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The A’s have a decision to make with Blake Treinen

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With roughly $7.8 million on the line, it’s almost time for the A’s to decide what to do with their formerly dominant closer.

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The offseason is officially underway, and the Oakland A’s have an important date coming up on Dec. 2. That’s the deadline for when they must decide whether to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players, or non-tender them and let them become free agents. The A’s have 13 eligible players, so there will be many decisions to make up and down the roster.

But Oakland’s most interesting non-tender candidate is righty Blake Treinen. The 31-year-old is entering his final year of arbitration after a nightmare of a season in 2019, and his estimated $7.8 million price tag may prove too costly for the budget-conscious A’s.

In 2018, Treinen showed what he’s capable of. He put together one of the best relief seasons in recent history and served as the anchor for one of the best bullpens in the league, earning an All-Star berth and some Cy Young votes. But in 2019, he posted the worst control numbers of his career and gave up well over a home run per nine innings. By the end of the season, he was virtually unusable, and his year was ultimately cut short by a back injury.

He doesn’t look like a great trade candidate, with only $0.4 million in surplus value according to Baseball Trade Values. Alternatively, the A’s could non-tender him and try to re-sign him at a lower dollar amount, like they did with Mike Fiers last winter. But this seems like a different case; other teams with more money and room for risk could easily swoop in and snag him. No, this seems like an either/or decision — tender or non-tender.

A healthy, effective Treinen would easily be better than any other reliever the A’s could try to acquire this offseason. But after 2019, neither his health nor effectiveness are certain going forward. Is he worth a nearly $8 million gamble?

Let’s take a look at some of the arguments for and against tendering Treinen a contract for the 2020 season.

Pro: A return to health could fix a lot on its own

Treinen didn’t have a fantastic start to the 2019 season, but he was at least usable. Through June 12, he posted a 3.41 ERA (4.06 FIP) and 0.79 HR/9 while averaging 97.43 MPH on his sinker — far from his 2018 dominance, but still solid.

In his next outing, a scoreless appearance against the Baltimore Orioles, his sinker averaged a season-low 96.18 MPH. Three days later, he blew a save against the Tampa Bay Rays, allowing three runs on four hits and two walks without recording an out. He was placed on the injured list three days later with a shoulder strain.

The rest of his season was a true disaster. He posted a 6.17 ERA (6.64 FIP), 2.13 HR/9 and 6.17 BB/9. His average sinker velocity fell to 96.15 MPH. On Sep. 18, he was shut down for the remainder of the season with a stress reaction in his back.

There’s no guarantee that Treinen returns in 2020 fully healthy, or even that his health issues were at fault for his second-half struggles. But his command and velocity both dropped significantly during the months he pitched between two prominent injuries, and there’s a chance those injuries played a notable role.

Con: He just wasn’t good

Even if the injury derailed Treinen in the second half, it isn’t like he was great in the first half. He took significant steps back across the board.

Blake Treinen, 2018-June 12, 2019

Year K/9 BB/9 HR/9 K-BB% ERA FIP HR/FB% Zone% SwStr%
Year K/9 BB/9 HR/9 K-BB% ERA FIP HR/FB% Zone% SwStr%
2018 11.20 2.35 0.22 25.1% 0.78 1.82 4.4% 44.0% 18.0%
2019 (Through 6/12) 9.17 4.98 0.79 10.7% 3.41 4.06 9.4% 39.3% 13.4%
Stats via FanGraphs.com

Even if you cherry-pick for the very best part of Treinen’s 2019 season, it’s still clear that his control disappeared on him. He started getting hit hard and wasn’t fooling batters.

Sure, the juiced livelier baseball certainly didn’t help Treinen, and could be at least partially to blame for his home run spike. But other power pitchers made it work with the same ball (see Hendriks, Liam) and we have no way of knowing what kind of baseball will be in play during the 2020 season — if it’s the same as the 2019 ball, then any effect it had on Treinen will probably continue.

Treinen showed very little promise in 2019, rarely showing shades of his 2018 dominance for more than an appearance or two. Will another season and $7.8 million really change that?

Pro: He’s done this before

The last two seasons are an exaggerated look at what has been a career-long trend of inconsistency for Treinen.

Ever since his big league debut in 2014, the righty always had lights-out stuff. But he could never quite figure it out and become a reliable relief option, even in Washington’s perennial mess of a bullpen. In many ways, he was another Nathan Eovaldi or Joe Kelly — a young flamethrower that had all of the tools to be an elite arm, but just didn’t miss enough bats or throw enough strikes to make it happen.

But Treinen figured it out — twice. In 2016, he posted a 2.28 ERA (albeit with a 3.62 FIP) before a disastrous start to the 2017 season cost him the closer’s role in April. Then, after a midseason trade to the A’s, he figured it out again and became arguably the most dominant reliever in the game.

Now, Treinen’s lost it again. He’s been here before, inexplicably struggling despite elite stuff. Does his past experience give him a better chance at putting it all together again?

Con: He’s done this before

Treinen has a proven track record of inconsistency, and that’s one thing the A’s can’t have right now.

