Winter Report Card: Oakland Athletics
With little more than two weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
2014 Results: 88-74 (.543), second place in AL West, won second AL wild-card, lost Wild-Card Game (Hot Stove Preview)
Key Departures: 1B Daric Barton, 1B/OF Kyle Blanks, IF Alberto Callaspo, 3B Josh Donaldson, DH Adam Dunn, OF Jonny Gomes, RHP Luke Gregerson, RHP Jason Hammel, C/DH John Jaso, LHP Jon Lester, SS Jed Lowrie, 1B/OF Brandon Moss, C Derek Norris, IF Nick Punto, RHP Jeff Samardzija, C Geovany Soto
What's Billy Beane up to? That question has hung in the air not just since the offseason began, but also since last July 5, when Oakland's general manager augmented a team that had the best record in baseball by trading top prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney to the Cubs for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Despite Beane's continued tinkering — which included trading Yoenis Cespedes to Boston on July 31 in a deal that netted Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes — the A's fell into an extended slump, and while they reached the playoffs for the third straight season, they frittered away their AL West lead and wound up as the visiting team in the Wild-Card Game, which they lost to the Royals. Since then, Beane has more thoroughly dismantled his roster, trading Samardzija and fellow 2014 All-Stars Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Derek Norris while watching Lester, Hammel, Gomes, Jed Lowrie and others depart as free agents.
But even while the baseball world — and Oakland players such as Josh Reddick — assumed that the team had entered a rebuilding mode, Beane gave off contradictory signals. He signed Billy Butler to a three-year, $30 million deal and then traded more prospects to acquire Ben Zobrist from the Rays. Both players are former All-Stars, and while the moves assuaged Reddick, others may not be convinced. If nothing else, the flurry of activity is a reminder that during the winter, nearly every team is a work in progress, and seemingly definitive moves may not actually define a team's direction. To some, this particular sequence is reminiscent of the winter of 2011-12, when Beane shook up a 74-win club by trading All-Star reliever Andrew Bailey and starting pitchers Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, a sequence that brought in Reddick, Norris and pitchers Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook, all of whom have since helped the A's to their unexpected postseason berths.
Beane's most shocking move this winter by far was the Nov. 28 trade sending Donaldson to the Blue Jays in exchange for Lawrie and three prospects: pitchers Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin and infielder Franklin Barreto. The 29-year-old Donaldson had been not only Oakland's best player over the past two seasons, but also one of the best in baseball, ranking second in the league in WAR in both years; he was worth 7.3 WAR in 2014, hitting .255/.342/.456 with 29 homers and providing glovework at third base that was 20 runs above average, according to Defensive Runs Saved.
Beane cashed in Donaldson's remaining four years of club control (he's a Super Two this winter) to acquire Lawrie, who hit just .247/.301/.421 with 12 homers in 70 games last season. Lawrie has only two years of club control remaining after this one, but one key to the deal is his age (25) and untapped potential. Due to a string of injuries, he's never played more than 125 games in a season, and he appeared in just 177 over the past two. Thanks to his pop and defensive prowess, he's been worth 5.4 WAR per 162 games; if he can stay on the field, he's got All-Star potential.
Beane hedged this audacious bet with his additional haul. Graveman is a 24-year-old righthander who posted a 2.13 ERA in 16 starts across three levels and then made five relief appearances for Toronto. Nolin is a 25-year-old lefty who put up a 3.52 ERA in 17 starts at Triple A Buffalo. Both are candidates to spend time this year at the back of the Athletics' revamped rotation.
The real key to the deal, however, is what eventually becomes of the going-on-19-year-old Barreto, a shortstop who hit .311/.384/.481 in 73 games at Low A Vancouver. He's cracked the lower reaches of the major prospect lists this winter, though like Russell and Daniel Robertson (who was part of the Zobrist trade), he may wind up as fodder for a future trade.
Lawrie's arrival at the hot corner was only the beginning of the infield's complete overhaul. At shortstop, replacing the departed Jed Lowrie (who slumped to .249/.321/.355 and -10 DRS) is Marcus Semien, a 24-year-old former sixth-round pick who headlined the return from the White Sox for Samardzija. Semien split 2014 between Triple A Charlotte (.267/.380/.502 with 15 homers in 83 games) and Chicago (.234/.300/.372 with six homers in 64 games). There are question marks regarding both his arm and his power, making him more of a utility type than a starting shortstop. Then again, his predecessor (who signed a three-year, $23 million deal with Houston) was more suited to that role as well.
