The MLB offseason is still just beginning to warm up, and we’ll do plenty of reasonable, rational, realistic analysis and commentary along the way. But here at the outset, let’s play around with something more on the fantasy side.
Welcome to my wild trade idea. It could completely change the Oakland A’s offseason, and turn them back into a genuine title contender in 2021. Settle in, this is gonna take a few minutes.
The A’s biggest restriction this winter will be money. That’s normal. To be more specific, they have a lot of free agents coming off the books, but much of the money they’re saving is going directly to arbitration raises before they get a chance to fill the holes that opened up in the roster. To make it worse, they have two large contracts tying them to hitters who have slumped lately and aren’t part of the indispensable core.
One of those contracts belongs to Khris Davis, whose $16.75 million salary seemed like a really good idea at the time. The other is for Stephen Piscotty, who is owed $7.6 million each of the next two seasons. Both players rated as below replacement-level by bWAR in 2020, though Piscotty was slightly above via fWAR. Both had batting lines well below league-average for the second straight year.
If the A’s could move just one of these salaries, it would give them game-changing flexibility with which to enhance a core that has already contended for three summers in a row — or maybe help prevent them from losing one of the two star free agents they’re preparing to say goodbye to (Marcus Semien and Liam Hendriks).
Unfortunately, this seems to be the worst possible time to attempt a salary dump. With every team claiming heavy financial losses due to the coronavirus’ effects this year, there’s no telling how averse the market might be to unnecessary spending. Who has extra cash to blow on someone else’s albatross? And do the A’s even have the farm assets to entice anyone into such an arrangement?
Enter the Mets
New York’s other team just got bought by a new owner this winter, Steve Cohen. He began his tenure by stating that he’s not going to rush out and try to buy a championship, nor will the Mets “act like drunken sailors.” But he did make clear that the Mets will “act like a major-market team” and have a “budget commensurate with that.” They’re going to spend, on top of any kind of introductory splash Cohen might want to make to prove himself to his new fanbase.
The Old Mets opened the 2020 season somewhere in the mid-$150 million range. Right now they’re in the $120 million range entering the winter, securing them an ace (deGrom), another top starter (Stroman), a handful of good relievers, a young superstar first baseman (Alonso), and several good lefty hitters who are mostly in the outfield (and a righty 3B). They also could have Noah Synergaard returning from Tommy John surgery midseason.
They have multiple areas of need, including the rotation and bullpen, plus catching and a center fielder. They also suddenly have a hole at second base after losing Robinson Cano to a PED suspension — though that does free up another $20 million, far more than they’ll need to fill that position on the open market.
One specific name they’re interested in is marquee free agent outfielder Marcell Ozuna. They have a few outfielders already, but they’re all lefties and none are good in CF. The group includes Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo, who would look nice on the corners; Dominic Smith, who is really more of a DH; and Jeff McNeil, who is a super-sub and could slide to second base instead to replace Cano.
Ozuna almost fits. He’s a righty, giving them the balance they crave. And he’s won a Gold Glove before ... but in left field. He hasn’t played center in years, and was bad there the last time he tried. The Mets would have to choose between their stated goal of improving their defense, or signing Ozuna to play center.
On top of that, Ozuna feels a bit on the nose as a Mets long-term signing, given their reputation for poor investments. His wRC+ marks during his career:
- 2014: 116
- 2015: 92
- 2016: 109
- 2017: 143
- 2018: 107
- 2019: 109
- 2020: 179
He just turned 30, and he’s had exactly two great years, or 1.3 if you adjust for the short 2020. Last time he was a star, in 2017, the Cardinals bit and paid a massive trade price to acquire him for his final arbitration years (2018-19), and he was, like, alright. Not bad! Decent bat, worth a couple WAR with a good glove at the easiest position to fill. But St. Louis might wish they still had Sandy Alcantara instead.
MLB Trade Rumors predicts Ozuna to land 4yr/$72m this winter, after putting up uncharacteristically enormous numbers in a short small-sample season. Will he be worth it? Or will he play more like a guy who could have been had on a pair of 2yr/$25m deals, especially as he exits his prime and delves deeper into his 30s? This seems like exactly the kind of move the Old Mets would make, for a player whom they don’t quite need and who has every chance of not seriously moving the needle for them (and with a history that suggests he might significantly disappoint).
Re-enter the A’s
Oakland has a player who fits the Mets criteria much better than Ozuna, and that’s Mark Canha. He’s a right-handed batter, and his recent history of success at the plate is more consistent and more reliable moving forward. He gets negative marks in CF, but he can handle it on an everyday basis, and the advanced metrics like him slightly better there than the incumbent Nimmo. At the very least, they’d have the versatility of a second playable option in center, with one of them being solid in a corner in the meantime.
