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Oakland A’s re-sign Mike Fiers after all

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The A’s have a starting pitcher!

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s are “close to” bringing back starting pitcher Mike Fiers, reports Jon Morosi of MLB Network. Fiers was a free agent after being non-tendered by Oakland in November. It’s a two-year deal worth between $14-15 million, says Morosi. (Update: The two-year deal is now official, the team announced Monday morning. He’ll earn $6 million in 2019, and $8.1 million in 2020, reports Janie McCauley of the AP.)

The A’s acquired Fiers in August to help bolster their rapidly dwindling rotation. The 33-year-old pitched well for Oakland amid an overall bounce-back season, after shaky performances the prior couple of years. However, his underlying peripheral stats suggested that his success might have been aided by some fortunate hops, leaving his FIP more than a run higher than his ERA.

Fiers, 2018 MLB: 3.56 ERA, 172 ip, 139 Ks, 37 BB, 32 HR, 4.75 FIP
Fiers, 2018 OAK: 3.74 ERA, 53 ip, 52 Ks, 11 BB, 12 HR, 4.93 FIP

That home run rate is particularly enormous, though it helped that he cut his walk rate to a career-best. Statcast suggested his results turned out better than they should have based on the quality of contact he allowed, and his xwOBA ranked him among the worst quarter or so pitchers in the majors. Indeed, the A’s didn’t even trust the right-hander enough to let him start the Wild Card match-up against the Yankees, instead opting to go full bullpen in a sudden-death playoff game.

None of this is to say that Fiers is a bad pitcher. He’s not the top-of-the-rotation-ish starter that his strong ERA suggests, but he can reliably eat innings while keeping his team in the game. He’s not a true workhorse, with a career-high of 180 frames, but he’s made at least 28 starts in each of the last four seasons. Last summer, he went at least five innings in 26-of-30 starts, and he only had two disaster starts in which he allowed more earned runs than innings pitched. For a team that cycled through a dozen different starters and three bullpen openers during an injury-plagued 2018, there is value to be found in that kind of durable effectiveness.

That dichotomy between Fiers’ basic and advanced stats complicated his offseason journey. The outdated arbitration system was expected to value him at nearly $10 million, which was more than the A’s were willing to pay and rightfully so. The open market clearly agreed with that assessment, as here he is settling for less with his old team for more like $7 million per year. This is exactly the contract terms that most of Athletics Nation was hoping to see, meaning this whole episode played out in precisely the way we wanted/expected.

With Fiers on board, Oakland now has an honest-to-goodness starting pitcher. He’s not an ace but he’s more than a fifth starter, and he’s immediately the best in the current rotation because he’s arguably the only one who’s definitely in it. Daniel Mengden, Frankie Montas, and Chris Bassitt all have starting experience but were used more like swingmen as 2018 progressed; Paul Blackburn could finally be healthy but still has to prove it; newly acquired Tanner Anderson will be tried as a starter; and elite prospect Jesus Luzardo has a chance* to make the team out of spring.

Any of those names could wind up being part of the Opening Day picture, along with a bevy of other fringe candidates and injury recovery cases and bullpen opener options. But the one thing we can say for sure is that Fiers will be in the mix, pending completion of his new contract.

* Aside: Here’s more on Luzardo’s chance of making the Opening Day roster, from Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle.

Hot takes

I like this move. The A’s need starters, and Fiers is a healthy one who has generally been able to stay on the field and provide positive production. He’s not a star and his career has been inconsistent, but he should at least be available to pitch at all. He’s also posted at least 1.4 fWAR in four of the last five seasons, and five of the last seven.

This came down to a matter of value. Fiers at $10 million wasn’t a good deal, but at $7 million he’s worth it, and that extra few mill is relevant to a team with such a tight budget this winter. It made me nervous to non-tender him last month, since starters are such a desperate need on the roster, but it was the right thing to do and now it has all worked out in the end. The player sticks around but at a proper salary, fetching a bit less than higher-ceiling gambles like Trevor Cahill ($9M) and Matt Harvey ($11M) but also earning a longer guarantee thanks to his relative dependability.

As for the player himself, I was perfectly happy with Fiers last summer in his brief stint here, so I’m glad to see him back. There are a lot of options out there for starters within the A’s price range, and this is a familiar one who is just as likely to help out as any of the others would have been. He’s a good fit on this roster, as Nico notes. I wouldn’t mind seeing them also roll the dice on someone with a higher ceiling in addition to the steadier Fiers, but it’s nice to know that at least one rotation slot is filled with an adequate arm.

It’s also nice to have some closure on Fiers’ situation after a roller coaster few months. Oakland’s July trade talks for him fell through but they eventually got him in August, then they didn’t use him in the Wild Card Game, then let him go to free agency but brought him back. Here’s a brief summary of his association with the A’s, as told by Billy Joel:

July: A’s acquire Fiers?
July: WE DIDN’T ACQUIRE THE FIERS
Aug: OK they did acquire him later.
Sept: Pitching well, may start WC game?
Oct: WE DIDN’T START THE FIERS
Nov: Is $10M too much to keep him?
Nov: WE DIDN’T TENDER THE FIERS
Dec: Re-signs as free agent
Dec: WE DIDN’T LOSE THE FIERS

The rotation isn’t finished yet (hopefully), but this was an important step forward. Or perhaps, the reversal of a previous step back. Either way, there’s a legit starter on the roster now, and that’s something we’ve been waiting all winter to say.

Updated roster

After doing nothing for two months, the A’s are now cramming an entire offseason into two days. On Friday they also signed stud reliever Joakim Soria and acquired Jurickson Profar to play second base. With Fiers on board, the 40-man roster will stand at 39 players. As for the payroll, if we earmark his expected $7 million annual average then it projects at around $86 million. (Update: Make that $6 million for Fiers, and $85 million overall.)

Here’s the updated 40-man roster, with one spot open. Those in italics haven’t yet debuted in MLB.

Oakland A's 40-man roster
Pitchers Hitters
Starters

Mike Fiers (R)
Daniel Mengden (R)
Chris Bassitt (R)
Frankie Montas (R)
Tanner Anderson (R)
Paul Blackburn (R)
Jharel Cotton (R)
Sean Manaea (L)
Daniel Gossett (R)
Grant Holmes (R)
James Kaprielian (R)


Relievers

Blake Treinen (R)
Joakim Soria (R)
Lou Trivino (R)
Fernando Rodney (R)
Ryan Buchter (L)
Yusmeiro Petit (R)
Liam Hendriks (R)
Andrew Triggs (R)
J.B. Wendelken (R)
Ryan Dull (R)
Aaron Brooks (R)
Catchers

Chris Herrmann (L)
Josh Phegley (R)

Infielders

Matt Chapman (R)
Matt Olson (L)
Marcus Semien (R)
Jurickson Profar (S)
Franklin Barreto (R)
Jorge Mateo (R)

Outfielders

Khris Davis (R)
Stephen Piscotty (R)
Ramon Laureano (R)
Mark Canha (R)
Chad Pinder (R)
Nick Martini (L)
Dustin Fowler (L)
Luis Barrera (L)
Skye Bolt (S)