left, hoping to find gold amongst the dumpster’s fishbones and used napkins.
If the A’s plan is to sign, at the 11th hour, “whoever is still looking for work,” then “bottom feeders” is probably a fair description. But there are other possibilities that cast the A’s in a far better light and give rise to more hope.
First, consider that the moves which have been made to date are not ones in which A’s fans need to clap their hand on their forehead wailing, “Why didn’t we do that?” Committing $30M to Lance Lynn is arguably a decision you would want the A’s to forego early or late in the off-season. Oakland was never going to be in the running for J.A. Happ (2/$34M) or Nate Eovaldi (4/$67.5M) with their $17M AAV. Charlie Morton was only interested in landing on the east coast. The A’s haven’t missed any opportunities yet while some of their competitors have left the market.
Second, consider that the players who sign late are not always of lesser talent. Not only did J.D. Martinez sign late last spring, not only are Bryce Harper and Manny Machado still unsigned this winter, not only did the trio of Edwin Jackson, Trevor Cahill, and Brett Anderson far outperform their contracts, but oftentimes players are available because they gambled that holding out would yield a better deal — and they were wrong.
Let’s consider two fictional 2Bmen, one named Jed Lowry and the other named Jed Lowree, each of identical profile. Let’s say you could sign Lowry today for 3 years/$33M and could breathe a sigh of relief that you had solved that position on your roster. But let’s say that if you waited until February, you could sign Lowree — still unsigned with fewer suitors — for 2/$18M. Your patience would be rewarded.
Bringing this back to starting pitching, it may be that Oakland views several pitchers as being roughly equal in desirability and knows that some will sign now for more while others will sign later for less. You monitor that group of arms and strike when most of them are signed and a couple are ready to settle for less.
Ideally, you would prefer to target a specific talent you believe most in and zero in on them. But the scenario I outline in the previous paragraph is far from “Well, whoever’s left...” It’s “Whoever is now more affordable from a select group we targeted, internally, as desirable and potentially affordable.” It doesn’t mean the A’s will go after a pitcher they think is terrible just because he’s the last one left without a chair when the music stops.
You hope that the A’s, who have been exceptionally adept at identifying starting pitching targets even when the treasure is very hidden, are being intentional around who they consider and who they don’t want. “Bottom feeding” is letting all the good talent go elsewhere and then settling for something that’s cheap because it’s less desirable. Letting the market overpay for some of the pitchers you like, underpay later for some of the pitchers you like, and being willing to take whichever pitcher is which (rather than set your heart on one of them), is not “bottom feeding” — it’s being flexible in order to extract maximum value from the pitchers you sign.
Yes it would be more comforting to hear, “We’re going after ___ because we believe he’s primed for a great year,” the reality is that in the A’s price range the options are all fraught with risk while offering potential reward. I’m satisfied if Oakland is internally convinced that some of them are potential treasures while others should be avoided, and are committed to signing a couple, who wind up available and interested, from the former group.
Just don’t settle for pitchers you don’t believe in, which means don’t let every pitcher you like sign elsewhere. But so far the pitchers who have signed elsewhere have not been potential fits for Oakland anyway, and the market is still overpaying for the pitchers being signed. Even targets hinted at in trade (Sonny Gray comes to mind) have not moved, partly because the asking price is too high. Oakland is playing a stock market that tends to open bullish and then dip later.
Remember that in 2018, the A’s got 3.6 fWAR from the trio of Cahill, Jackson, Anderson for less than $2M and none was signed before spring training. Perhaps Oakland lucked out a bit there, and I wouldn’t recommend waiting until March to assemble the 2019 rotation, but there will be solid starting pitchers available in January and again in February.
So hopefully, the accurate term to describe the A’s is not “bottom feeding” but rather “later feeding,” a practice that does not preclude desirable signings, just precipitous ones. The important question might be: what handful of pitchers fits the A’s budget and are also desirable? Whoever they are, don’t let them all be taken off the market — but it’s ok if some of them are, because in the process the market for the rest will sag and that’s when Oakland can pounce. Tricky business to be sure — but possibly good business in the end.