FanPost

Can we convince Fisher to compete in 2022….

"1.1 WAR, here I come!" - Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2017, the departure of several key contributors via free agency and the increasing salaries of most of the club’s remaining good players, the A’s face a crossroads entering the 2022 season. While rumors spread of drastically reduced payroll, a quick scan of the depth chart does leave a fan with an impression that all might not be lost in 2022. Afterall, a core of Olson, Chapman, Laureano, Murphy, Montas, Bassitt and Manaea can’t be too far from competing, right? On the other hand, we know Billy Beane likes to trade a player a year to early, rather than a year too late. While it could be debated which direction they will go, or should go, here I’m going to focus on the question of just how good we can reasonably expect the A’s to be, if they were to decide to try to run it back one more time.

So, let’s jump in. What do the A’s bring to the table? To explore that I made, well, a table or three. First, let’s tackle the position players in Table 1 below. I haven’t included literally everyone on these tables, but it does represent everyone that is expected to take up any meaningful number of plate appearances. Salaries are from sportrac and expected arbitration numbers are bolded, everything else is from fangraphs.com or baseballtradevalues.com (BTV).

Table 1. Position Player Summary

Player

Position

Age (2022)

Salary (M)

2021 fWAR

projected WAR (steamer)

surplus value (BTV, M)

Sean Murphy

C

27

$0.6

3.3

3

$65.2

Matt Olson

1B

28

$12.0

5

4.6

$45.3

Tony Kemp

2B

30

$2.3

2.7

2.1

$3.2

Matt Chapman

3B

28

$9.5

3.4

3.5

$24.1

Elvis Andrus

SS

32

$7.0

1.1

1.2

-$4.2

Chad Pinder

LF

30

$2.7

0.4

1.4

$1.0

Ramon Laureano

CF

27

$2.8

2.1

2.9

$60.5

Stephen Piscotty

RF

31

$7.6

-0.6

0.1

-$8.6

Seth Brown

DH

29

$0.6

1.1

0

$3.3

Bench

Austin Allen

C

28

$0.6

0.2

1.1

$0.0

Vimael Machin

INF

28

$0.6

-0.4

0.4

$0.1

Luis Barrera

OF

26

$0.6

0

0

$1.3

Skye Bolt

OF

28

$0.6

-0.5

0.1

$0.0

Let’s start digesting this table with the age and 2021 fWAR in mind. First off, no starter and only one significant bench player is younger than 27, with most players in the 28-30 range. This is both good and bad news. Most players don’t drop off a lot in their late 20s (general aging curves 2009-2019), but that is the start of the more significant decline phase. So, we shouldn’t generally expect improvements from essentially the whole roster of position players. That said, player-to-player variation is much larger than the overall trend, which does mean we could quibble on specific players with more nuanced knowledge, while also not putting our green and gold thumb on every scale.

To jump into specific players, I find Murphy’s projection too pessimistic. Diving in a bit, steamer projects his bat to improve (99 wRC+ to 104), but his defensive value to decline (19.1 runs to 13.5) and for him to get fewer PAs (448 to 431). Some of this is probably injury risk to catchers and splitting time, but part of this is extrapolation from splitting so much time with Gomes last year. If Murphy maintains or even increases his playing time and keeps most of his defensive value, then even a 4 WAR projection isn’t too high, and his ceiling would be in 5-6 WAR range even.

Next, I think we can turn our attention to Chapman. After playing like a 6-7 WAR/150 game player for 2.5 seasons, Chapman’s career was partially derailed by a hip injury in 2020, from which he was still recovering in 2021. Though we had hoped he’d slowly improve to his old self as the year progressed, Chapman’s 2021 campaign was marked by high variability in his month-to-month performance. In August it appeared maybe he had recovered and turned it around with an outstanding 164 wRC+, but then he fell back apart in September to a wRC+ of 75. His walk rate improved all season long, but his K rate in in September and August was still well over 30%. This means Chapman enters the 2021 season as just as big of a question mark as he did in the 2020 season. However, he did still manage to put up 3.4 WAR in 2020, thanks to his still stellar defense and his power when he does happen to run into a ball. As has been documented before, the type of surgery Chapman has usually leads to a fairly full recovery in time, so maybe he just didn’t quite get enough time to heal and the grind of a 162 season just got to him. Overall, with an extra offseason to heal, I have a hard time believing he won’t make a decent sized improvement over his recovering 2020 season. Let’s mark him down for 4.5 WAR.

