This is a project where 30 people got together to act as the GMs of the 30 MLB teams with the idea of conducting the offseason in one week. This is what happened in this simulation, not a prediction of what will happen in real life.
By Scott Ferguson
This is now my third year overseeing the Athletics and it’s always an interesting challenge to take on. Everyone knows the history, the book and the movie starring Brad Pitt, so that will be left out of this particle piece of writing. However, for anyone not paying attention, the state of perpetual change that the Athletics organization exists in makes being its short term general manager a unique experience.
The key to the Athletics in the Billy Beane era has always been a strong core of young, cheap players. In the last few years, the Athletics have traded off players that could have filled that core as they got closer to earning significant raises in arbitration. Some of these trades have worked (Jeff Samardzija), others are hard to determine at this time (Brandon Moss for Joey Wendle, the Josh Donaldson trade) and others appear to be failures (trading Yoenis Cespedes for a rental of Jon Lester).
Saying all of that, when I looked at the Athletics 40 man roster at the end of the 2016 season, I saw the first steps towards the return of a competitive roster in the near future.
The objectives for the Athletics were fairly simple:
- Do not trade from the core of young, inexpensive players unless blown away by the offer
- Maintain the farm system, or strengthen it if possible
- Add some veteran bats and a veteran arm to surround the young players on the major league roster and support the prospects that are close to major league ready
The start of the offseason always involves tendering contracts to arbitration eligible players. Most of the Athletics choices were easy: Khris Davis, Sonny Gray, Stephen Vogt and Liam Hendricks were all players that were either core parts of the team or productive, inexpensive players. The two that had to be considered were Yonder Alonso and Danny Valencia. Alonso ended up not being tendered a contract. Alonso was just not productive enough at a corner infield position for this particular team, especially with Ryon Healy (currently the major league third baseman, but had played first base in the minor leagues as well), Renato Nunez (third baseman converted to first baseman for a higher rated prospect) and Matt Olsen (originally a first baseman converted to a right field to support the organization) all on the 40 man roster. In the real world, the Athletics are reportedly considering not tendering Valencia a contract. This is an alarming fact, as Valencia is the ideal Athletics hitter (plays multiple positions, right handed power, low salary considering his skillset). In the end, Valencia was too good of a trade chip, so he was tendered a contract.
Trade talks then began. The first trade orchestrated by the Athletics was a fairly simple one:
The Athletics traded Ryan Madson to the Yankees for Brett Gardner.
Prior to the 2016 season, the Athletics surprised many by signing Madson, a player who had made a successful come back with the Royals in 2015 after spending most of the previous three years recovering from Tommy John surgery. It made sense at the time as the Athletics were uncertain of Sean Doolittle’s recovery and not willing to put the job of closer in the hands of young pitchers like Ryan Dull and Liam Hendricks. Madson was good, not great in 2016, posting a FIP slightly over 4 and his lowest SO/9 ratio in nearly 10 years. At age 36, it was a concern that the Madson of 2016 could be the best the Athletics saw of the pitcher.
The Yankees had made a few big moves already, and the Athletics saw an opportunity to move Madson and bring back a much needed outfielder. Madson was offered for Gardner and the deal was struck and completed quickly.
Gardner’s contract is bigger than Madson, but he has a buyout in it for after the 2018 season. He’s younger than Madson, can still play centerfield (a dire need for this club) and fits in well as the Athletics new leadoff hitter. Although his power numbers were down in 2016, he posted his highest full season OBP since 2010 and his lowest strike out rate since then. Although he only stole 16 bases, he did so in only 20 chances and should see those chances increase for an Athletics team that will be looking to manufacture more runs than the Yankee’s do.
After acquiring Gardner, the Athletics worked hard to move Valencia, and had multiple options to do so, eventually settling on a trade with the Marlins:
The Athletics traded Danny Valencia to the Marlins for Wei-Yin Chen.
The issues with Valencia have already been discussed. His attitude problems and lack of a defined position made it difficult to maintain the player and progress the roster forward. The Marlins were interested in unloading Chen and he made sense from a roster standpoint. The Athletics had literally no veteran arms in the starting rotation. The Athletics rotation looks to be good moving forward, but adding Chen provides an established arm to buoy the team’s young starters. Chen’s contract is a little crazy and he had a down year in 2016, but we’re talking about a pitcher who posted a 3.8 WAR in 2015 and, despite a poor ERA and FIP in 2016, posted his highest career SO/9 and SO/W ratios. His contract seems massive, but after the 2016 season has to opt in to the next three years of his deal all at once. If Chen has a nice bounce back season, he could very easily opt out and get a longer term deal as he will only be 31. If not, his 2017 salary will only be 10 million dollars and the Athletics will have to deal with the 42 million coming after that, if he’s not successful. It felt like a solid risk to take, as it makes the rotation that much stronger this year.
A smaller deal then happened with the Pirates:
The Athletics traded John Axford to the Pirates for Antonio Bastardo.