Oakland’s window is truly opening. Back-to-back 97-win seasons earned the team back-to-back Wild Card berths and back-to-back first-round playoff exits. But the future is bright. The roster is still young, incredibly talented, and under affordable team control for the next few seasons.

At the same time, the rival Houston Astros may finally be taking a step back. Coming off a dramatic World Series loss, they figure to lose one of the best starting pitchers in baseball in free agent Gerrit Cole, and top relief arm Will Harris will hit the open market as well. Meanwhile, remaining aces Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke are both 36 years old (and not getting any younger). Houston’s budget continues to push beyond the luxury tax threshold, putting the team on thin ice, and now they’re beginning the offseason facing another major scandal.

The Astros will still likely be the division favorites in 2020, and possibly again in 2021. But finally, their arrow is pointing down while Oakland’s is pointing up. There’s an opening — not a big one, but it’s there. And if the A’s want to shoot the gap and ascend to the top of the division earlier than expected, there won’t be much room for error.

Is it really in the A’s best interest to invest this much money on a huge risk in Treinen? If it doesn’t work out, then he’s likely cost them at least a win or two in the standings, $7.8 million bucks (that could have been used on a different upgrade), and potentially an out-of-options arm or a prospect claimed in the Rule 5 draft. If it goes south, he could help sink Oakland’s season — or, at least, their chance at the AL West — and harm their future.

Pro: He may still be the A’s best option

The A’s enter the offseason in desperate need of relief help. Young righty Lou Trivino had a lost season similar to Treinen’s in 2019, and veteran Joakim Soria had his share of struggles, too. That leaves Hendriks and Yusmeiro Petit as Oakland’s only truly reliable relief arms, and there’s no guarantee that Hendriks will repeat his own recent dominance (just as Treinen didn’t).

There won’t be a lot of help on the open market, either. Free agent studs like Harris and lefty Will Smith may find themselves beyond Oakland’s price range, while the next tier — names like Dellin Betances and Daniel Hudson — each come with significant injury concerns of their own. Below that, there is a huge drop-off in what looks like the thinnest relief market we’ve seen in years. Trade targets like Scott Oberg, Mychal Givens, and Ken Giles will cost money and significant prospects, and again, had their own health and/or performance issues in 2019.

So the A’s need relief help. They have an arm already on their roster that has already shown insane upside and will cost nothing but his $7.8 million arbitration estimate. Their other options include paying a likely similar price tag to free agents with extensive injury histories or dealing from their (relatively shallow) prospect pool to, again, acquire more uncertainty.

Man, when you put it that way ...

Con: The money — and roster spot — could be better spent elsewhere

No, no, it’s still not the right move.

There’s a very real chance Treinen will bounce back to his 2018 ways, or at least close enough to them that he’s a reliable late-inning option once again. You don’t have to work your imagination too hard to picture him flourishing after a smart team like the Dodgers — or, God forbid, the Astros — picks him up and fixes everything.

But it’s just as likely, if not more so, that those days are long in the past. Maybe he’ll still be serviceable, bounce around the league and put together a few more solid seasons before calling it a career, but he may never be worth the $7.8 million he’d earn in arbitration in 2020.

The other relief options aren’t great, but maybe that’s okay. Relievers are fickle, and the A’s have done a decent job in recent years at finding the next breakout arm. Sure, they could take a $7.8 million chance on Blake Treinen. Or they could throw a few mil at a boring but serviceable Sergio Romo or Joe Smith type, and take a league minimum chance on the next Blake Treinen after a low-profile trade or waiver addition.

The A’s have other needs on their roster, especially at second base. They could also use lefty bats in the outfield and behind the plate, and at least one trustworthy left-handed reliever. Treinen’s $7.8 million could get them a lot closer to filling those gaps.

They also might need his roster spot. I’m sure they’d prefer to enter camp with at least one of Paul Blackburn or Daniel Mengden as rotation depth, and maybe they see Robbie Grossman as a solid fourth or fifth outfielder. But with the Rule 5 draft right around the corner, hanging onto on-the-bubble sleeper prospects like Wandisson Charles or Jhenderson Hurtado could do more for the organization in the long run than one more lotto-ticket season of Treinen.


When I began working on this article, I didn’t want it to come to this. I spent hours looking at pages and pages of stats, looking for the smoking gun that would explain Treinen’s 2019 season and exactly why he would turn it around in 2020. I didn’t need a lot — just something I could cling to, to convince me that his historic 2018 wasn’t a fluke.

But I never found it. He was just bad. Maybe it was mechanics, maybe it was health, maybe it was the new ball that didn’t move as much as before, but whatever it was, he had a whole 162-game season and couldn’t figure it out. I’m not confident the next 162 will make a difference.

The upside is tantalizing, and if the gamble paid off, it could carry the A’s to the promised land. But the risk is too high. Oakland simply doesn’t have the money to risk spending $7.8 million on nothing. The right move, as crazy as it would have sounded 12 months ago, is to non-tender Blake Treinen.

Poll

What should the A’s do with Blake Treinen?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    Tender and keep
    (185 votes)
  • 9%
    Tender and try to trade
    (68 votes)
  • 53%
    Non-tender and try to re-sign
    (400 votes)
  • 13%
    Non-tender
    (98 votes)
751 votes total Vote Now