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Oakland A’s post-2020 free agent preview

The A’s have 10 free agents to consider. Who should they re-sign?

Wild Card Round - Chicago White Sox v Oakland Athletics - Game Two Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s 2020 season is over, and the offseason will be here before we know it. There’s still more to discuss from the year gone by, but let’s also begin looking forward to 2021.

The A’s have 10 players hitting free agency this winter, representing a significant chunk of their contending roster. Their departures will bring around $45 million off the books, but some of that will need to go toward arbitration raises for remaining stars. The landscape is especially complicated by the unpredictable upcoming market, which could be affected in unknown ways by the shortened 2020 season and subsequent loss of revenue for all teams — will that help the A’s by suppressing free agent prices, or hurt them by further limiting their own notoriously low spending power?

We’ll take a deeper dive into all this as the winter progresses, but for now here’s a quick look at the situation. The 10 free agents:

  • RHP Mike Fiers
  • RHP Liam Hendriks
  • RHP Yusmeiro Petit
  • RHP Joakim Soria
  • LHP T.J. McFarland
  • LHP Mike Minor
  • 2B Tommy La Stella
  • SS Marcus Semien
  • 3B Jake Lamb
  • OF Robbie Grossman

That list contains a reliable mid-rotation starting pitcher in Fiers, the three best righty relievers from an excellent bullpen including arguably the top closer in the game right now, two serviceable lefties, a star shortstop, two more quality infielders, and a breakout outfielder. There’s still a strong core remaining in Oakland and just entering its prime, but hopefully the A’s can bring back at least a couple off this list.

The biggest names are Semien and Hendriks, and it’s possible both could be priced out of the A’s range on the open market. Bringing back either (much less both) would be an enormous win for the green and gold, who are used to seeing all their stars leave in free agency.

Marcus Semien

Semien feels like an especially safe gamble on a big contract, as a durable up-the-middle player with a legendary work ethic and a skill set that could age well. He just turned 30 so he won’t be looking at a mega-mega-contract, but still a hefty one covering several years that could flirt with nine figures. That still might be too much for Oakland, but if there was ever a guy for the A’s to finally spend on, it’s the local East Bay product who willed himself into an MVP candidate at the most valuable position on the diamond.

Furthermore there’s no immediate backup in place at SS if Semien leaves, though top prospect Nick Allen could arrive in perhaps 2022. Don’t expect the A’s to extend a qualifying offer for 2021, though, suggests Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle, even though such a one-year extension could be perfect for both sides — buying a bridge to Allen for Oakland, and giving Semien a chance to bounce back from a disappointing small-sample 2020 campaign and then maximize his payday next winter.

Liam Hendriks

How much should you spend on relief pitching? The smart move is usually to not invest too much into the most volatile part of a roster, where big money is often wasted and minimum-salary nobodies often break out. However, there is an elite level at the tippy-top where it’s worth it, where the arms are so amazing that even an off-year is still great.

Has Hendriks reached that point? He was arguably the best reliever in the sport in 2019, and he was even better in 2020. That’s still less than two full seasons of star performance, but if you believe he’s for real then he’s at the level where paying him eight figures per season could be worth it. The only question then becomes health, which is the case for all pitchers and all players in general, and even entering age 32 there are no major issues there (though he’s had his share of IL stints over the years).

Losing Hendriks would hurt. Keeping him would cost a ton. But for what it’s worth, the A’s do usually spend big on veteran relievers every winter, and there are a couple others coming off the books right now. Instead of $8 million on the next 37-year-old retread, could they invest that and a little more into keeping Hendriks in the 9th inning and then look from within to build a new setup crew around him?

Petit and Soria

Speaking of those veteran relievers, Petit and Soria are taking $14 million off the books with them. Both had quality tours in Oakland, but Soria turns 37 next season and Petit turns 36 next month.

Soria was especially great in the small-sample 2020, and Statcast loved him every bit as much as the box score stats. Petit was a huge presence in 2019 and followed it up with a 1.66 ERA this summer, though Statcast thought he was closer to average.

Will they keep it up in 2021, or did the A’s just get the last years of strong performance from this pair? If they do depart, then Oakland still has lefty Jake Diekman on hand to anchor their next setup crew.

McFarland and Minor

These two southpaws were more like role players for the A’s. McFarland was picked up on waivers last winter, and Minor was a trade deadline acquisition in August.

McFarland was a solid fit as a middle reliever in Oakland, putting a barrage of ground balls in front of their superb infield defense. He doesn’t strike anyone out, and Statcast saw him as below-average, but his results included a league-average 4.35 ERA and stranding most of his inherited runners.

Minor was an All-Star starter in 2019 but had a bad year for Texas in 2020, and wasn’t much better after arriving in Oakland, though he was great against specifically the Mariners.