After Murphy and Chapman, I don’t think we have a notable player that should be easy to expect better than the steamer projection from. Certainly they all could do it, that’s just the way projecting humans hitting round balls with round sticks works, but Laureano getting more than about 3 WAR, Pinder more than 1.4 in a closer to full time role? I personally can’t count on that. Ramon’s history is short, and though his 2018 and 2019 seasons were great, he already regressed from those in 2020 and 2021 prior to the suspension. This leaves our group with an adjusted 22.4 projected WAR. For reference, the A's had 22.8 last year. Given the loses, this seems rather bullish, but not completely unreasonable if Murphy and Chapman improve, and other key pieces don't take big steps back.

Now, let’s tackle the pitchers in Table 2 below.

Table 2. Pitcher Summary

Player

Position

Age (2022)

Salary (M)

2021 fWAR

projected WAR (steamer)

surplus value (BTV, M)

Starters

Frankie Montas

SP

29

$5.2

4.1

3.1

$39.6

Chris Bassitt

SP

33

$8.8

3.3

2.5

$17.0

Sean Manaea

SP

30

$10.2

3.3

3.1

$18.5

James Kaprielian

SP

28

$0.6

1.3

1.1

$7.5

Cole Irvin

SP

28

$0.6

2.1

0.9

$5.1

Daulton Jefferies

SP/RP

26

$0.6

0.1

0.2

$2.9

Relievers

Lou Trivino

RP

30

$2.9

0.6

0

$1.1

Deolis Guerra

RP

33

$0.8

0.4

0.1

$0.0

Domingo Acevedo

RP

28

$0.6

-0.1

-0.1

$0.4

A.J. Puk

SP/RP

27

$0.6

0.1

0.6

$1.6

Sam Moll

RP

30

$0.6

-0.1

0

-

Brent Honeywell

SP/RP

27

$0.6

-0.2

-0.1

$0.7

Grant Holmes

RP

26

$0.6

-

-0.2

$0.5

Adam Kolarek

RP

33

-

-0.2

-0.1

$0.0

Miguel Romero

RP

28

-

-

-0.1

$0.4

Paul Blackburn

SP/RP

28

-

0

0.2

$0.0

So, that’s a lot to take in, but I would argue less to adjust. At 29, I think Montas stands a decent shot at repeating his 2021 campaign, but then again, pitchers…. For Montas, I do think steamer is missing on his effectiveness, with his FIP expected to worsen from 3.37 to 3.75. In 2019, he also put up a great FIP at 3.00. So, I’d argue we might expect better than that 3.75 number, but I believe we have to temper expectations due to his history of inconsistency and the simple fact that he’s a pitcher. I’ll thump this scale only to the tune of 0.5 WAR. For Bassitt, many of the same issues apply, plus he’s significantly older at 33. And Manaea’s projection hardly changes compared to his very good 2021 season anyway. Neither of their scales will be graced by my thumb.

What about the back half of the rotation and our depth? Kaprielian and Irvin performed wonderfully last year, so at first impression getting just 2 WAR out of both of them might seem overly pessimistic. However, both pitchers had subpair ‘x’ stats, meaning their ERAs and FIPs overperformed xERA and xFIP, which are derived from expected wOBA based on batted ball data (such as launch angle and exit velocity) rather than real hits. Both of them are also not young, despite their inexperience at the MLB level, so we shouldn’t expect many age-related improvements. Then you get into the Jefferies, Puk, Honeywell, Blackburn types that don’t have much experience starting at the MLB level. I’m really not convinced on any of these guys.

Ok, enough of the starters. Now the bullpen. This is both the most uninspiring part of the discussion and the hardest one to predict. All these pitchers are simply not good, but many bullpens are full of not good pitchers and things somehow go OK. At the moment, Trivino and Guerra anchor this cast of misfits that have never amounted to much despite nearly all of them being 28 or older. Can Trivino close with Guerra as set up on a good team? Um… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯…. And in reality, none of us do. But is the bullpen going to collectively give the A’s zero WAR as this projection suggestions? No. That isn’t going to happen. Last year, the bullpen was bad and they collectively provided 1.2 fWAR, while a league average bullpen was ~3.2 fWAR. One way or another, they will find guys that can pitch at least a little, even among just this group. I’m comfortable at least moving this up to ~1.5 WAR total before any additions. If we combine that with a 0.5 WAR improvement on Montas’ projection, then, just like our hitters, we are adding 2 more WAR to their cumulative projection for a total of 13.2 WAR, compared to 15.1 last year. This seems reasonable, as the A's got extremely good production from all of their starters, and as a group, I'd expect a slight regression from them, while the bullpen, absent any big additions, is about the same.

