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Oakland A’s should absolutely not spend on new outfielder this winter

The outfield is covered. Spend the limited resources elsewhere.

Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros
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Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have a lot of roster needs to address this winter. With 10 free agents departing, some of them key stars, they’re losing their starters from both middle infield positions and left field. On their pitching staff, they’re saying goodbye to their closer and two setup men, plus a workhorse veteran starter.

The offseason checklist is long, and in this uniquely weird winter it doesn’t sound as if there will be much if any money available to retain any of the departing names or replace them with established free agents. Maybe one or two positions could see some spending, as a reunion with second baseman Tommy La Stella still isn’t out of the question, but they’re going to have to go cheap somewhere — and most likely somewheres, plural, which spell check tells me isn’t a word but this is an A’s site so we’re all about pioneering new things.

One of those somewheres that should take the inexpensive in-house route is the outfield. If this were the Yankees or the Dodgers or even the White Sox, then there would be clear value to signing a veteran with a reliable left-handed bat to help out in left field, whether by bringing back Robbie Grossman or finding someone else for $5-10 million per year (like Matt Joyce in 2017-18). But the A’s can’t afford to do that for every position of need this winter, and this is the one where they least need the help.

That’s because the depth chart is already packed in left field. It’s so packed that it’s actually becoming a problem in terms of roster flexibility. It’s beyond logjam to full-on dam, as in dam that’s too many minor league outfielders on the 40-man.

Two positions are already completely covered. Ramon Laureano is in CF, and some combination of Stephen Piscotty and Mark Canha can cover RF. Whoever isn’t in RF can also help out in LF, as can Chad Pinder, and Khris Davis is in the mix for DH. If any of them batted lefty then the whole OF/DH picture might be settled, but they’re all righty, as are Matt Chapman at 3B and Sean Murphy at catcher, so it would be nice to have at least one lefty option in the outfield like they did with the switch-hitting Grossman.

So we’re looking for a lefty bat, and they only need to be able to play in a LF platoon, or even DH if necessary. Here’s what the 40-man roster already has to offer, in order of MLB experience:

  • Dustin Fowler
  • Seth Brown
  • Skye Bolt
  • Ka’ai Tom
  • Greg Deichmann
  • Luis Barrera

Are there any sure bets among them? Of course not. Only half of them have even played in the bigs yet. But there’s almost certainly at least one productive MLB player on that list, and sometimes the Oakland organization has to do the extra work to unearth that new gem.

Don’t take any of this to excuse any overall lack of spending by the team this winter. If they don’t invest somewhere on the roster at this critical moment of the contention window, then that would be a mistake. But there’s no version of an A’s payroll where every position gets a Michael Brantley or even a Matt Joyce, and LF should be the absolute last place they put even one dollar over the minimum.

To begin, there is a Rule 5 pick to try out in Tom. He has the skill set of Grossman, with the only question being how well he’ll make the jump from Triple-A to the majors. But he’ll have to prove he’s a better bet than Fowler, a former Top 100 prospect in the mold of Brett Gardner but without the walks, who is out of options and can’t be sent down to the minors anymore. He didn’t stick in his first MLB trial in 2018 and couldn’t force his way back up in ‘19, and if he’s still on the roster next spring then it’ll be his last chance to make it in Oakland.

If neither of them is the answer, then there’s still Brown, who impressed in his MLB audition in 2019 with a potent bat and some defensive versatility (also plays 1B). He surely would have gotten a longer look in a normal 2020 season. Or there’s Bolt, a switch-hitter who could also help out in CF, and who showed enough in 2019 to earn a callup and brief debut. He brings a ton of tools from power and patience at the plate to speed on the bases and in the field. Either of them could be ready to go on Opening Day if they have a big spring.

If the A’s get halfway through the season and nobody has worked out yet, then perhaps one of their Triple-A prospects will be ready. Barrera is already in his second option year on the roster, but he hasn’t played above Double-A due to the lost 2020 campaign in the minors. If he comes out hot in Las Vegas in 2021, hitting liners around the park and darting around the bases and unleashing highlight throws, then he could be up in time to help with a pennant drive.

It’s a similar story for Deichmann, who tore up the Arizona Fall League in 2019 but then didn’t get the chance to prove himself in Triple-A this summer. If he spends April knocking dingers all day with the Aviators, ironically putting local flights at risk with all the projectiles he sends soaring through the sky, then it’ll be nice to not have several million dollars clogging up left field and blocking his path to the majors.

Meanwhile, there is no such depth at other areas of need. The next wave of serious prospects in the middle infield hasn’t even played in the upper minors yet. Utilityman Tony Kemp is still around as a stopgap at 2B, and maybe Sheldon Neuse or Vimael Machin could help out there too. But at least one of these infield positions is going to need a steady veteran presence that can only be found externally, like La Stella at second or a strong defender for shortstop. Going into the season with a double-play combo of Pinder and Kemp would be an enormous risk, with absolutely no backup plan if it’s not going well after a month.

Or how about the pitching staff? Any starting rotation would look better with one more reliable league-average veteran, or even a moderately priced buy-low. The A’s might have enough starters already, or two could get hurt in spring training (as pitchers do) and all the MLB-ready youngsters could turn out to be relievers (as prospects do). You can never have enough arms.

The same goes for the bullpen. I’m generally opposed to overpaying for relievers, because Oakland is so darn good at finding them for free, but they also have at least four or five spots open in their pen right now and need to identify a new setup crew ASAP. All the prospect depth is optionable and can be stashed in the minors, and maximizing depth is key in this area of high attrition. It’s alright to put $3-5 million into another setup man like Jake Diekman, someone with late-inning experience who could be in the mix to help with closing duties but without being rigidly entrenched there beyond reproach.

Whether the A’s have five dollars to spend this winter or 30 million, it doesn’t matter. The outfield is covered, including the role of the lefty to platoon in LF, and any dime shelled out should go to some combination of middle infielders and pitching, in that order.

There’s no star outfielder whose salary couldn’t provide more value over the status quo in one of those other areas of the roster. There’s no bounce-back candidate among the non-tender free agent pool who could be a better value play than just gambling on a couple of these in-house outfield prospects. Paying anything for a “safe” 1-2 WAR stopgap in LF would be a misuse of resources, as every precious dollar this winter needs to distinctly move the needle in order to be worth it.

There’s no target that makes sense at any price, because there’s already a starting-caliber platoon LF on this 40-man roster, at the minimum salary. All the A’s have to do is figure out which of six doors it’s waiting behind, instead of blowing their rent money on a new set of deadbolts to keep each of them locked.