Aside from revamping a terrible bullpen, the A's avoided making any big splashes this winter as the team stuck to trying to improve on the margins.
With less than five weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Oakland Athletics.
68–94 (.420), fifth place in American League West (Hot Stove Preview)
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
The A’s were better than they looked in 2015. Though they spent most of the final five months of the season in last place in the AL West and had a miserable September by every measure, on Aug. 31, Oakland boasted a .540 third-order winning percentage and a positive run differential. Typically, a team falls short of its advanced records because of a tendency to win big and lose small. That often points to a shoddy bullpen that is unable to hold small leads or keep the opposition from adding to an early lead. Indeed, the A’s had the worst bullpen ERA in the AL in 2015, posting a 4.63 mark that was significantly worse than that of the runner-up Tigers (4.38) and was third worst in the majors behind only the rebuilding Braves (4.69) and park-challenged Rockies (4.70). Correct for Oakland's pitching-friendly ballpark, and that relief ERA looks even worse.
None of this escaped the notice of Billy Beane, now the team's executive vice president of baseball operations, or new general manager David Forst. Indeed, Oakland's primary focus this off-season was rebuilding its bullpen. Having closer Sean Doolittle healthy will make a big difference in and of itself, but the A’s went well beyond that, signing free-agent righties Ryan Madson (three years, $22 million) and John Axford (two years, $10 million) and trading converted reliever Jesse Chavez to the Blue Jays for converted starter Liam Hendriks (who had a breakout season in Toronto's bullpen last year). The A's also took a flier on veteran lefty Rich Hill, who made four dominant starts for the Red Sox down the stretch, with a one-year, $6 million deal, and added situational lefty Marc Rzepczynski and minor-league righty J.B. Wendelken via larger trades.
Oakland also did away with last year's disappointing relief corps, trading righty Evan Scribner (4.35 ERA in 54 games in 2015) to the Mariners and letting lefty Fernando Abad (4.15 ERA in 62 games), righties Dan Otero (6.75 ERA in 41 games), Edward Mujica (4.81 ERA in 38 games) and Arnold Leon (4.39 ERA in 19 games) and switch-pitcher Pat Venditte (4.40 ERA in 26 games) leave via waivers or free agency. Not mentioned in that group was lefty Drew Pomeranz, who posted a 2.61 ERA in 44 relief outings last year but was shipped to San Diego in the deal that netted Rzepczynski (5.66 ERA in 72 games for Cleveland and San Diego last year).
That deal was larger than Pomeranz for Rzepczynski, of course; the primary return for the A's in that trade was first baseman Yonder Alonso. The 28-year-old Alonso, who has two team-controlled seasons remaining, is set to replace the non-tendered Ike Davis as the lefthanded foil to Mark Canha at first base in Oakland. A strong fielder with on-base skills coming off a rebound season, Alonso should be an upgrade over Davis, but Canha will have to supply all of the power in that pairing; Alonso slugged just .386 in four years with the Padres and fell short of that figure in 2015, and in his major league career, he has never reached double digits in home runs in a season.
Elsewhere in the infield, the A’s brought back Jed Lowrie from the Astros in exchange for undersized 24-year-old–minor-league closer Brendan McCurry and shipped Brett Lawrie to the White Sox. That deal netted Wendelken, who impressed in relief in Double A last year, and lefty Zack Erwin, Chicago’s fourth-round pick in the 2015 draft. Replacing Lawrie (whose name has a long “o” sound) with Lowrie (whose name has a short “a” sound), however, makes the A’s six years older and more than $3 million more expensive at one infield spot and adds just one extra year of team control (Lowrie’s $6 million club option for his age-34 season in 2018). Lowrie does give Oakland increased flexibility thanks to his ability to play shortstop, but he is a sub-par defender at that position. That pair of moves seems to be entirely about the young pitchers involved, as both Wendelken and Erwin are younger than McCurry and both could be at least as good.
Finally, the A’s took a $4.25 million gamble on Henderson Alvarez, who was non-tendered by the Marlins in December after having surgery to repair the labrum in his pitching shoulder in late July. Alvarez will likely open up the season on the disabled list, but he won’t turn 26 until April and will remain under team control at arbitration prices in 2017. A pitch-to-contract ground-baller, he has a no-hitter, an All-Star appearance and some down-ballot Cy Young votes under his belt and $1.6 million in games-started incentives in his contract. Ultimately, how Alvarez and two-time Tommy John surgery recipient Jarrod Parker rebound from injury could have as much to do with how the A’s fare in the coming year as any of the other moves they made this off-season.
Unfinished Business: Cashing in Josh Reddick and/or propping up leftfield
Given the fact that the A's have traded almost every established veteran not tied down by a bad contract (aside from Coco Crisp) in the last two years, it's surprising that they have thus far held on to Reddick, who is entering his walk year, will turn 29 in February and is coming off the second-best season of his career. Perhaps Oakland is more optimistic about its chances in the coming season than it likely should be. If that’s true, however, why haven’t the A's moved to upgrade leftfield? The in-house candidates there include Crisp, Sam Fuld, Jake Smolinski and waiver claim Andrew Lambo, the first three of whom combined to hit .197/.272/.310 in 582 plate appearances for the A’s last year and all of whom were below the Mendoza line in 2015.
Preliminary Grade: B-
The A’s were smart to target their bullpen this off-season, but their other moves seem like little more than treading water, which is all that Oakland is likely to do in 2016.