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A’s sign Tony Kemp, avoid arbitration

The lovable role player is staying in Oakland

Arizona Diamondbacks v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s agreed to a one-year contract with utilityman Tony Kemp on Tuesday, reports Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle. Kemp, who was eligible for salary arbitration this winter and now avoids that process, will receive $1.05 million in 2021, says Slusser.

We’ll begin with a look at Kemp, followed by details about how the arbitration system works and what this news means.

Tony Kemp

The A’s acquired Kemp last winter, in their search for a new second baseman who could bat left-handed. He ended up filling that job competently for most of the season, until Tommy La Stella was acquired to take over.

Kemp has limitations in his profile, but also plenty of utility. His glove at second base is poorly rated by the metrics, but he can make a highlight play now and then, and he has the versatility to stand in at multiple positions around the field if needed.

At the plate, he doesn’t hit the ball hard and has almost no power, but he has a knack for getting on base via singles and walks. This past season, despite batting just .247 with only five extra-base hits, he still managed a strong .363 OBP, which is almost equal to the mark La Stella posted (.370). That was enough to give Kemp a roughly league-average batting line overall, which was an upgrade over what they got in 2019.

He’s also not particularly fast, but his agility and high IQ help him make plays on the bases. This summer he unleashed one of the most incredible slides in recent memory to avoid a sure tag at home plate.

Kemp, 2020: .247/.363/.301, 97 wRC+, 0 HR, 13.2% BB, 12.3% Ks, .319 xwOBA

He’s not a superstar or even an everyday starter, but he’s got something to offer on a contending team — and if a better option comes along, his salary is low enough to not be an obstacle in clearing roster space. In the meantime, he’s a vocal leader off the field, and is easy to root for on the diamond with his positive attitude, playful antics, and ever-present smile.

The middle infield situation is even more of a question mark than it was last winter. Not only is second base open again, but now shortstop is as well with longtime star Marcus Semien off to free agency. Surely the A’s will bring in at least one new infielder, and perhaps more, but whatever happens, we now know Kemp is sticking around as a backup plan alongside prospects Sheldon Neuse and Vimael Machin and depth shortstop Nate Orf.

What is Arbitration?

This section reproduced and updated from a previous post.

The A’s have 10 players eligible for salary arbitration this winter. That means those players are still under team control and they aren’t free agents, but their salaries aren’t yet determined, leaving the two sides to either negotiate a number or let the court decide for them.

The deadline for teams to tender contracts to eligible players is Dec. 2, which is Wednesday (tomorrow). The parties don’t have to agree to exact numbers by then, but the club must at least commit to keeping the player and paying whatever it ends up costing*. Players who don’t receive such an assurance by Dec. 2 are called “non-tendered” and they become free agents.

* Note: The payout isn’t fully guaranteed until midway through next spring, so the team does still have one more chance to cut bait even if they tender a contract now.

Here are Oakland’s eligible players, along with their salary projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. The projections are complicated this year, depending what method the market ends up using to evaluate the unusually short season, so there are three figures for each player instead of one (actual figures in italics for players who have signed):

  • OF Mark Canha – $5.4m / $8.2m / $6.1m
  • LHP Sean Manaea – $4.2m / $6.4m / $4.7m
  • 1B Matt Olson – $3.5m / $6.4m / $3.5m
  • RHP Chris Bassitt – $3.1m / $5.6m / $5.5m*
  • 3B Matt Chapman – $2.9m / $4.3m / $2.9m
  • UT Chad Pinder ($2.275m) – $2.2m / $2.4m / $2.2m
  • RHP Frankie Montas – $1.6m / $2.4m / $1.6m
  • UT Tony Kemp ($1.05m) – $900k / $1.2m / $900k
  • RHP Lou Trivino – $900k / $1.1m / $900k
  • RHP Burch Smith ($705k) – $600k / $800k / $600k

So far, all three players who have signed did so right around the middle of their expected ranges. There are now seven more eligible players to address.