The Oakland A’s are 17-12 so far this season. They’re first place in the AL West division, and tied for second in the entire American League. The roster isn’t perfect, but I don’t think anybody is complaining about how things have gone so far overall.
However, the A’s did say goodbye to eight free agents last winter, including a couple stars, and there’s no harm in checking up on old friends. The point here isn’t to dwell on hindsight, yearning for what could have been or gloating in schadenfreude, just to pay a visit and catch up.
But I mean, we are totally gonna analyze the list too.
This is a particularly opportune moment for a look back, since one of the biggest names in the group is returning to the Coliseum this week. With the Toronto Blue Jays in town for a series, longtime shortstop Marcus Semien comes home to face his old teammates, now at his new position of second base.
- Semien, TOR: .228/.301/.416, 102 wRC+, 6 HR, 9.7% BB, 24.8% Ks, .301 xOBA
So far he’s looking like the 2016-18 version of himself, which is to say, still a good 3-4 WAR player but not the MVP candidate from 2019. He has some power and draws some walks and he’s stolen six bases without being caught, and his defensive metrics remain positive. But those metrics come at a less valuable position, and on offense his strikeouts are back so his OBP gains have disappeared. His 2020 off-year was basically his career baseline but without his normal power, and now the power is back, but not the rest of the 2019 breakout.
Of course, the A’s replacement plan at SS has been a dud so far, as Elvis Andrus isn’t hitting at all or fielding well. The question isn’t whether one would be more productive than the other, but rather whether the gain would be worth $18 million (his Blue Jays salary), or whatever multi-year offer might have gotten it done, much less the opportunity cost of everything the Andrus trade (and Khris Davis salary dump) allowed them to do.
Next up is Liam Hendriks, the superstar closer and reigning AL Reliever of the Year. He went to the Chicago White Sox for effectively 4yr/$54m.
- Hendriks, CHW: 3.97 ERA, 11⅓ ip, 19 Ks, 1 BB, 4 HR, 4.61 FIP, .235 xwOBA
He’s blown a pair of saves already, but he’s also converted five. The ERA appears more pedestrian than we’re used to, thanks to a spike in homers, but I’d bet on the fact that he’s striking out 45% of his batters while walking only one as a sign that he’s still in control. Even if he doesn’t fully repeat his HercuLiam seasons, he’s still on track to be one of the best in the business.
Again, the question is whether that production would have been worth Oakland’s limited cash, not just today but long-term over the next four summers. They ultimately freed up enough to sign Trevor Rosenthal for one year and he hasn’t thrown a pitch yet, but they’ve made due with the next arms up. Lou Trivino and Jake Diekman have combined to convert all seven save chances, and the remaining setup crew has cleaned up 11 holds without failing, he wrote fully aware that now they’ll blow one tonight. Sorry y’all.
Moving back to the position player side, a couple of hitters got multi-year deals elsewhere — outfielder Robbie Grossman with the Detroit Tigers, and professional hitter Tommy La Stella with the San Francisco Giants.
- Grossman, DET: .196/.348/.293, 92 wRC+, 2 HR, 17.4% BB, 25.2% Ks, .364 xwOBA
- La Stella, SF: .235/.297/.353, 83 wRC+, 1 HR, 8.0% BB, 13.3% Ks, .358 xwOBA
Grossman came here as a buy-low, had the breakout he was looking for at a position where the A’s had lots of depth behind him, and then got paid elsewhere. That’s how it works on a small-budget team. So far his start in Detroit appears lackluster, but there are plenty of signs for upside — he’s walking more than ever, and Statcast loves the contact he’s making far more than the .258 BABIP that it’s produced. If he’s gonna strike out that much then last year’s power spike will need to return and stay permanently, but I’d bet his production improves as the summer goes on, and the defensive metrics still like him just fine.
La Stella got a third guaranteed year from the Giants in free agency, but he’s off to a slow start too. Like with Grossman, Statcast suggests a lot of it is BABIP luck that should even out over time, but therein lies the problem — La Stella is already hurt, with a hamstring that’s going for an MRI. And luck isn’t his only problem, as his strikeout rate has climbed from the elite single-digit rate we saw in Oakland up to merely awesome.
