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The Missing Part of the Rebuild

The A’s lack of free agent signings leave them with fewer players to move at the trade deadline.

Detroit Tigers v Oakland Athletics
High fives for getting traded!

Our 2022 Oakland Athletics took unprecedented actions by completely giving up on the season and pushing their payroll to ridiculously low levels. Current estimates have the A’s at about a $48 million payroll, good for second lowest in the league. On its face, a super low payroll during a rebuilding year seems excusable. However, while tanking for a high draft pick might sound OK, tanking isn’t mutually exclusive with another option: Signing free agents to move at the trade deadline, which is now only a few days away on August 2nd.

Fundamentally, new player-value can enter your organization or four ways: The draft, spending money on free agents, developing the players you currently have above their expectations or trading for more value than you gave up. Most of those things are pretty hard. Consistently swindling trade partners, for example, is not something that can be counted on. Molding players into more than is commonly expect of them is also hard. But one thing is pretty easy, if you have the resources: writing checks.

One thing to clarify here, before we go further, is that when I use the term ‘player-value’ I am referring to the amount of expected wins these players represent while under team control, not some measure of talent or the players themselves. Another important distinction is that this is different from excess value, which is total value minus a player’s salary or expected salary. Though teams and sights like Baseball Trade Values track excess value, excess value doesn’t win games, total value does.

While player-value is getting added to the roster in the ways above, player-value is also being consumed. The easiest of these consumption forces to think of is the simple passage of time. Your players play games and future value is eliminated simply because time happened and team control got shorter. However, injuries and declining skills can also sap your team of player-value – think AJ Puk or Stephen Piscotty.

Putting these two together allow for understanding how total organizational player-value can change over time. Though maybe obvious, it is worth stating: If your rate of adding new player-value is greater than your rate of consuming player-value, then your total organizational player-value goes up. It is similar to the relationship between income and wealth. You get your paycheck and often a high fraction of that simply goes to paying for things you consume: Food, power, housing, transportation, etc. While it is nice to keep the lights on and eat, it is better to also have some left over to also accumulate wealth. By dropping their payroll, the A’s have done what amounts to reducing their income – they have reduced the opportunity to add player-value to their organization.

The drop in newly acquired player-value is especially large this year. If we assume the A’s would have maintained their approximate $90M payroll, then they are giving up about $40M of player-value. Not all of this would have translated to prospects, of course, as some of this $40M in player-value gets consumed before it is converted into longer term assets. Some of these players may get hurt or underperform, as well, further dropping any conversion of free agent signings into long-term player-value. If you trust the player evaluations by the A’s front office, then hopefully the injury plus underperformance risk balances out with increases in value due to over-performance. If that’s the case, and trades take place, on average half way through the year, then this could theoretically leave the A’s with $20M in total player-value to work with for trades.

Utilizing this player-value of approximately $20M then depends greatly on how well the players are preforming and the willingness of the A’s to cover the remaining salary. For example, it is possible that some players are doing well, and others have not performed well. The A’s could choose to eat the remaining salary of the players not doing well and keep them on the roster, but then trade the excess value of the players doing well for longer-term prospects. The A’s could then multiply their conversion of short term player-value to longer-term value, if they covered the re remaining salary of the short term assets. This essentially becomes a way to buy prospects using today’s player payroll - the reverse of what we say the A’s do last year with the Luzardo-Marte trade or to an extent to the Davis-Andrus trade that include Heim.

This is a model of signing free agents to flip if things don’t work out, is one the A’s have relied during previous rebuilding/retooling years. One of the most notable recent examples is Rich Hill. Hill was acquired as free agent for $6M ahead of the doomed 2016 season. In 2015, Hill made four impressive starts in his attempt to return to MLB and was a notable bounce-back candidate for anyone willing to take a risk the the soon to be 36-year-old. The A’s took that risk and were paid off handsomely with both a great performance while with the A’s (76 IP, 2.25 ERA, 2.54 FIP) and a hefty prospect return when he was packaged with Josh Reddick and sent to the Dodgers for Fankie Montas, Jharel Cotton and Grant Holmes.