At second base will be Zobrist, a massive upgrade on the miserable offense (.233/.297/.282) provided by holdover Eric Sogard and the departed Alberto Callaspo and Nick Punto. The 33-year-old Zobrist hit .272/.354/.395 with 10 homers en route to a 116 OPS+ and was worth 4.9 WAR, below his average of 6.5 for the previous five seasons but still All-Star caliber. Along with the since-flipped Yunel Escobar, Zobrist was acquired in exchange for the 20-year-old Robertson, a 2012 supplemental first-round pick who spent last year at High A; 22-year-old Boog Powell, who split last year at two A-ball stops; and Jaso, who hit .264/.337/.430 for a 117 OPS+ but didn't play after Aug. 23 due to post-concussion syndrome. Zobrist will make $7.5 million in his final year before free agency.
At the moment, the primary first baseman is Ike Davis, whose career has been in a perpetual tailspin since a 2011 left ankle injury cut short his sophomore season, his 32 homers the following year notwithstanding. The going-on-28-year-old Davis has been worth a combined 1.0 WAR over the past three seasons, including -0.3 in 2014, which he split between the Mets and Pirates while batting .233/.344/.378 with 11 homers in 397 PA en route to a 105 OPS+. Unplayable against lefties (.196/.261/.316 in 475 career PA), he'll require a platoon partner. In theory, that could be the 28-year-old Butler, whose three-year deal is a head-scratcher in light of his decline; he hit just .271/.323/.379 with nine homers for Kansas City last season. His 95 OPS+ was down from 116 in 2013 and 136 in '12. Butler doesn't exactly have glove skills, either, having averaged -7 DRS per 1,200 innings at first base during his career, so it makes more sense to use him primarily as the DH.
Other options to complement Davis include Nate Freiman (.218/.269/.448 in 93 PA in 2014), Stephen Vogt (on the days he's not catching) or Rule 5 pick Mark Canha. A soon-to-be-26-year-old plucked from the Marlins' system by the Rockies, then flipped to the A's, Canha is a former seventh-round pick who hit .303/.384/.505 with 20 homers at Triple A New Orleans. He's got enough power and plate discipline to stick, and he could follow the pick-and-flip route to the majors that Freiman did two years ago.
Replacing the production of the traded Brandon Moss (.234/.334/.438 with 25 homers and a 119 OPS+ despite an injury-related second-half slump) won't be easy, but it's worth pointing out that he played just 60 games at first, and that the combined production of the team's players at that spot — Moss, Freiman, Vogt and the since-departed Daric Barton, Kyle Blanks and Callaspo — amounted to a .230/.303/.381 line with 22 homers, a 95 OPS+ and one DRS. Moss was traded to the Indians for 24-year-old Double A second baseman Joe Wendle, a sixth-round pick in 2012 who hit .253/.311/.414 in 87 games and missed nearly two months due to a broken hamate bone. Barton, who was endlessly yo-yoed between Triple A and the majors during his Oakland tenure, made just 64 PA with the A's last year. He signed with the Blue Jays, while Blanks, who made just 56 PA for Oakland, landed with the Rangers.
The catching corps will have a new look as well. Vogt, who hit .279/.321/.431 but made just eight starts behind the plate while seeing more time at first base and rightfield, is the lone holdover. He'll share the job — in what proportion, who knows — with Josh Phegley, a 26-year-old former supplemental first-round pick acquired in the Samardzija trade. Phegley's career has been slowed by health woes, including a rare blood disorder (Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura) that required the removal of his spleen before the 2012 season. After hitting .206/.223/.299 with four home runs (three of which came in his first five games) in 213 PA for the White Sox in 2013, he spent just 11 games in the majors in 2014 but hit .274/.331/.530 with 23 homers at Triple A. His plate discipline may be a question mark, but his power and defense are legitimate. The latter is no small concern on a team that threw out just 22 percent of would-be base thieves and was around eight runs in the red in pitch framing.
Soto, who accounted for nine of the A's 28 kills while catching just 14 games, signed a minor-league deal with the White Sox. Norris (who hit a robust .270/.361/.403 with 10 homers and a 118 OPS+) was traded to the Padres along with High A righty starter Seith Streith in exchange for pitchers R.J. Alvarez and Jesse Hahn in mid-December.
