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The Non-Tendered Player A’s Should Go After

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MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego Padres
I’m a decoy. It’s not me.
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When I saw mlbtr’s mostly uninspiring list of non-tendered players, one name stood out as a possibly “great A’s-y find”. So I put it out there for the community to guess and 15+ wrong guesses later one thing is clear: the art of identifying talent from a pool like this is so unscientific that every fan, trying to read another fan’s mind, can come up with a different idea.

How did I settle on my choice? Let’s begin by ruling out some of the players who have something to offer a big league team.

Eddie Rosario, arguably the best position player and hitter, is not a fit for a small budget team already flush with outfielders. Sure a LH batting outfielder would be nice, but the A’s aren’t going to spend several million on one when they have, at league minimum, in house options like Seth Brown and Luis Barrera.

From a list like this the A’s aren’t searching for good or cheap. They’re looking for both. And they’re looking for it at a position that is currently vacant.

Greg Garcia, because he can play SS and bats left handed, is an interesting idea but unless you believe he is ready to jump from “career utility guy who was not tendered a contract” to “every day starting shortstop,” then you still need another shortstop. And then Garcia becomes a bit redundant with Tony Kemp, not to mention Vimael Machin and Chad Pinder. Still you have to appreciate a career .354 OBP and solid defensive numbers at SS (albeit in a small sample), so Garcia makes my “best of the rest” list as someone I wouldn’t mind hearing that the A’s were talking to.

Daniel Robertson, originally drafted by the A’s, might be intriguing as a one-year stopgap at SS, but the reality is that nothing in his track record suggests he will be very good on either side of the ball. Robertson is a RH batter with a career 97 wRC+ that reflects one really good season (2018, 128 wRC+) and two really bad ones (2017 and 2019, 77 and 71 wRC+). In the field, as a SS he has earned a -10.4 career UZR/150 and -1 DRS, suggesting that like so many players he is capable, but not at his best, at the infield’s most demanding position.

Other talented position players? David Dahl can’t field or stay healthy. Danny Santana fields even worse than he hits. Hanser Alberto is a useful utility infielder but shouldn’t be starting for anyone. Nomar Mazara and Brian Goodwin give back the bit they offer at the plate (which ain’t much) by being butchers in the field. Kyle Schwarber is a meh fielder who won’t come dirt cheap.

Pitching doesn’t offer much more, not enough to keep dragging this out (though it’s fun, I have to admit), but the bullpen is certainly an area of need for the A’s, who are poised to lose their top 3 RH relievers in Liam Hendriks, Joakim Soria, and Yusmeiro Petit. Kudos to those who singled out the underrated Matt Wisler and the possibly resurgent Nick Tropeano as possible targets. I’m down with either one, even though they weren’t the one I zeroed in on.

So now let’s cut to the chase. Who do I want the A’s to swoop in and nab? That would be Keynan Middleton, non tendered by the Angels because presumably they hate the idea of good pitching.

Why am I so bullish on Middleton? While his career has not been spectacular to date, there are many positive signs to suggest that he is as good a candidate as any to breakout and excel. He is in his prime years, having turned 27 at the end of the 2020 season, and he has always had a ‘big time’ arm. He has also never made more than $800,000K in a season, so he figures to come very affordably to the team that signs him.

Middleton’s fastball, which has averaged a robust 96.9 MPH in his career to date, sat even a tick higher in 2020, at 97.5 MPH. And when you look at Middleton’s body of work over 104 games in the big leagues, there is plenty to like.

For his career, Middleton has struck out 96 batters in 95.2 IP (9.03 K/9IP), with a slightly high but acceptable BB rate of 3.76/9IP. In fact, Middleton has a rather solid career 3.48 ERA — he hasn’t been bad, he just hasn’t emerged. He also has 3 years of service time left before free agency.

Relievers are unpredictable. It’s possible Middleton could spend the next 2 seasons cementing his place in obscurity. It’s also possible he could ready to take the next step in his prime years, with 100 games of experience under his belt and stuff worthy of a closer. In some ways, his stuff and career so far are not entirely unlike that of Liam Hendriks himself, Hendriks also having hit his nadir with a form of non-tendering (the dreaded DFA) in the middle of an ok-but-not-great career that suddenly took off in his late 20s.

Middleton strikes me as the type of casual addition that could, without squinting, yield a dominant set-up man if not even the A’s next closer. The stuff is there, and in his first 104 appearances he has already shown he can strike out a batter an inning with a plus fastball that is supplemented with a slider and changeup.

Big time arm, already perfectly decent big league results, 27 and healthy, cheap, fills a position of significant need for Oakland. What’s not to love?