This concludes a "what we have now" look at the MLB level, but there are a few minor leaguers to at least mention, either for their trade value or potential impact at the MLB level next year. Let’s summarize a few in our last table.

Table 3. Notable Minor Leaguers

Player

Position

Age

Highest level

FV (fangraphs)

projected WAR (2022, steamer)

surplus value (BTV, M)

Tyler Soderstrom

C

20

A

50

0.3

$38.4

Zack Gelof

3B

22

AAA

45+

0

$10.8

Nick Allen

SS

23

AAA

45

0.3

$7.0

Pedro Pineda

OF

18

CPX

45+

0

$9.7

Max Muncy

SS

19

CPX

40+

0

$7.6

Brayan Buelvas

OF

20

A

45

0

$4.2

I’ve ranked these using some combination of trade value and ability to impact the MLB roster. Soderstrom is the clear leader in future value, but is still too far away for meaningful contribution in 2022. He also overlaps with Murphy at the catcher position, the one spot the A’s might have the most security over the next 3-4 years (should they choose to keep it). Zack Gelof is next, and though he was in AAA last year, it was only for 13 games after spending most of the year in A-ball. He profiles well, but he’s still at least a year away. Given the situation with Chapman, I don’t want to trade him, even in a "win at all costs" mode. Soderstrom is potentially available, however. Like Gelof, Allen finished the year at AAA, but he spent the whole year there. Most A’s fans are familiar with him, the book basically being he’s a slick fielding short stop with not much in the way of a bat. Given Andrus’ option needs to not vest, he’s going to have to stick around and will probably get significant playing time in the second half of 2022. From there, it’s a slew of young players in the low minors with not a ton of trade value. In summary, Allen is the only one with reasonable expectation to contribute at the MLB level and will probably provide enough defense to be a noticeably above replacement level player; I’ll round up his contribution to 0.5 WAR. Everyone else, except Gelof, is tradeable.

To conclude our WAR additions, we’re at 36.1 WAR. Replacement level is set to about 47 or 48 wins. From there we just add the two to get 83-84 wins. That’s with a bullpen that matches last year’s, Montas being closer to how good he was last year, Murphy significantly improving, and Chapman regaining more of his old self. Importantly, that’s with NO hand-wavy modifications to the downside. But regardless, that’s 84 wins, which means we’re in sniffing distance to a playoff spot.

Sort of. It is worth remembering that those 84 wins don’t exist in isolation. The Astros are still going to be good. The Mariners did well last year, and the AL East could sweep the WC spots with the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Rays all being competitive teams. Something like 88 wins just isn’t likely to produce a playoff spot, and if it does, it’s likely a one game playoff (or something else you probably won’t like if the new CBA changes that). Essentially, 84 win projections aren’t the goal. That makes you equally likely to get to 90 wins as it does 78 wins, and glancing over last year’s playoff odds, maybe a preseason projection of a 10-20% chance at the playoffs….. I’ll pass on that in order to start a stronger rebuild sooner, but we aren’t necessarily done.

How do the A’s get better? If we assume the A’s need to run the projected win total to at least ~90 games, this means a 6 WAR improvement is needed. To address this, we’ll need to start talking payroll. If you sum those salary numbers, you’ll get $80M, but that doesn’t include every last thing, such as filling out the 26 or 40 man roster, some differed payments or payments coming from Texas for Andrus. However, this is pretty close to the numbers we as fans usually look at when thinking about how much the A’s spend on payroll, as a some of that stuff goes on every year. Out of simplicity then, I’m just going to leave it as such. I’m also going to assume rumors of Fisher’s desire to drastically cut payroll are false and someone convinced him they should spend their usual $90M per year on players. This gives us $10M budget and the trade assets above.

So, who do you get? How do you do it? Generally, 1 WAR improvements cost you $8-9M, but on the low end, you can do a bit better. The $10M in payroll flexibility buys you a few relievers and maybe nets you 1-2 WAR (don’t spend it all in one place please….). I think that’s a clear need and it gets you to 84-86 wins. Is that worth delaying the rebuild?

Now, if you put Soderstrom on the table, maybe with some fillers, can you plug another hole? An outfield spot, second base, a closer, a DH…. They could really use that upgrade and if done right, you could turn that $38M in excess value into 4 WAR (more if you actually pay the incoming players salary even). Now we’d be talking, as we finally approach the 90 win mark.

I like being a risk taker with sports. That makes it fun and that’s the whole point. And if it doesn’t work, you could trade everyone at the deadline. So, I actually do think there is a path to reasonable competitiveness on $90M-ish payroll. But is it worth it to risk these trade chips now and does Fisher actually give them this leash?