The 23-year-old Alvarez, a 2012 third-round pick by the Angels who went to San Diego in the Huston Street trade last July, is a reliever who rode his fastball/slider combo to 12.7 whiffs per nine with a microscopic 1.25 ERA in two Double A stops before making 10 appearances with the Padres. There are concerns about his command, but he could eventually wind up as a late-game reliever. The 25-year-old Hahn, originally drafted by the A's, posted a 3.07 ERA with 8.6 strikeouts per nine in 73 1/3 innings as a rookie, primarily as a starter. He'll likely begin the year among Oakland's starting five, though his long-term survival in that capacity depends upon honing what's currently an inconsistent changeup to complement his low-90s sinking fastball and curve.
Speaking of the rotation, gone are Samardzija (16 starts with a 3.21 ERA), Hammel (12 starts with a 4.26 ERA) and Lester (11 starts with a 2.35 ERA) — the last two signed with the Cubs in December. That leaves Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, Drew Pomeranz and Hahn as one of many possible configurations of the front five, with Graveman, Nolin and Chris Bassit also in the mix. Bassit, yet another piece of the Samardzija deal, is a former 2011 draft pick who will turn 26 later this month. Despite missing most of the first four months of 2014 due to a broken right (pitching) hand, he posted a 1.97 ERA with 8.0 strikeouts per nine in 14 starts at Double A in 2013-14, with five starts and one relief appearance for the White Sox last year, and nothing in between, so he could use more seasoning. He can pump his fastball to 94 mph, but some feel his lack of command earmarks him for the bullpen. Whatever rotation the A's start the year with isn't going to be etched in stone, as both Parker and A.J. Griffin are due back from spring 2014 Tommy John surgeries at some point.
Inevitably, some of those pitchers will wind up in the bullpen, where closer Sean Doolittle will miss the start of the season with a recently diagnosed slight tear in his rotator cuff as well as shoulder inflammation. With the departure of Luke Gregerson for a three-year, $18.5 million deal with the Astros, the most likely candidate to pick up the slack is Tyler Clippard, who saved 32 games for the Nationals in 2012 but has pitched primarily in a setup capacity for most of the past six seasons. Last year, he earned All-Star honors, whiffing 10.5 per nine and posting a 2.18 ERA in 70 1/3 innings. A pending free agent who will likely be Oakland's third highest-paid player with a salary of either $7.775 million or $8.85 million based upon the recent exchange of arbitration figures, Clippard should fare better than Beane's last expensive reliever gambit: Jim Johnson. Acquired from the Orioles before last season, Johnson saved only two games before being released.
Unfinished Business: Leftfield, catcher
If you squint, you can start to see the logic underlying Beane's wheeling and dealing. He has stockpiled club-controlled players and deserves some benefit of the doubt concerning whether or not unproven commodities like Phegley, Semien and some of those pitchers will pan out, just as Donaldson, Moss and others did before them. If that's the case, one area still cries out for an upgrade: leftfield. The departures of Cespedes, Gomes and Moss have left Oakland with only two players who made more than one start at that spot for the team: lefty-hitting Sam Fuld and righty-swinging Craig Gentry.
The 33-year-old Fuld is a defensive whiz, but he hit just .239/.321/.342 for an 88 OPS+ in 414 PA last year. His 82 career OPS+ is unacceptable even for a platoon option at a position where offensive concerns outweigh defensive ones. What's more, the 31-year-old Gentry slumped to .254/.319/.289 for a 75 OPS+ in 258 PA. Once upon a time, he was renowned for his value against lefties, but his career mark of .282/.364/.376 in 520 PA against them isn't enough to make up for Fuld's shortcomings if the two were paired in a defense-minded platoon. Plus, Gentry will also be needed to complement oft-injured centerfielder Coco Crisp, who played in just 126 games last year due to neck woes and has averaged 128 per year over the last four seasons.
The righty-swinging Canha could fit into the picture, as he has 83 career minor league games in leftfield, but it would make sense for Beane to scare up an additional option or two. Vogt, who has played 20 games in the outfield (mostly in right) could work as well, but in that case Beane would need to find another catcher, and the pickings are getting mighty slim as the spring training report date approaches.
Preliminary grade: C+
With three straight postseason appearances on shoestring budgets, Beane has crafted The Revenge of Moneyball just as his critics started to bury him, so he deserves a bit of slack. Even so, this is a very motley crew he's assembled for 2015, and between cleaning out his farm system yet again and tying up scarce cash in Butler, he's running a big risk that that playoff streak will come to an end.