Hunting undervalued players is a core part of the Oakland Athletics ethos. Even if the team builds a new stadium and ownership bumps payroll up to a competitive level, you can bet that Billy Beane and David Forst will continue to turn players perceived as garbage into beautiful (green and) gold.
Last Monday brought the non-tender deadline for arbitration-eligible players, which always results in a flood of intriguing names entering the free agent market after their teams chose not to offer them new contracts. Oakland let go of relievers Blake Treinen and Ryan Buchter, and catcher Josh Phegley, all of whom have something to offer but either didn’t fit on the A’s roster anymore or weren’t worth their estimated payday. With sights set on a return to October, but minimal payroll to work with, are there any hidden gems among this year’s list of non-tenders that the A’s should go after?
The A’s have made clear they want to add a middle-infielder who bats lefty. Here are a few options.
Color me shocked that this guy is available. For a while, I was wondering where the hell the A’s would find an everyday second baseman who could contribute significantly to a championship team. And then the Brewers decided to save ~$4.7M and non-tender Travis Shaw, a hitter whose profile fits right into the A’s lineup — lots of walks, lots of power — who also comes with three more years of team control.
2019: 270 PAs, .157/.281/.270, 7 HRs, .278 xwOBA, -0.9 bWAR
2017-2018: 270 PAs, .258/.347/.497, 63 HRs, .340 xwOBA, 8.0 bWAR
Although he’s coming off a rough season at the plate, a quarter of which he spent tearing up the minors, Shaw was putting up 4-WAR seasons just a couple of years ago. As a righty-masher, the team could even optimize his usage further by platooning with any of Barreto, Neuse, or Mateo. Statcast-wise, his exit velocity and barrel % were in line with his career norms, but he upped his launch angle by a whopping 8 degrees, which explains the spike in his infield-flyball rate. If he can get back to producing at his 2017-18 levels, he could not only plug a hole but actually help push the A’s over the “serious contender” hump.
The biggest question is whether he can play second base every day. In his first five years as a major leaguer, he’s only played 41 games at the position and has so far graded out negatively. That’s not a huge concern given that our Gold Glove infield can cover some of his deficiencies, and that he at least showed himself to be above-average at 3B. Plus, he can’t be much worse than Profar was. Shaw recently went on MLB Network Radio and cited his newfound versatility as a selling point, so as long as he’s interested in moving away from 3B, this is my must-get guy for the A’s. If they have to match his projected arbitration raise or even slightly top it, I’m all for spending $5M on a potential middle-of-the-order bat.
In his article last week, Nico mentioned Hernandez as a dark-horse trade candidate for the A’s 2B opening. Now, the A’s can have him for just a few million dollars instead of giving away Daniel Mengden and paying him his $10.5M arbitration raise.
2019: 667 PAs, .279/.333/.408, 14 HRs, .303 xwOBA, 9 SBs, 0.1 WAR
2017: 577 PAs, .294/.373/.421, 9 HRs, .348 xwOBA, 15 SBs, 3.2 WAR
You can see why the Phillies decided against committing over $10M to a player coming off a replacement-level season. But the potential to have a steadier option on defense than Profar with similar offensive upside could definitely be a worthwhile bargain for the A’s.
This would probably be a bad move, but if Beckham is willing to settle for a minor league contract, then why not take a chance on a former No. 1 overall pick? Had he finished the season, he likely would’ve been tendered a $3M contract by the Mariners and then Dipoto’d to another team looking for middle infield help. Instead he’ll have to sit out the first 32 games of the season to finish out his PED suspension, but that leaves the A’s a little over a month to see if one of their many middle infield prospects can seize the job.
2019: 328 PAs, .237/.293/.461, 15 HRs, .303 xwOBA, 0.4 WAR
2017: 577 PAs, .278/.328/.454, 22 HRs, .334 xwOBA, 3.3 WAR
When Beckham returns, the A’s could expect a league-average bat — give or take 10% — and a toolsy but unreliable defensive player; remind you of someone? Essentially, the team would be getting 2019 Profar at a cheaper price. Not bad, but not ideal, and on top of that Beckham bats right-handed so he’s not exactly the perfect fit. Like I said, if it’s a minor league contract, then why not go for it from a depth perspective? But the A’s could probably get similar if not better production from one of their young guys.
Okay, fine. Let’s consider the possibility. Former 1st round A’s pick, still just 26 years old, has both an All-Star appearance and a championship under his belt. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, Russell has had a hard fall from grace since that 2016 Cubs season.
2019: 241 PAs, .237/.308/.391, 9 HRs, .285 xwOBA, 0.1 WAR
2016: 577 PAs, .238/.321/.417, 21 HRs, .322 xwOBA, 4.1 WAR
Following that year, he missed significant time due to injury, struggled significantly at the plate, and, to top it all off, earned a 40-game suspension for domestic abuse. Following Osuna-gate (or Taubman-gate, if that’s what you prefer), it wouldn’t be wise for the team to bring on the onslaught of media scrutiny. To put it even more bluntly, Russell doesn’t deserve a major league job at this point in time.
The A’s are still on the lookout for bullpen help, and one possibility could be free agent Sergio Romo. But here are some other options.
(Update: Never mind, Guerra signed with the D’Backs today.)
Another surprising Brewer non-tender; are we sure their front office is smart? The right-handed Guerra is a former mid-rotation starter who had a solid transition into the bullpen last year.