While his name still flies under the radar nationally, Canha is objectively a star. He was worth 4 WAR in 2019, and was on pace to beat that in 2020, proving that his patient and powerful bat is for real to go with a useful glove and some positive intangibles. Compared with Ozuna, over the last three years combined, Canha has been worth equal fWAR and nearly one extra win in bWAR, and he did it in 31 fewer games (with 10 extra points of wRC+).
The problem for Oakland is that Cana will be a free agent after 2021. They can afford to keep him this year, and he easily provides surplus value over his arbitration-controlled salary, so there’s no reason to get rid of him just for the sake of it. But he is going to be taking up a good chunk of the payroll at an estimated $8.2 million, so his excellent services aren’t cheap even if they’re efficiently priced. And he’s no longer a long-term part of the core.
The Mets want a player like Canha and they’re willing to splurge to get him. The A’s could use as much budget space as they can get. Here’s how they can help each other.
Oakland sends Canha to the Mets. In exchange, instead of receiving equal value in return, the A’s also send Khris Davis to New York and the Mets pay his full salary. You can add minor pieces on the margins if you’d like, but that’s the gist of it.
According to our friends at Baseball Trade Values, the two players’ values almost identically offset each other. Canha’s surplus value over his bargain salary is about the same as the amount a team would waste by overpaying Davis. In essence, the Mets would be buying the final year of Canha’s team control instead of acquiring it. Together, the pair would cost around $25 million, which is more than the $18 million Ozuna would command but it’s only a one-year commitment. Cohen could make his splash in the outfield without having to pay for it years down the road.
That last part is extra important, because while Cano is off the books for 2021, he jumps back on them for 2022 and ‘23 when his suspension ends. New York’s financial reprieve from him only lasts for one year, giving them incentive to make one of this winter’s expensive moves a short-term one. Here’s the chance to do just that with a thing they’re shopping for in real life, with plenty of long-term money left over to spend on multi-year deals for a few impact pitchers.
And what would the Mets do with Davis? Doesn’t even matter, really. Put him on their bench as an intimidating pinch-hitter. Flip him to a rebuilding AL team at a discount. DFA him. The point of the deal on their end would be getting Canha.
Sure, that’s a lot of dead money to take on just for one guy who’s never been an All-Star. But do you know who makes this kind of move all the time? The Dodgers. That is, the reigning champions, who went to three of the last four World Series. They use their money as a weapon to simply buy talent when they can, and as a result they have a ton of talent. The New Mets could do that if they wanted, and change their identity to match an actual winning model instead of continuing to operate like the unsuccessful Old Mets.
As for the A’s, they would cut an entire one-third off their current payroll. This would put them under $50 million, even after paying their arbitration players. Depending on where their budget ends up, they could have another $30-50 million to work with. Let’s take the middle road and say they’ll be at $90 million this year, giving them another 40+ of space after this deal.
You can do a lot with $40+ million. You could re-sign Semien and Hendriks, and MLBTR thinks you could do it within $25 million per year combined. That leaves another $15-20, which you can split between second baseman Kolten Wong and a veteran mid-rotation starting pitcher. Now you’ve completed your rotation, brought back your star closer, and improved your middle infield instead of watching it fall apart. You also now have the best infield defense in the recent history of the sport. And you still have two outfielders (Laureano and Piscotty), plus Chad Pinder, and eleventy Triple-A outfield prospects fighting for a spot.
Adjust as you see fit. You could skip the free agent starter (use Daulton Jefferies instead) or Wong (use Sheldon Neuse at 2B instead) and instead get Brad Hand to pair with Hendriks and form a super-bullpen. You could skip Hendriks, get Hand cheaper instead, and use the savings to bring back Tommy La Stella as the DH in a post-Davis world. And so on.
Crank it up a notch
Not convinced yet? Need more reasons for both sides to do this, especially the Mets? Well, New York has one more problem that Oakland can help with, and that’s Dominic Smith. His bat appears to have panned out and he posted monster numbers in the short 2020 at age 25.
Smith, 2020: .316/.377/.616, 165 wRC+, 10 HR, 7.0% BB, 22.6% Ks, .374 xwOBA
Dynamite! Even when that batting average settles down a bit, he’s still got a ton of power, a decent enough walk rate, and he doesn’t strike out too much. Statcast loves him.
The problem is, the Mets don’t have anywhere to play him, made worse by his general lack of defensive ability. They have Conforto and Nimmo in the outfield, and in this scenario they have Canha too, or maybe in real life they get Ozuna, etc. They have Alonso at 1B. And as of this moment, there isn’t a DH in the NL next season.