More or less taking the places of Grossman and La Stella are Seth Brown on the rookie minimum salary and Jed Lowrie on a minor league contract, respectively. So far it’s going well, but of course there are still five more months to go so don’t get cocky.
There’s one more hitter to check on, Jake Lamb, now of the White Sox.
- Lamb, CHW: 3-for-21 (.143), 7 BB, 8 Ks, no extra-base hits, .351 xwOBA
He hasn’t played full-time, but when he’s gotten the chance he’s walked in one-quarter of his plate appearances and made solid contact when he’s swung — he’s averaging 94.9 mph exit velocity. If the A’s suddenly needed an emergency lefty bat again for some reason, I’d take another flyer on him.
Now for the pitchers. The Kansas City Royals signed Mike Minor to be a starter.
- Minor, KCR: 5.26 ERA, 25⅔ ip, 27 Ks, 10 BB, 6 HR, 5.33 FIP, .363 xwOBA
The A’s rotation has run hot and cold this year, but Minor’s April wouldn’t have raised that baseline. Statcast has him roughly tied with Frankie Montas, and only a few points better than Cole Irvin, far behind Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea and Jesús Luzardo.
Oakland spent much less to retain Mike Fiers, who missed the first month but then returned on Friday looking exactly as serviceable as he always does. And not a moment too soon, as Luzardo just went on the IL indefinitely, opening up a rotation spot for Fiers.
- Fiers, OAK: 1 start, 6 ip, 3 runs, 3 Ks, 2 BB, 2 HR, 6 hits, .401 xwOBA
If you add up all the 2021 salaries of the A’s six starting pitchers, it’s slightly less than the guaranteed money on Minor’s two-year deal with the Royals.
Finally, a couple of relievers. The Arizona D’Backs signed Joakim Soria for one year, and lefty T.J. McFarland ended up in the Washington Nationals system on a minor league deal.
- Soria: pitched one game, went on IL
- McFarland: hasn’t pitched in MLB yet this year
Soria went on the injured list in the first week of the season with a left calf strain, and McFarland is yet to appear in the bigs for the Nats, though he was at their alternate site and now is on their Triple-A roster.
Oakland effectively swapped out Soria for Sergio Romo at a similar price. Romo has at least been healthy but has been knocked around so far. In place of McFarland was the acquisition of Adam Kolarek, who got off to such a rocky start that he already did a quick tour of the alternate site before being called back up.
The A’s did keep one reliever, righty Yusmeiro Petit, on a small one-year pact.
- Petit, OAK: 1.04 ERA, 17⅓ ip, 11 Ks, 3 BB, 1 HR, 3.11 FIP, .252 xwOBA, 3-for-3 holds
What do we take away from all this?
Nobody was clamoring for the A’s to spend money on Grossman, Lamb, Minor, or McFarland, as the A’s had obvious alternatives for each — or in Lamb’s case, the player he was replacing had returned to health. That’s not necessarily a knock on anyone, especially Grossman, who really did seem to take a step forward last year and still looks promising now.
Outside of closer, the bullpen has been a wash, as the players they let go (Soria and McFarland) haven’t contributed yet but their replacements (Romo and Kolarek) have also struggled. All we can say is that keeping Petit for another year is looking like a good choice so far, and regardless of what happens moving forward he at least helped a lot during a winning April.
I was a big proponent of keeping La Stella, but if I’d known that Healthy Jed Lowrie For Free was on the table then of course I would have picked that. I’d still feel that way even if La Stella was healthy and playing well.
As for Semien and Hendriks, what can you say? Of course the 2021 A’s would be a better team if you plugged either of them onto the roster. But the question isn’t talent, it’s value, with the reality of their salaries attached. Would the splurges have been worth it? It’ll take a lot more time to make an even slightly informed opinion on that, but now you know where things stand after the first month of the new six-month season.