One of my first articles I ever wrote for Athletics Nation dot com was a plea for the A's to sign Stephen Drew after the 2014 season. Drew has been awful since then, and the A's front office ended up going in a different direction, embracing the sweet relief of an extended rebuild. This is why I'm just some jerk on the internet and not a GM.
But I remember the case I made – that it was one of those unexciting moves that quietly makes a team better. You always want to fill a roster hole with a star, but there are only so many stars to go around. Sometimes (most of the time?) a pretty good role player suffices.
No one likes to focus on role players. We like our Franklin Barreto for Kevin Kiermaier blockbusters, our ridiculous contracts to bring Yoenis Cespedes home, our Sonny Gray trades. I'm here to tell you that a team is built through these small buy-lows opportunities. I'm also here to tell you to clean your room and eat your vegetables. Let's talk about Matt Joyce.
Matt Joyce is coming off the best offensive season of his career with the Pirates. Luckily for us, 2015 was the worst year of his career, putting him squarely in the A's price range. That makes him one of the obvious candidates for the A's to sign. No, he's not Yoenis Cespedes or Josh Reddick, and it won't appease the people who want the A's to spend $200 million on payroll and bring in a ~*~*~superstar~*~*~. But the A's build their best teams on the backs of the forgotten guys like Matt Joyce, and Joyce is the definition of solid on a team that needs solidity.
First of all, in terms of fit, he's perfect. The A's offense is overwhelmingly right handed, including basically all of the best hitters on the team. The A's have exactly four reliable hitters on the roster: Khris Davis, Ryon Healy, Marcus Semien, and Stephen Vogt. Three of those four are right-handed.
This is not a death sentence – the Blue Jays proved that by getting to the ALCS twice with a solidly right-handed lineup. But balance is always a good thing, and these A's need every advantage they can get. Matt Joyce gives you a middle-of-the-lineup threat against right handed pitching. The Seth Smith era was not that long ago, and you should remember how important that was during the 2012-2013 run.
And, let's be clear, if he repeats his 2016, he would immediately be the best hitter on the team. The .244/.406/.477 line he put up versus RH pitching is insanity, and provides an actual OBP threat to an A's team that somehow became allergic to walks. That line translates to a 141 wRC+ by the way, which is tied with Mookie Betts, several points ahead of Josh Reddick and some guy named Kris Bryant. It's not like this is an abnormal season, either – his career line is .252/.353/.449.
He does two things: he walks and he slugs. He does them extremely well. In the immortal words of General Manager Brad Pitt, he sounds like an A already.
It's almost impossible to find that kind of hitting for cheap on the free agent market, but Matt Joyce will absolutely come cheap. MLB Trade Rumors projects him at two years, $10 million. Even by our standards, that's nothing. If he pulls a Billy Butler and is terrible through the life on the contract? The front office can pull the plug on the Matt Joyce experiment with very little consequence. This would be a Rich Hill deal – no downside, only upside.
I shouldn't have to tell you that the rebuilding A's thrive off of signing short-term vets and trading them midseason. If Joyce is good and the team is not, he can be easily turned into prospects. More expensive, longer-term contracts – like what Josh Reddick will get, for instance – are a tougher sell on the trade market.
And if things go south, you're stuck with that albatross around your neck. For a team like the A's, one bad contract is death. Joyce has no potential of being a bad contract.
There are reasons Matt Joyce comes cheap.
I briefly mentioned his 2015 season, but it's tough to overstate how bad he was. .174/.272/.291 and -1.4 WAR in 284 plate appearances. He wished he was as good as 2015 Billy Butler. Imagine being so bad, you have to look up to Billy Butler. I threw up a bit in my mouth.
He was literally one of the worst players in baseball that year. He redeemed himself in 2016, but that sort of season doesn't just go away. He was straight up bad, and it's incredibly abnormal for a player to put up that sort of season and come back from it. Joyce appears to have done that, but there's always the risk that's simply an illusion.
Even in the best-case scenario, he's a platoon player. He's been platooned pretty much all of his career, even in his prime. Only 14% of his career plate appearances have come versus lefties, and only 42 of his 293 PAs came versus lefties last year. He straight up doesn't hit lefties, and he'd need to have a platoon partner. There are some obvious candidates (Brett Eibner and Jake Smolinski come to mind), but that wastes a roster spot.
I've spent a lot of time talking about Joyce's bat – there's a reason for that. Joyce is a pure DH, and no longer really capable of playing the field. He can fake it in the corner outfield, but the team absolutely should not rely on that. With such a strong need for defense on this team already, Joyce only makes that issue worse.
So, he's a platoon DH – not a useless player, but you're relying on him to hit. Recent history suggests that he absolutely has the capability to not hit. He'll be going into his age 33 season, so you're looking for, at best, a soft decline from his 2016 stats. That's a tough sell.
Sure, why not?
After all that, the A's still need left-handed hitters. Joyce is likely one of the best on the market, if not the best. He has a long history of smashing right-handed pitching. So what if he's a DH? He'll be paid accordingly, and it's not like the position is filled.
He would be such a minor risk and the upside is so good, it's tough to come up with a compelling argument that the money could be better spent elsewhere. When you look at the alternatives (Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick most notably), they've all got the same baggage: age, platoon issues, declining defense.
Why not go for the guy who is both the cheapest and the best?