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Front Office’s Biggest “Blunder” Comes Mostly In Hindsight

MLB: AL Wild Card-Tampa Bay Rays at Oakland Athletics
If only the A’s could pay Semien based on the quality of his slides (he’ll actually touch the base by 2022).
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

July, 2017, came a passing mention from The Chronicle: The A’s were engaged with Marcus Semien in talks about a possible extension. Referenced for comparison as a framework for such a deal was the 6 year, $25M contract Tim Anderson had recently signed with the White Sox.

Reaction on AN at the time was, “Cool. Would be nice to keep Semien. Solid complementary piece, great guy, local boy.” But there was no clamoring that the A’s “have to get this done” like there was until Khris Davis was inked to an extension. Nor was anyone suggesting that if it took something like 6/$60M to get it done, the A’s should jump at the chance.

Semien was in the middle of a tough season marred by injury. He would finish the year batting .249/.325/.398 with 15 HR, batting just a tick under league average for the third of what would be four seasons in a row with a wRC+ of 96-98. He was certainly consistent as a hitter: utterly average. As a fielder, he had improved from unwatchable to average and that was quite an achievement.

Then 2019 happened, a Semien explosion that would make even a Russian porn star blush. A finalist for both the gold glove (runner up to Francisco Lindor) and the MVP award (Semien is expected to finish 3rd behind, in some order, Mike Trout and Alex Bregman), the A’s shortstop has vaulted himself into elite territory both on the field and in line at his banking institution of choice.

The stats almost read like misprints for those familiar with Semien’s first 4 seasons. .285/.369/.522, 33 HR, 137 wRC+, 7.6 WAR, 5 DRS with an UZR/150 of can almost hear the sound of regret as an A’s front office executive clicks his pen off instead of signing what would now look like a Rickey Henderson level steal.

All hope is not lost, though, as Semien very recently changed agents perhaps in the hopes of working out an extension that could keep the El Cerrito native “rooted in Oakland” beyond 2020. If you recognize the name Joel Wolfe, he was in the A’s minor league system drafted as an outfielder in 1991 (small world “fun fact”: I knew Wolfe, as we traveled together in 1991 when I was broadcasting for the Southern Oregon A’s up in Medford, OR).

Perhaps Semien is determined enough to maintain his east bay roots and can team up with an A’s-centric agent to work out a deal that satisfies both sides. But now the numbers have jumped, if not skyrocketed, from where they would have been had the two sides found common ground before Semien took his game to the level beyond the level that is the next level.

And here’s the rub. As fantastic as Semien is on the field and off, it is no longer clear whether Oakland even should sign him long term. Not only is Semien 29 and at his peak, but now that the extension numbers are far from “bargain prices” a contract could potentially interfere with the A’s ability to retain Matt Olson and/or Matt Chapman.

Yes the A’s have said they see payroll increasing every year right now, and for sure a shovel in the ground at Jack London Square could significantly change Oakland’s payroll structure, but that does not mean the A’s are going to be able to seriously entertain keeping all 3 of those players in the fold long term.

Would you want to see a pricey commitment into Semien’s 30s if it meant giving up on talks with Olson? If it meant putting to rest dreams of making Chapman the “face of the franchise” as the team ushers in a new stadium? When pricey meant 6/$42M, right now you would ink Semien to a deal and not think twice.

Pricey no longer looks like that, however, and so the A’s have a legitimate dilemma even though undoubtedly, in a perfect world, both sides would like to get a deal done. You may not have noticed, but we do not live in a perfect world.

Planning to contend for the division in 2020, undoubtedly the A’s will keep Semien up to free agency, and just as certainly if he becomes a free agent they will make him a qualifying offer (which, if Semien accepted, could keep him in green and gold at least through 2021). Beyond that, though? It’s hard to handicap whether or not the two sides can find a deal that is mutually suitable and it’s even difficult to predict whether the A’s would live to celebrate, or regret, the kind of contract extension that is now realistic.

Remember when Jose Altuve signed an extension that, with club options, came to 6 years and $25M? In hindsight he doesn’t sign that deal and in hindsight the A’s, in 2017, up their offer to a figure Semien “can’t refuse” — and which still looks like a steal today.

Now? I don’t know, because hindsight is 20/20 but the future is a tad more difficult to predict. Two good questions to discuss are “What will the A’s do?” and “What should they do?” Put me down as a huge Semien fan and supporter who is firmly lodged on the fence.