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Defending an offseason of inactivity

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

This winter has been nuts. An already insane MLB offseason came to a crescendo this past week with the blockbuster Mookie Betts deal (and its surrounding drama). That deal capped off a hectic few months during which many of baseball’s most mediocre clubs took definitive, aggressive steps toward contention.

Specifically, American League teams like the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels opened up the checkbooks big time. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays were very active on the trade market, though it remains to be seen whether their moves actually improved their major league roster.

And yet the Oakland A’s, coming off their second consecutive 97-win season and second consecutive Wild Card loss, have been nearly silent. This looks like the beginning of their true window of AL West contention, especially given the Houston Astros’ rough offseason both on and off the field. The rival Angels are clearly trying to take advantage, while Oakland has yet to bolster second base or the bullpen (their two biggest weaknesses) with a true impact addition.

So what gives?

On the surface, it looks like there’s plenty of reason for fan frustration. The A’s haven’t addressed obvious holes on the roster, nor have they made any progress toward extensions with key players Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien and Matt Olson (though those negotiations could certainly come during Spring Training).

But this offseason presented some unique challenges for the A’s. There’s a strong case to be made that staying somewhat quiet was always the best course of action, both for the team’s present and for its future.

Second base: A weak market and a roster crunch

Since day one of the offseason (and maybe even earlier) second base has been at the top of the A’s priority list. It was always pretty clear that Jurickson Profar wasn’t going to be the answer, and the A’s erased any uncertainty pretty quickly when they dealt him to the San Diego Padres. That move not only brought Oakland two solid young players in Austin Allen and Buddy Reed, but also seemed to be a pretty clear message that the team would be looking outside of the organization for their solution.

And then nothing happened. Despite somewhat tenuous links to names like the versatile Adam Frazier and fan favorite Jed Lowrie, the A’s have yet to make a significant addition at the keystone. If anything, they’ve added even more uncertainty by acquiring Vimael Machin through the Rule 5 Draft and Tony Kemp through a minor trade with the Chicago Cubs.

But maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised. From day one, the second base market was weak. It’s questionable whether the top free agent, Mike Moustakas, is actually a second baseman, and either way his four-year, $64M contract is well out of Oakland’s price range. Behind him, the best options — Cesar Hernandez, Eric Sogard, Howie Kendrick, Starlin Castro — hardly represented significant upgrades on either side of the ball. The trade market was similarly thin, offering little beyond Frazier, who reportedly might have cost the A’s a talented catcher in Jonah Heim.

And that leads into the other issue at play here — the A’s second base logjam. Incumbents Franklin Barreto and Jorge Mateo, both former top prospects, are out of options. The former has shown severe plate discipline issues at the major league level and the latter hasn’t even made his MLB debut, but both have the potential to be everyday players. Even if a player like Sogard is theoretically an upgrade over the A’s current situation, is he enough of an upgrade to justify selling low on a talent like Barreto or Mateo to make room on the roster?

I don’t think so. Instead, the A’s introduced additional, low-cost competition at the position. Machin was a zero-risk addition. If he performs in the spring, he earns a roster spot and likely platoons with one of the right-handed hitters; if not, the A’s return him to Chicago and he cost them virtually nothing. Kemp, on the other hand, is a versatile option all over the diamond that might provide more of a roster threat to outfielder Robbie Grossman than he does to either Barreto or Mateo. He’s also great insurance for a spring injury virtually anywhere on the field.

This isn’t even to mention Sheldon Neuse, who might be the best second baseman on the team, but unfortunately seems likely to lose out on a roster spot as the only one of the bunch with has options remaining. He’ll serve as valuable infield depth as well as added motivation for Barreto and Mateo to perform — an important reminder that their roster spot is not guaranteed.

That depth is the main reason another addition doesn’t make sense to me. Sure, one of the remaining free agents such as Brock Holt or Jason Kipnis could certainly provide value. But the upgrade would likely be so slight that it wouldn’t be worth the opportunity cost of losing another talented young player, let alone the added salary.

Second base probably won’t be a strength for the A’s in 2020. But they have considerable depth with a world of potential. In the absolute worst case scenario, the position remains a black hole for the first few months of the season and forces the team to add a veteran along the lines of Sogard or Hernandez at the trade deadline. In the best case, one of Barreto/Mateo/Machin breaks out and becomes a significant part of Oakland’s young core.

If things go south, the Profar experience last year has proven that the team is deep enough to withstand low production at second base. While that probably isn’t ideal, given the state of the market and the A’s roster, their smaller moves make a lot of sense.

Top-heavy farm system

Even if the A’s did want to make a significant addition, who’s to say they would have been able to?