Mike Fiers

He’s been part of the rotation since his acquisition in August 2018, and he’s been one of the more reliable arms there. In 2019 he strung together quality starts for nearly the entire summer and delivered a no-hitter, and he often completed six innings during the weird 2020.

However, the A’s used him as more of a bulk workhorse, and when it came down to big moments they would look elsewhere. He was passed over for both the 2018 and 2019 Wild Card Games, and pitched only once in the 2020 playoffs, for less than two shaky innings. He’s always relied on guile more than stuff, and he’ll turn 36 next season.

Grossman, La Stella, and Lamb

Rounding out the list are three hitters, each with interesting cases to be made. One thing they have in common is they all bat lefty (or switch for Grossman), amid an Oakland core full of righty stars (Chapman, Laureano, Murphy, Canha, Piscotty, Davis, maybe Semien, against just Olson on the left).

Grossman was a light-hitting walk specialist, but in 2020 he added power and upped his wRC+ to a robust 126. There are reasons to believe his breakout might have been for real. He’s also at least solid on defense in LF, even getting a top-three finalist nod in 2019 Gold Glove voting.

La Stella has enjoyed a post-30 bloom into one of the more solid hitters in the league. He’s one of the toughest strikeouts in the majors, and he brings a bit of pop as well, earning him wRC+ marks over 120 each of the last two (partial) seasons. On defense his arm is weak, and on the bases he’s slow, but he’s a classic professional hitter who gives spectacular at-bats every single time.

Lamb was lost for three seasons in Arizona but found a resurgence in Oakland for the last couple weeks of 2020. He never stopped hitting the ball hard, but he finally put up production again for the first time since his All-Star 2017 campaign. He was just an emergency replacement for the injured Matt Chapman, but he quickly endeared himself to A’s fans.

Rapid thoughts

I haven’t fully thought through an offseason plan yet, but here are some knee-jerk reactions. After arbitration raises, the $45 million coming off the books is probably more like $30 million at most.

I’d like to go big and spend half of that to keep either Semien or Hendriks. I think both are particularly good bets for long-term deals, they play crucial positions that can’t be punted, there’s not an obvious immediate in-house replacement for either, and it’ll cost to adequately replace them anyway. (I’m assuming that keeping both isn’t an option — as an A’s fan I feel greedy even imagining that one might stay.)

If it’s Hendriks, then I’m letting go of all of Soria, Petit, McFarland, Fiers, and Minor to keep him. I liked all of those other arms in 2020 but I’m not overly keen on any of them moving forward, and if it meant keeping a superstar in the 9th inning then it’s worth filling out the rest of the staff cheaply. They still have Diekman and Wendelken to build a new setup crew around.

If it’s Semien, then Hendriks is surely gone, so maybe you keep one of those relievers as a consolation prize on a one-year deal. If you think Diekman can be a closer, then Petit is probably cheaper than Soria. If you think you need a new closer, then Soria makes more sense.

Either way, Oakland probably can’t afford to spend on the rotation. There’s a good core of Luzardo, Manaea, Bassitt, and Montas, with some prospects arriving like Jefferies, Kaprielian, and maybe Holmes. If Fiers isn’t going to start big games anyway, then they can’t keep spending on him. If they think Minor has something left with his diminished velocity, then maybe he makes sense on a small one-year show-me deal, in the old Mengden role as a reliever who makes spot starts when needed. Or if you don’t believe in Minor, there could be a cheap external free agent for that job.

As for the hitters, I’d love to keep at least two. Grossman and La Stella will be 32 next year and Lamb 30, so their leverage will be minimized this winter as age has become a critical factor on the open market. If La Stella can be had on a deal between 2/$12m and 3/$24m, which is my guess, then he’s a no-brainer as a perfect fit at a position where the A’s don’t have much coming on the farm. He’s my first pick of the trio by far.

I would also be happy with Grossman on a two-year deal reminiscent of Matt Joyce’s 2/$12m. Like La Stella, he offers balance to the lineup as a lefty (switch) who can draw walks and make contact. He’d be an even better fit if Oakland could clear either Khris Davis or Stephen Piscotty off their payroll to ease the glut of righty OF/DH bats, but this probably isn’t the winter to pull off a salary dump with the potential for limited spending around the league.

As for Lamb, he would only really make sense if Davis were to leave. Then he could be a fun one-year buy-low lefty DH, and infield backup. But with Davis and Piscotty on board, and Chapman back in the picture, there’s no room to keep Lamb. (Either way, Davis’ $17 million comes off the books after 2021.)

Perhaps the available $30 million could go toward keeping Semien, La Stella, and a late-inning reliever (Soria or external option), with the rest of the pitching staff coming from within? Or Hendriks, La Stella, Grossman, and a solid free agent shortstop on a short-term deal?

Of course, this is the A’s, so the actual answer will be something completely different than anything you would have ever expected. But until we find out what that is, let’s use our imaginations!