The Oakland A’s are packing their entire offseason into the first two weeks of February, and they made another move Friday morning to bolster their bullpen.
The A’s swung a four-player trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, acquiring lefty reliever Adam Kolarek and outfield prospect Cody Thomas, reports Jeff Passan of ESPN. In exchange, Oakland sends two prospects to Los Angeles, infielder Sheldon Neuse and pitcher Gus Varland.
In Kolarek (pronounced koh-LAIR-ick), the A’s get a 32-year-old groundball specialist coming off a phenomenal season. The southpaw posted a sub-1.00 ERA in 19 innings, and Statcast loved his performance as well.
Kolarek, 2020: 0.95 ERA, 19 ip, 13 Ks, 4 BB, 1 HR, 3.14 FIP, .250 xwOBA
He doesn’t rack up strikeouts, but he avoids trouble by limiting walks, keeping the ball in the park, and putting his batted balls on the ground. Last year he induced grounders 63% of the time, and since the beginning of 2019 his 65.4% rate is the third-highest in the entire majors (after Zack Britton and Aaron Bummer).
He’s done a consistently good job stranding his inherited runners, allowing just 23% to score in his career and never going over 30% in a season (league average is around 32%). He’s also found success holding late leads as a setup man, converting four saves and 36 holds with only three chances blown for a sterling 93% rate. He does have notable platoon splits for his career, dominating lefty batters but with some susceptibility to righties.
While 2020 was Kolarek’s shiniest ERA so far, he was effective for two years before that as well, in all the same ways. His ERA was in the 3-range both years, his FIP added up to 3.62, his xwOBA marks were below .300 both times, with the same 63% grounder rate overall, and his Win Probability Added always netted out positive. It all came together in a special way last summer, but all he did was what he always does.
As you would expect from a lefty groundball reliever, Kolarek does not throw hard. His primary weapon is an 89 mph sinker that can dial up to 92, though he does occasionally mix in a four-seamer that averages 91 and has reached above 94. The rest of his offerings are split between a quality slider, and a changeup that seems to get knocked around. And while none of it comes with especially high velocity, he does bring the funk in his delivery, with some sidearm action.
While Kolarek is coming to Oakland from the Dodgers, where he helped win a World Series ring last year, he has already bounced around a lot in his pro career. He was originally drafted by the Mets in 2010 (11th round), then spent time in the Orioles, Rays, and Braves organizations before settling back with Tampa Bay in 2017 and making a brief MLB debut that summer. He eventually stuck in the majors with the Rays until being traded to L.A. at the deadline in 2019, and then faced his old club in the Fall Classic last October.
Regarding the administrative details, he’s still making around league-minimum salary and doesn’t reach arbitration until next winter. He has four seasons of team control, and becomes a free agent after 2024. He’s never been on the injured list during his time in the majors and was healthy throughout the minors.
The addition of Kolarek adds an exciting arm to a bullpen that was shredded by free agency and is looking for new stars. He’s the second lefty reliever they’ve acquired this winter after Nik Turley, or the third if new starter Cole Irvin works out of the pen, and they join fellow southpaw Jake Diekman and a long list of promising righties.
Oakland also picked up a prospect in the trade, outfielder Cody Thomas. The 2016 draftee (13th round) played as high as Double-A in 2019 (108 wRC+ and 23 homers, at age 24) and ranks 29th on MLB Pipeline’s list of Dodgers prospects. Pipeline gives the left-handed batter the following scouting grades:
Thomas: Hit 40 | Power 55 | Run 50 | Arm 55 | Field 50 | Overall 45
In their report they praise his power, but at the cost of contact, so one stat to keep an eye on is his strikeout rate (27.1% in Double-A). They profile him as a corner outfielder, but with decent speed and athleticism in his 6’4 frame that even allowed him to spend time in center earlier in his career. FanGraphs offered similar advice last winter, with optimism about his high-risk profile and the chance to be an above-replacement platoon RF, including a note that he “has yet to fail on a baseball field.”