Top talents Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk and Sean Murphy were never going anywhere. Young, cost-controlled stars are essential to the success of a small budget team, and all three figure to be key pieces on the MLB roster in 2020.

Those three are fantastic prospects, among the game’s very best. The issue is the talent behind them. When they officially graduate and lose prospect status, they’ll leave behind one of the weakest farm systems in baseball.

In 2019, Oakland’s top minor league performers included Nick Allen, Daulton Jefferies, James Kaprielian and Heim. None of those four have appeared on any offseason Top 100 prospect lists. Additionally, all four could play significant roles for the A’s in 2020 and beyond — Allen as the shortstop of the future, Heim as the potential back-up catcher, and Jefferies and Kaprielian as important rotation depth.

Then, you have Oakland’s high-profile draft picks and international signings, prospects like Austin Beck, Lazaro Armenteros and Logan Davidson. You can include Barreto and Mateo in this group as well. These players all have immense upside, and likely each have their strong supporters in the A’s organization. But each have shown serious warts in recent seasons, enough to cause interested teams to hesitate.

Behind them? Barely anything. Likely bench/depth pieces such as Luis Barrera, Grant Holmes and Skye Bolt don’t have much value on the trade market. They aren’t going to bring back a huge upgrade, be it a second baseman or a reliever.

And again, the trade market at both positions was very weak. According to Baseball Trade Values, the best second baseman who might have been available, Cubs utility man Ian Happ, would have cost the A’s something in the range of Beck, Jefferies and Allen. A Frazier return could have looked something like Beck and Heim. The top reliever traded was former Oakland righty Emilio Pagan, and I don’t think the team was eager to hop back into that adventure.

Those types of incremental upgrades are not worth mortgaging the farm.

Reliever volatility

Pagan is actually the perfect segue into what I believe is a third reason for the A’s slow offseason — the unpredictability of relievers.

We all know the story. In 2018, a huge part of Oakland’s success was the dominance of All-Star closer Blake Treinen, who put together one of the best relief seasons in recent history. Rookie Lou Trivino also made a huge impact, while trade acquisition Pagan could never really get it going and veteran Liam Hendriks found himself designated for assignment in June.

Then, 2019. Trivino couldn’t keep the ball in the yard. Hendriks was arguably the best reliever in baseball, earning his first career All-Star nod. Pagan had a fantastic season himself, serving as a lockdown closer for his new team, the Rays. And Treinen pitched his way out of not only the closer’s role, but Oakland entirely.

This is just another data point supporting the unreliability and volatility of relief pitchers in today’s game. Edwin Diaz is another, as is Kirby Yates, as is Ryan Madson. The list goes on.

Given the inherent risk, it is difficult for the A’s to invest too heavily — be it prospects, money or both — in relievers. The Padres committed four years and $34 million to Drew Pomeranz off the strength of only 26.1 dominant second half innings with the Brewers. His resurgence was the result of legitimate mechanical adjustments, but will anybody be surprised if he falls apart at some point in the next four years and becomes a sunk cost? The A’s cant afford to take that risk.

Even the more “reliable” options can be dangerous. The Braves spent three years and $40 million on Will Smith, and the Nationals signed Will Harris for three years and $24 million. Each has been consistently great since 2015, but Smith just missed a whole season (2017) due to Tommy John Surgery and Harris is 35 years old — still not exactly “safe”.

This isn’t to say that the A’s can never take these risks; this team signed an even riskier reliever in Madson to a three-year, $22 million deal just a handful of seasons ago. But given the tight payroll this offseason, it wouldn’t have been wise to do so, and given the current relief situation, maybe it wasn’t necessary. Sure, it’s likely Harris will have a better season in 2020 than Trivino or J.B. Wendelken, and Smith will probably outperform Diekman. But how likely? I certainly wouldn’t put money on it.

Oakland’s current bullpen is deep in arms with considerable upside (Trivino, Wendelken, Jake Diekman, Wandisson Charles, etc.) alongside strong performers returning from 2019 (Hendriks, Petit, Soria) and new faces picked up on the cheap to fill specific roles (McFarland, Hart). It definitely doesn’t look like a particularly strong relief unit on paper, but there’s enough talent and depth there that, with a little luck, it could be one by year’s end.

None of this is to say that I would have been upset had the A’s gone out and made impact additions left and right; quite the contrary, I’d have been stoked! But Oakland faces a harsh financial reality that forces them to be smart with how they spend, whether it’s money or prospects. Given those internal limitations, a weak market, and the structure of the current roster, the team’s quiet offseason is certainly defensible — if not the smartest course of action altogether.