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Will the Oakland A’s reload to win in 2021, or look to rebuild?

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A weird 2020 leads to a murky future that could go many different directions

Division Series - Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros - Game Three Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s are on an excellent run. They won 97 games for two seasons in a row, and then in the short 2020 campaign they posted the equivalent win percentage for a third straight year. They reached the playoffs each time, and this fall they even won a postseason series for the first time in a while.

However, the immediate future is far less certain than it may seem. The league reported massive revenue losses across the board due to limitations brought on by the coronavirus this summer, and the only thing we know about the upcoming offseason is that we know nothing at all. One widespread and reasonable expectation is that spending will be down significantly, which could have any number of ripple effects in the free agent and trade markets.

Under normal circumstances, the Oakland A’s plan would be obvious: Keep trying to win. They have 10 departing free agents to account for including a couple stars, and an albatross contract clogging their notoriously slim books, but they have a proven core who could be sufficiently built around using a budget similar to the one from 2019.

But these are not normal circumstances. Unless they are. But they probably aren’t. We don’t really know yet, though it’s probably wise to be pessimistic when it comes to the A’s and the potential for spending. Responsible rosterbation this winter might include an assumption that the payroll could go down despite the time sensitivity of the current competitive window.

And what would it look like if the purse did get tightened? The current roster, including guaranteed salaries and arbitration estimates for everyone eligible, comes out a bit under $80 million. That’s letting go of all free agents, signing nobody, making no trades, and filling out the other half of the squad with minimum salary players from in-house or the scrap heap. That would represent around a 15-20% drop from where they started the last two seasons.

Speaking purely as a speculative thought experiment, if they were to need to slash their payroll in that fashion, would they be able to truly contend in 2021? It’s tough to judge their 2020 postseason performance since they were missing their best player in Matt Chapman, and it would be fair to project improvement from rookies Jesús Luzardo and Sean Murphy and maybe another yet-to-be-determined prospect breakout, but is this core enough to win on its own without any reinforcements to replace the likes of Marcus Semien and Liam Hendriks, much less Tommy La Stella and Joakim Soria and Yusmeiro Petit and Mike Fiers and Robbie Grossman?

To even attempt to contend might mean getting even bolder than usual with trades, and in ways that would cut deep from a fan perspective. Mark Canha is getting pricey in arbitration, only has one year of control left anyway, plays a position of extreme depth in the organization, and is at what is likely the peak value of his career as he delves into his 30s. A young star like Ramon Laureano or even a Matt, with lots of affordable control remaining, could fetch hefty value at multiple positions of need. Gamble on a couple of inexpensive up-and-comers, as we’ve seen the green and gold do so many times, and maybe you can squeeze out enough surplus production to keep winning. It’s what the Tampa Bay Rays would do without a moment’s hesitation, and they just went to the World Series.

It hurts to even write those words, and hopefully this will all turn out to be unnecessary panic. But part of the plan for this window was having a good 2020 and opening a new park in 2023 to boost revenue and keep the good times rolling, and instead they lost money this year and will certainly have to push back the construction project. If they can’t afford the core in the present day, and are no longer confident they can afford to extend the core in a few years when they hit free agency, then maybe they start over and reset the clock around Luzardo and Murphy, et al. It wouldn’t be the zaggiest thing this front office has ever done, nor the first time they’ve pulled that difficult plug.

On the other hand, if the A’s are committed to staying in contention in 2021, there could be unique opportunities to zig instead. For example, just maintaining their payroll from last year may be the equivalent of a bump up, if everyone else reduces theirs.

And if they did that, then their dollars could go further than ever before, in that market-inefficiency way they’re so famous for maximizing. Even in a normal year they may not have been able to afford to keep Semien or Hendriks, but what if those stars now can’t find proper mega-contracts elsewhere? Might the pendulum swing back far enough that they fall back within Oakland’s price range? Or could Semien in particular, after lackluster small-sample numbers, be convinced to take a one-year bounce-back deal and try again next winter?

It’s easy to envision a scenario in which such one-year contracts become popular in this market. If teams don’t want to commit too much money ahead of a murky financial future amid an ongoing pandemic, and if players want to wait for the new CBA (after the 2021 season) to see if their earning power improves under a new labor deal, then quick pacts would be in everybody’s best interest. Whether it’s Semien or Hendriks, or some other external target, the A’s could do what they tried to do with Edwin Encarnacion a few years ago and briefly rent a splashy addition on a lucrative but short-term deal.

It all comes down to what team owner John Fisher wants to do. If he’s willing to invest now while opportunity is knocking, and at least maintain the recent payroll, then this creative front office could have an absolute field day in a haywire market that figures to be abundant in bargain potential and chock full of desperate opponents. If he can’t or won’t do that, then the A’s best chance at a ring so far this century will fall by the wayside prematurely, and maybe they’ll get another chance like this in the next decade if everything goes perfectly.

November is coming, so we’ll begin to find out soon. Let’s hope the A’s are here to win, armed with a big head start and a chance to play Moneyball like never before.