2019: 83.2 IP, 3.55 ERA/4.52 FIP/4.83 xFIP, 8.3 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, .300 xwOBA
Those are all very solid numbers for a $2-3M, high-volume arm. Call him a discount Yusmeiro Petit if you want. He wouldn’t pitch too many high-leverage innings, but he can eat a lot of innings effectively at a decently reasonable price. Not a must-sign, but he’s probably the best non-tender available other than …
Sure, the A’s just cut him from the squad, but that was at a likely $7.8M salary. He was definitely not worth the risk at that price, but I don’t think I need to reiterate to A’s Nation how good Treinen could be — let’s just say, historically good. Betting a few million on that could be as shrewd as any other relief signing the A’s will find out there at that price. However, if enough teams are really intrigued by his upside, they could drive the bidding up to the $4-6M range, in which case the A’s should probably back out.
Or maybe Treinen has an “unfinished business” attitude and is willing to give a discount to the team that helped him revitalize his career. Let’s hope so. Either way, in real life the two sides are indeed still talking, so a reunion isn’t out of the question.
Much like Guerra, I’m not sure why the Dodgers decided to cut Garcia, who had a strong 2019 and was projected to only make $1.1M in 2020.
2019: 62.1 IP, 3.61 ERA/5.19 FIP/4.90 xFIP, 9.53 K/9, 2.02 BB/9, .257 xwOBA
2015: 56.2 IP, 3.34 ERA/3.20 FIP/3.40 xFIP, 10.80 K/9, 1.59 BB/9, .255 xwOBA
ERA estimators weren’t big fans of Garcia’s 2019 season, but I’m not sure why given that his K and BB rates looked strong — he did allow 15 homers, though, or around one every four innings. Even Statcast approved of his output, as that xwOBA was among the couple dozen best in the league. Looking back to 2015, his last fully healthy season prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery, Garcia looked like a solid setup guy all the way across the board. The A’s should definitely try to pick up the right-hander and hope he can keep his post-surgery comeback going.
This one’s more of a stealth pick, which means he’s perfect for the green and gold. Toronto just non-tendered a 28-year-old right-hander who hasn’t even hit arbitration yet and allowed the lowest percentage of hard-hit balls in the majors last season (minimum 20 batted balls) at 20%. By comparison, Liam Hendriks, who just had a historic season, allowed a hard-hit rate of 39.6%. So is Jason Adam twice as good as Liam Hendriks? Okay fine, that’s not how baseball works. But that’s definitely still an eye-popping number, even if at a small sample size.
2019, MLB: 21.2 innings, 2.91 ERA/3.95 FIP/6.20 xFIP, 7.48 K/9, 4.15 BB/9, .276 xwOBA
AAA Career: 42 IP, 2.14 ERA, 9.9 K/9, 3.4 BB/9
His batted ball profile will definitely regress a bit, with both his BABIP and HR/FB % coming in way under the league average. However, his minor league numbers suggest that he could even be more productive than he was during last year’s major league stint. The A’s should definitely put this guy on their radar, if he isn’t already. When Jason Adam is closing out Game 7 of the World Series for the A’s, you know who to thank!
Other Depth Pieces
A few more fliers to consider.
Rafael Ortega | OF
Another stealth pick of mine. Ortega is 28 years old and owns a career OPS of .577; who needs him? The righty-heavy A’s might. On top of being older and unestablished, Ortega is a left-handed corner outfielder who had a breakout season for Atlanta, particularly against righty arms.
2019, AAA: 493 PAs, .285/.373/.524, 21 HRs
2019, AAA against RHPs: 293 ABs, .300/.392/.563, 15 HRs
Even with the juiced ball barging its way into the upper minors, Ortega’s production still clocked in 27% above league average, according to wRC+. He’s yet to hit arbitration and could likely be had for a standard minor league contract. With the A’s in dire need of any competent lefty hitter they can get their hands on, Ortega could be a cheap upside candidate if they don’t like what’s on the free agent and trade markets.
Taijuan Walker, Jimmy Nelson, Aaron Sanchez, & Kevin Gausman
These four compose a pretty strong class of non-tendered righty pitchers who at some point flashed No. 2 starter potential. Walker is the most enticing given that the only reason he’s searching for a team right now is Tommy John surgery. Prior to that, he looked like he would be at the top of a rotation for many years to come.
Nelson also missed a full season due to injury following a legitimate breakout season in 2017. The only difference with him is that he had a decent chunk of last season to prove that the injury’s behind him, but he couldn’t quite find his groove. Either would be a great buy-low pick to have in your rotation, but with 5+ starters already on board, the A’s may not have enough of an opportunity to offer either pitcher.
Sanchez, on the other hand, encountered injury late last season after showing some late-season promise with the Cheaters — *ahem* — Astros. I’ve never been a huge fan of him as a pitcher, but since he’s projected to miss a fair chunk of the season, he may be willing to settle for a minor league contract and a potential midseason opportunity with a team that tends to always lose starters to the injury bug. Not crossing my fingers, but it’s worth a look.
Gausman is probably the likeliest candidate for an A’s pickup. Having been dropped from the rotation last year upon an August trade from Atlanta to Cincinnati, the A’s could offer him a swingman role, allowing him to work multiple innings in relief and also start when needed. He didn’t blow the competition out of the water in his bullpen stint with the Reds, but he showed enough (11.7 K/9, 3.17 FIP) to warrant a hard look from a team that needs multiple arms with little to spend.
If I were the A’s front office, I would put out competitive but reasonable offers for Shaw and Treinen, hoping that at least one of them will bounce back and help push the team deeper into the playoffs. If we have to trade away one of our many right-handed outfielders to fit them in — sorry Pinder/Piscotty — I’m doing it.
Once the prices get out of hand, I’m looking at Hernandez, Garcia, and Gausman as the backup plans. I’d also look to grab Adam and Ortega on minor league deals as swiftly as possible, before other teams get involved.
And then, boom, all roster problems solved! 2020 World Series, here we come.