These trades can also involve players signed to multi-year deals. For example, the A’s signed Ryan Madson ahead of the same 2016 season to a three-year, $22 million deal. In 2016, Madson had a disappointing season, but after a great start on the poor-performing A’s in 2017, he was dealt with Sean Doolittle to the Nationals for Jesus Luzardo, Sheldon Neuse and Blake Treinen. To complete the talent cycle, the A’s later used Luzardo to acquire Starling Marte in the trade mentioned above. These two free agent signings in 2016 helped lead to players that made critical contributions to the A’s 2018-2021 competitive window.

The 2022 Oakland A’s have regrettably made the choice to not take on some additional contracts, and the risk that comes with them, to attempt to feed those contracts forward into longer-term assets – as they clearly did with the Hill and Madson examples. This choice was not doubt made because of the cost. This strategy is essentially a way to pay now for talent later. But with the finances presumably bad now, and hopefully improving in the future, they may be making the business choice to wait and pay for talent later, later instead of now — much like an individual may chose to pay off their college loans once they get a higher paying job and continue to differ them now while they are poor.

Whether this cost-savings approach is essential or not, it will hurt the Oakland A’s of the future. But another consequence has been that it has hurt the watchability of the team now. With the right $40M in spending, the A’s could have a team with enough upside potential to sneak into one of the now six playoff spots, or at very least not gone 5-21 in June. Thankfully the team has turned it around so far in July, but remain hopelessly far away from a wildcard birth, even with the expanded playoffs.

How far could this missing 40 million dollars go? Well, a long way! Early in the season, when I was first drafting this article, the names I put together where: starting pitchers Andrew Heaney and Corey Kluber, the OF/DH combo of Brad Miller and Joc Peterson, and a trio of relievers Adam Ottavino, David Robertson and Archie Bradley, all for a sum that is just south of $40M in salary obligations for 2022. At the time, these additions would have added some 7-8 projected wins to the 2022 Oakland Athletics. It might not be the team anyone wanted, but it would be a team that looks like its trying.

And how have those picks turned out? Andrew Heaney is hurt and has made only three starts all season. On the flip side, Corey Kluber is has a 3.91 ERA in 19 starts and 99 innings with the Rays. Brad Miller has been bad and is now hurt, but Joc Peterson has been serviceable for the Giants with a 128 wRC+. Adam Ottavino and David Robertson have been dominating as relievers posting 2.35/3.35 (ERA/FIP) and 1.83/3.25, respectively. Archie Bradley, on the other hand, is hurt himself in early July after a relatively poor start to the season (4.82 ERA, 3.33 FIP).

Cumulatively, these players have created about four WAR and certainly four more wins isn’t pushing the A’s in to contention. However, the four well preforming players, Kluber, Peterson, Ottavino and Robertson, collectively have 12.5 wins of future value as measured by Adding in the salaries brings excess value down to something near zero, but that can be made up for by covering the contracts. The players are ultimately only important because they provide some entertainment value up front to A’s fans before the trade — maybe attendance wouldn’t have been so bleak if the perception was the A’s were trying — and because they are assets a team trying to win needs more than cash.

These players in combination with covering their contracts wouldn’t bring back any top prospects, but they could be useful pieces. Max Muncy has a trade value of 7.6 on BTV or Kevin Smith’s estimate comes in at 4.9. Given the state of the A’s minor league system, wouldn’t A’s fan like to have one or two more of those types floating around in the minors, waiting for the next competitive window? I know I would, but I guess John Fisher would rather have $40M in the bank, only a few thousand butts in seats on an average night and a laughing stock of a team on the field for a year, or more. Which direction is ‘right’, I don’t know, but I am assuming it won’t change at least until the a stadium deal is agreed upon, or even until the stadium is built.