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Oakland A’s 2021 budget could be even worse than we feared

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If Tommy La Stella is “unrealistic,” then are any additions realistic?

Division Series - Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros - Game Four Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The safe bet going into any Oakland A’s offseason is that they’re not going to spend much money. Even when they’re contending and looking to make additions, the moves tend to be relatively modest. This is not news.

Furthermore, there has long been an expectation that spending would be down all around the league this winter. The 2020 season was nearly wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, and fans weren’t able to buy tickets to attend the shortened schedule of games, cutting deeply into revenues with no guarantee that 2021 will be fully back to normal. We, and fans of many other teams, were all prepared for bad tidings on the payroll. This is also not news.

Given all of that, it wasn’t surprising when Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle reported Monday that the A’s “aren’t expected to spend much this winter.” Or that they’re so unlikely to land an extension for star shortstop Marcus Semien that they might not even bother making a low-ball offer at all.

But this line from Slusser is particularly disheartening.

“Second base is also a potential need. Billy Beane, the team’s top baseball executive, said late in the season that the A’s would love to bring back free-agent Tommy La Stella. That’s starting to look unrealistic, given the team’s resources, so some of those shortstop candidates also could be second-base prospects, though it’s a much lesser concern because Pinder, Machin and Tony Kemp would be more than adequate at the spot.”

La Stella was one of my realistic, affordable targets to shore up a major area of need. If even he, projected by MLB Trade Rumors at 2yr/$14m, is financially unrealistic, then this is going to be an even cheaper offseason than any of us had feared. Granted, it could be that MLBTR aimed too low with their estimates, as the first wave of real-life signings has come in far above those guesses, but even adding a few mill to the package wouldn’t make La Stella wildly expensive by any means.

If the A’s can’t afford La Stella because they’re planning to spend at shortstop instead, then that might be alright. But if they go cheap with in-house or scrap-heap candidates at both middle infield spots, then it’s just difficult to see how they can contend for the playoffs in 2021 much less a ring, especially with rivals like the White Sox and Angels already laying out cash to make impact moves.

Nothing is set in stone yet. In fact, the A’s are indeed still “in conversation with La Stella,” per insider Martin Gallegos, so perhaps there’s at least more than zero money available for notable offseason additions and/or retentions.

But it’s difficult to be optimistic when it comes to the A’s and spending, which usually lands closer to the worst-case scenario than the best. And Slusser suggests that “if Oakland shells out some money this winter, it will be for the bullpen,” and possibly just for re-signing part of last year’s setup crew. That would still mean a downgrade in the relief corps by virtue losing Liam Hendriks, while leaving the lineup completely out to dry.

It would be absolute malpractice to have this current core of several cheap stars, with $25 million of breathing room below last season’s Opening Day payroll, and not make any serious attempt to upgrade it while the opportunity is there to make a push for a championship, even after a tough financial year. Hopefully that doesn’t happen.