Now for the part that you just can’t make up. Thomas was a top prep prospect in high school, but his stock fell when he instead went to University of Oklahoma to play quarterback for their football team. That’s the same school Kyler Murray played for, winning the Heisman as their QB and then bailing on his 1st-round selection by the A’s to go to the NFL. The difference is that Thomas’ fortunes on the college gridiron didn’t go anywhere near as well, so he stuck with baseball.
Neuse & Varland
The A’s gave up two prospects in this trade, and Athletics Nation liked both of them.
First is Sheldon Neuse, who was about to win the No. 8 spot on our Community Prospect List. He was in the running this spring for the second base job in Oakland, after a decent audition there in 2019. He has more experience at third base, but with enough athleticism to be versatile and a promising right-handed bat that seems to generate liners and hits wherever he plays.
The other is Gus Varland, a mid-round sleeper whose high spin rates were encouraging. The right-hander put up dominant stats in his brief pro debut but then went down with Tommy John surgery, so he’s a question mark but a promising lotto ticket who would certainly have made our CPL Top 30 this winter.
This is a good trade. The A’s got equal or better value overall, they improved their 2021 team in a way they specifically wanted, they didn’t add salary, and their headline acquisition is a long-term addition.
Kolarek is good. Think of him like a setup-man version of T.J. McFarland, who was last year’s middle-relief groundball lefty in Oakland. And if Kolarek continues to be good then he can stick around for a long time, though you can never predict the distant future of relievers. This is exactly the kind of relief pitcher I wanted the A’s to pick up this winter — lefty, established but not expensive, and with late-inning experience. All boxes checked, and now he gets to send those grounders toward Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and Elvis Andrus.
The return stings a little, but you’ve gotta give something to get something and Kolarek is worth paying for. I like Neuse and it’s easy to worry if he’ll be the next Max Muncy Hindsight Regret in Los Angeles, but the Athletics Nation community has guessed he’d be a trade chip since the day he was acquired in 2017, and deep down we all knew it would happen eventually. This is a perfectly fine result, netting the A’s an upgrade they specifically needed in this moment entering a contending season.
As for Varland, perhaps they sold low on him coming off injury, or maybe they cashed in on his remaining stock rather than gambling on his return from surgery — only time will tell. Either way, they didn’t get nothing for him, and Thomas can take his spot as an especially interesting sleeper in the lower half of our CPL.
According to Baseball Trade Values, the A’s came out slightly ahead in terms of value, close enough to be roughly even but definitely not bad for Oakland. Neuse and Kolarek were nearly a match, but Thomas had a higher rating than Varland.
The bottom line is twofold. The A’s traded from a position of depth for a position of need, from their competition (logjam?) at second base to their promising but thin bullpen. They also traded some future for present on their contending 2021 roster, sending an MLB-ready prospect for an MLB-established pitcher. Both of those swaps make sense for Oakland, and both teams did well in this deal.
The 40-man roster is still full, with Kolarek subbing in for Neuse. Players in italics haven’t yet debuted in MLB, and those with asterisks** are Rule 5 draft picks who can’t be sent down to the minors. Remember this list does not include Jed Lowrie or non-roster reliever Deolis Guerra.
Chris Bassitt (R)
Jesus Luzardo (L)
Sean Manaea (L)
Frankie Montas (R)
Mike Fiers (R)
Cole Irvin (L)
A.J. Puk (L)
Paul Blackburn (R)
Daulton Jefferies (R)
James Kaprielian (R)
--Grant Holmes (R)
Jake Diekman (L)
J.B. Wendelken (R)
Adam Kolarek (L)
Nik Turley (L)
Dany Jimenez (R)**
Burch Smith (R)
Lou Trivino (R)
Jordan Weems (R)
--Wandisson Charles (R)
--Miguel Romero (R)
Sean Murphy (R)
Austin Allen (L)
Aramis Garcia (R)
Matt Chapman (R)
Matt Olson (L)
Elvis Andrus (R)
Chad Pinder (R)
Tony Kemp (L)
Vimael Machin (L)
Nate Orf (R)
Mark Canha (R)
Ramon Laureano (R)
Stephen Piscotty (R)
--Ka'ai Tom (L)**
Skye Bolt (S)
Seth Brown (L)
Dustin Fowler (L)
--Luis Barrera (L)
--Greg Deichmann (L)