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Oakland A’s sign Marco Estrada

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The A’s finally signed another starter.

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s signed free agent starting pitcher Marco Estrada on Friday, the team announced. It’s a one-year contract for $4 million, reports Jeff Passan of ESPN. To make room on the 40-man roster, the recently claimed Parker Bridwell was outrighted to Triple-A and will be a non-roster invitee to spring training.

After enjoying a five-year run as an above-average starter for the Brewers and Blue Jays, culminating in a 2016 All-Star berth, Estrada has struggled the last two seasons. His ERA went from 3.66 (4.16 FIP) in 2012-16, up to 4.98 (4.61 FIP) in 2017, and then up further to 5.64 (5.44 FIP) last summer. Meanwhile his rates of walks and strikeouts have also consistently crept in the wrong directions, with his K/BB dropping from nearly five in 2012 to barely two last season. The right-hander will pitch at age 35 this year, so it’s fair to wonder how much of the downturn is fixable and how much is simply age-related decline.

Estrada, 2012-16: 3.66 ERA, 774 ip, 684 Ks, 222 BB, 113 HR, 4.16 FIP
Estrada, 2018: 5.64 ERA, 143⅔ ip, 103 Ks, 50 BB, 29 HR, 5.44 FIP

For what it’s worth, Estrada’s velocity has mostly held steady. His fastball averaged 90 mph and topped at 93 for most of his peak, and lately it’s been around 89 with a high of 92. It’s lost a tick, but he was never a hard thrower. He’s also upped the use of his change-up lately, at the expense of his curveball. Check out Susan Slusser’s writeup at the S.F. Chronicle for some scouts’ opinions on his outlook.

In terms of injury, Estrada hit the DL last year but it was only for a strained glute. In fact, he’s never landed on the DL in the majors due to an arm injury. There have been a few lower-body muscle pulls, and some minor back stuff in 2016, but otherwise consistent health has been a hallmark for him. (Update: He also “was pitching through some back issues last season” but now “feels great,” reports Ben Ross of NBCS, giving a legitimate reason to hope for a bounce-back.)

Perhaps Estrada’s biggest weakness throughout his career has been home runs. Even in 2014, when dingers were at a historic low (after PED crackdown, but before launch angle revolution and slippery baseballs), he still led the majors in long balls despite throwing just 150 innings. Indeed, one of the scouts in Slusser’s articles notes that he “pitches up in the zone more than anyone.”

On the bright side, he will be moving from Toronto’s bandbox stadium to the cavernous Coliseum, which could help mask this specific weakness. He’ll also be escaping an AL East that is packed with laughably dinger-happy stadiums and a couple juggernaut offenses, and moving to an AL West that features more pitcher-friendly venues and where one of the top offenses will play behind him. Even better, he was already among the best at inducing infield popups, and the Coliseum’s notoriously huge foul ground should only increase that advantage.

In a related trait, few hurlers anywhere in the majors get fewer ground balls than Estrada, so he will receive little benefit from pitching in front of the best infield defense in the sport. In each of the last two seasons, he posted the lowest groundball rate in all of MLB (min. 80 innings).

Analysis

The thing about hunting for bargains on bounce-back candidates is that, by definition, they have to look kinda bad at the outset. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be bounce-back candidates, they’d simply be good — and expensive.

I’m not going to pretend like I see anything in Estrada. His numbers have gotten worse in a bunch of important ways right as he’s gotten older, and his Statcast xwOBA tanked last year down into the bottom-third of the league (after being excellent the previous three years). But the A’s see something in him, and I’m done doubting them on pitching pickups — if they like him, then I’m willing to withhold judgment until we see what he’s got.

Perhaps the trait we should be focusing on here is the health. If there’s one thing Estrada does every year, it’s pitch, with at least 28 starts each of the last four seasons and an average of 167 frames over the last five campaigns. We keep saying the A’s need to eat some innings, and now they’ve got someone to reliably do it.

The other reasons for optimism are that he still induces a lot of weak contact, he gets lots of popups and will now be in a stadium that will contain a maximum number of them for easy outs, and he has a sparkling postseason record (2.64 ERA in 47⅔ innings, 10.8 K/BB).

One way or other, the A’s finally have another real-life MLB starter on a guaranteed MLB contract. That makes two now! The rest of their depth pieces and lotto tickets now only need to cover three rotation spots instead of four.

On that note, I’m particularly interested in the Bridwell move. Now that he’s off the 40-man roster he becomes a significantly better depth piece — he’s out of options, so as things stood yesterday he’d have needed to make the Opening Day roster in order to stay in the picture. Now he can bide his time in Triple-A until either the team needs a new arm, or until he forces a promotion himself via his own breakout performance. Now he’s an actual full-season depth piece instead of just a spring training flyer.

Updated roster

Here’s the new roster, and below you’ll see the layout of the org’s SP depth chart.

Oakland A's 40-man roster
Pitchers Hitters
Starters

Mike Fiers (R)
Marco Estrada (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)

Newest additions

  • Mike Fiers (re-signed as free agent)
  • Marco Estrada (signed as free agent)

Healthy, but are they starters?

  • Daniel Mengden
  • Chris Bassitt
  • Frankie Montas

Injured, but might contribute in 2019

  • Paul Blackburn (spent most of 2018 on DL, but ready for 2019)
  • Jharel Cotton (out for beginning of 2019)
  • Sean Manaea (out for much of 2019)
  • Daniel Gossett (out for most of 2019)
  • Grant Holmes (missed all of 2018, and hasn’t pitched in Triple-A)
  • A.J. Puk (out for beginning of 2019, and hasn’t pitched in Triple-A)

Triple-A Depth

  • Jesus Luzardo (top prospect, maybe MLB-ready now)
  • Parker Bridwell (waiver claim, outrighted to AAA)
  • Tanner Anderson (reliever converting to starting)
  • Jake Buchanan (veteran minor league free agent)
  • Kyle Lobstein (veteran minor league free agent)
  • James Naile (fringe Triple-A prospect)
  • Parker Dunshee (promising Double-A prospect)
  • Brian Howard (promising Double-A prospect)