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Even With More Payroll Flexibility, This Would Be The Winter To Rebuild

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MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros
“I’m praying to be dealt to the Padres.”
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Every time I look the payroll number has dropped...$, $40M...But whatever the real number turns out to be, it’s not what’s driving the A’s decision to rebuild in a year or rebuild now. There are myriad reasons the A’s really need to choose this off-season to take a step back — sadly, probably not a small step but rather a giant leap for A’s-kind — and start the rebuilding process after 3 post-season appearances and 1 “nice try”.

Reason # The First One: Current Core Not Quite Strong Enough

On the surface it appears the A’s have enough talent to make a run if they don’t sell off pieces. After all, Matts Chapman and Olson are players any team would welcome at the corners, Sean Murphy had a disappointing season at the plate and still accrued 3.3 WAR, and Oakland’s starting rotation was among the league’s better.

In reality, though, Oakland enters the off-season having won just 86 games and that was with Mark Canha in LF, rental stud Starling Marte in CF for the last 2 months, Josh Harrison contributing for the last 2 months, and Jed Lowrie manning 2B the majority of the time. All are now free agents. Also, perhaps the bullpen was a weakness but with almost all of it gone the A’s would need to pour significant resources into creating a good one out of “Lou Trivino, Deolis Guerra, and um....oy.”

Add to all this the loss of Ramon Laureano for another month (April, 2022) and the A’s begin the off-season with a projected Opening Day lineup that currently has Stephen Piscotty and Seth Brown patrolling most of the outfield, Tony Kemp at 2B, and most likely a DH who can’t hit.

You would need to spend most of any available payroll just getting the team back to “86 win territory”. Could the team earn a post-season spot if they hung onto everyone and postponed a rebuild? Certainly — they would have a strong rotation, multiple stars, could add a few “intriguing” bargain pieces, and baseball is known for its unpredictability. Stranger things have happened (but enough about the Giants). You would not want to bet on it, though.

Reason # The Second One: Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea

If the A’s wanted to try to be competitive in 2022, they would have to keep two of their best SPs in Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea. Not only are both very good, Oakland just doesn’t have the pitching depth to survive losing those two.

Trouble is, both Bassitt and Manaea are entering their last contract year and in each case if the A’s don’t trade them they will get nothing for them. Oakland was willing to do this with Barry Zito, who walked as a free agent after the 2006 season. It was a worthy tradeoff as the A’s advanced all the way to the ALCS in 2006, but on the flip side by receiving no value in return for Zito Oakland paid a price and did not reach the post-season again until 2012.

Granted, the A’s could take the outside shot at a competitive season and still flip Bassitt and/or Manaea at the trading deadline, but currently those two have significant value with a full year left on their contracts — BTV estimates Manaea’s surplus value at 18.5 and Bassitt’s at 17.0. The A’s can ill afford to pass up “now or never” chances to restock their weak farm system with the returns either or both can bring. (In contrast, Frankie Montas’ value sits at an estimated 39.6, but with 2 years of contract control left Oakland can get a strong return from him now, at next year’s deadline, or next off-season, and so the level of urgency might be less.)

So really one or both of Bassitt or Manaea must go — at which point you may as well listen intently to the offers for Montas, Chapman, Olson and so on. But it’s the need to strike while the iron is hot on Bassitt/Manaea that most urgently sets the rebuild dominoes in order.

Reason # The Third One: Unstable 2022

MLB is so smart. After a pandemic/strife ruined 2020 with no fans and little revenue, and an attendance compromised 2021 with a delta-variant chaser, the owners and players are getting ready to fight, snarl, and bicker until someday a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is hammered out.

If the CBA terms themselves aren’t enough of an obstacle, these talks seem driven even more by the two sides’ contempt for one another. Sometimes they appear to disagree not so much on the terms but more on “We haven’t heard what they said yet, but we hate it!”

Will the season begin on March 31st? Mid-April following a delayed spring training? Another July 29th opener? See you in 2023? Who the heck knows? That doesn’t make it the best year to “go for it” at the expense of future seasons.

So the A’s pretty much have to start rebuilding this off-season, beginning at least with Bassitt or Manaea — and quite possibly both. At that point you may as well grit your teeth and say goodbye to at least one Matt. More likely to stay are Laureano — whose value is impacted by the suspension and who, also thanks to the suspension, will be under contract control through 2025 — and Murphy, also under contract for at least 4 more seasons.

Maybe Montas goes because his value is high and the team isn’t trying to compete, or maybe he stays because the A’s do actually need someone to take the ball on game days. Unless, of course, the season is canceled due to a strike, a lockout, or the epsilon variant (spoiler alert: flesh eating zombies are involved with this one).

The bottom line is that Oakland will almost certainly be trading some of my very favorite players this winter, so they had better hit on the prospects they get in return. And no, Sean Nolin, I am not looking at you.