The Mets can’t fit Smith into their 2021 lineup, but he’s too good to rot on the bench. They probably need to trade him. And whaddya know, the A’s just shipped out their old DH (Davis) and their LF (Canha). And they lost two of their only lefty hitters, La Stella and Robbie Grossman, to free agency. Even after spending all that money a few paragraphs ago on a SP and RP and 2B and SS, there’s still one big seat left for a lefty DH. How about a bopper just entering his prime and coming off a breakout? Maybe he’s even the next Khrush Davis.
Even better, Smith hasn’t reached arbitration yet, so his salary is around the minimum in 2021. Adding him has no effect on Oakland’s payroll, with the potential for massive impact on their production.
This part won’t come cheap, as Smith has real value. But what the A’s can do is provide full value in return, at a moment when the Mets otherwise have limited leverage since everyone knows the bind they’re in with their spare star hitter — and also because Smith might be limited to AL suitors.
Construct whatever package you want. Lead it with Daulton Jefferies if the Mets want cheap young pitching, and include Austin Allen to help with their catching vacancy. If they’re OK with younger prospects, then lead it with Logan Davidson or Nick Allen (shortstops who are suddenly unnecessary since Semien can be re-signed). If it has to be one big piece instead of a combo of multiple prospects, then there’s always A.J. Puk, who lines up perfectly with Smith on BTV’s Trade Simulator.
Again, adjust the Puk part of that if you think a different return makes more sense.
There are multiple reasons for each team to like this idea. The Mets get their star-level right-handed CF, but at 1yr/$25m instead of an extremely risky 4yr/$72m. They also get full value for Smith at a sell-high moment, instead of wasting him on the bench or dumping him later this winter or midsummer for whatever pennies they can get on the dollar. If all goes well health-wise with Puk, they add a premium high-ceiling rookie arm to either their rotation or bullpen at the minimum salary.
On the other side, the A’s clear enough payroll to throw impact-level money at all of their key needs. They accomplish that part without losing anyone from their 2022 roster. They then also cash in the question mark of Puk’s shoulder for a great young, cheap, long-term bat, which stings less than using him to net some one-year rental veteran. They do lose Canha, which hurts in 2021, but they immediately replace his bat with Smith’s (at DH), and they can replace him in LF using someone from their logjam of Triple-A prospects (Brown, Bolt, Fowler, Barrera, Deichmann, etc., all of whom bat lefty, and 2-3 of whom can also be the backup CF like Canha was).
Still think this is too much money for the Mets to take on, or too bold of a move for them overall? Keep in mind that Cohen’s new Team President is none other than Sandy Alderson, himself a former A’s GM and franchise legend. It’s easy to imagine a warm relationship forming between these two clubs, and this would be a spectacular way to launch it. And hey, if Alderson poaches current Oakland GM David Forst, then maybe it wouldn’t hurt to give the A’s a little goodwill gesture at the same time to help Oakland’s next GM completely revitalize their ongoing window of contention.
But I don’t even think you need it to be any kind of personal favor like that. I think there’s a lot of sense on both sides for this blockbuster move on its own merit. Both clubs check multiple important boxes in one fell swoop, they do so by drawing from areas where they’re so strong that it borders on excess, and they feel like they got more than they gave. It’s as unrealistic as it is completely viable.
One final consideration? It stinks to lose Canha, who might be my favorite player on the A’s, but can you imagine the Big League Foodie spending a year living in New York City? His Instagram would go through the stratosphere.
This would be the A’s lineup, with whatever adjustments you prefer for the ordering:
- SS Marcus Semien (R)
- CF Ramon Laureano (R)
- DH Dominic Smith (L)
- 3B Matt Chapman (R)
- 1B Matt Olson (L)
- C Sean Murphy (R)
- LF Brown/Bolt/Fowler/Barrera/Deichmann (L)
- RF Stephen Piscotty or Chad Pinder (R)
- 2B Kolten Wong (L)
That’s an above-average offense with a particularly fearsome 3rd-6th heart. There are three multi-time Fielding Bible winners, plus two more up-the-middle defenders who have recently been Gold Glove finalists, and another (Murphy) who is considered a future Gold Glover. And everyone would be under team control though at least the end of 2022, with most of them through 2023 or longer.
The bench could include catcher Jonah Heim, super-sub Chad Pinder (or Piscotty), some of the outfielders who don’t start in LF, and anyone from Tony Kemp to Sheldon Neuse to Nate Orf or whoever to back up the infield. The rotation would have Luzardo, Manaea, Bassitt, Montas, and a legit $10 million free agent, with either Puk or Jefferies up next (whoever didn’t get traded). The bullpen would return Hendriks, Diekman, Wendelken, and Trivino, with several electric rookies to try out (Weems, Romero, Charles, Kaprielian, Holmes) and an open market featuring maybe one of the best non-tender classes in recent memory to scour for gems.
And the whole thing costs around $90 million. But only if Alderson and the Mets want to play ball.
Who says no?