This deal occurred as a follow up to the Madson trade and ancillary result of the Valencia trade. One of the teams in discussions for Valencia were the Orioles, and a deal surrounding Darren O’Day was discussed. However, the terms of that deal couldn’t be agreed upon, so when Valencia was dealt, knowing Doolittle would take over as the teams closer, another left handed reliever was deemed necessary. Axford has been an average relief pitcher since having a tremendous year as Milwaukee’s closer in 2011. Bastardo, on the other hand, outside of his atrocious run with the Mets in 2016, has been a better than average bullpen arm since 2013. Bastardo will play most of 2016 as a 30 year old (turns 31 in September) and is in a contract year. It seems pretty certain that he will outperform Axford this year, and replace Doolittle’s 2016 role in the bullpen.
The Athletics made two more trades, but these were more along the lines of strengthen the talent depth on the team than necessarily improving the 2016 roster. Both were three way deals involving the Rockies.
The Athletics traded Jesse Hahn to the Orioles, the Orioles traded Darren O’Day to the Rockies, the Rockies traded Jordan Patterson to the Athletics.
This came out of the O’Day discussions, but by the time it was proposed, the Athletics were in a bit of a cap crunch with free agent discussions still going on. Around this time, the Rockies reached out about pitching help, in the bullpen or in the rotation. When O’Day’s name was mentioned, they became interested and a prospect was quickly agreed upon. Soon after, the deal was finalized.
Hahn, although talented, had become a bit superfluous due to his inability to stay healthy and a number of other young arms surpassing him on the depth chart. Patterson is the Rockies 18th ranked prospect according to MLB.com and hit .444 during September call up’s in 2016. Patterson still needs to learn the strike zone a little better, but if he does, he has strong right field tools, with a strong arm (threw 90 mph as relief pitcher in college) and the potential to be a .270 hitter with 20 home run power. In essence, he could be the next Josh Reddick, which is a nice get for an injury plagued starting pitcher who is now probably 8th on the depth chart.
The other three team deal was actually extended over a few days, with the Brewers agreeing to their portion earlier and the Rockies agreeing to their portion later.
The Athletics traded Stephen Vogt to the Brewers, the Brewers traded Hernan Perez and Martin Maldonado to the Rockies, the Rockies trade Tom Murphy and Cristhian Adames to the Athletics.
Vogt has been a key member of the Athletics for several years and is just getting into decent salary numbers. He has been an all-star catcher for the last two seasons, but with the success of rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell in 2016 (posted a 0.5 WAR in just 33 games in July, August and September) and the return of veteran catcher Josh Phegley, Vogt was going to be pushed into a role as a hybrid catcher, first baseman and designated hitter. With the opportunity to get younger and still have a left handed hitting catcher (a rarity in the big leagues) to lead the way in 2016, this was a tough deal to make, but a necessary one for the future.
Murphy is both the 10th ranked catching prospect in the major leagues and the 10th ranked prospect in the Rockies system. His biggest tool is his power, which has been on display the last two years. In 88 big league plate appearances over the course of two September call up’s, Murphy has slugged 8 home runs and posted a 0.8 WAR. He also has a plus arm behind the play, throwing out 40% of the runners attempting to steal against him in 12 games as a catcher in 2016. He still has some cleaning up to do as a catcher behind the plate, but the Athletics system showed success in helping Bruce Maxwell learn back there and the hope is that Murphy and Maxwell, as soon as 2017 most likely, will be a dynamic duo behind the plate, with both logging some at bat’s as designated hitters. Adames is the lesser of the two players, but he’s a slick fielding switch hitter who is pre-arbitration and could be a solid bench contributor akin to newly departed Eric Sogard. To get both of these players for Vogt made sense, especially considering the Athletics current catching situation.
Free agency then began and the Athletics made a multitude of small moves:
Free Agent Signings:
Kendrys Morales for 6 million
Logan Morrison for 4 million
Zach McAllister for 2 million
Norichika Aoki for 1.5 million
Nathan Eovaldi for 1.0 million
Eduardo Escobar for 850,000
Aaron Hicks for 600,000
None of these are big ticket items, but they all check various boxes on the roster and in the monetary dynamic of the Athletics. McAllister, Eovaldi, Escobar and Hicks were all players non-tendered by their perspective teams. They are all still arbitration eligible after 2017 and are easily jettisoned if they don’t perform this year.
McAllister was a no-brainer signing to buoy the bullpen. McAllister was excellent when transitioned to the bullpen fully in 2015. McAllister struggled at the start of 2016, but recovered nicely in August and September, posting a 1.44 ERA in that span with 25 strikeouts in 25 innings. Escobar has been a solid middle infielder for the Twins for the last three years, with a hiccup in 2016. He’s going to be asked to help out at 2B, SS and 3B in 2017, and possibly an occasional run in left field if needed. Eovaldi has too big of an arm to ignore and showed promise in the bullpen in eight appearances for the Yankees in 2016. If he can reign in his talent, he’s an awesome back end of the rotation starter, and if not, he’ll transition to the bullpen where that high 90’s fastball can be unleashed in short bursts. Hicks has a ton of talent and will be asked to play all three outfield positions in 2017. The hope is that Hicks can find his way (as he seemed to towards the end of 2016 with the Yankees) and potentially be the team’s future centerfielder, which is a nice return on a $600,000 investment.
Aoki and Morrison are one year signings, with the hope that young players like Olsen, Patterson or Nunez can take control of those positions. Aoki follows in the Gardner lead of trying to help this run starved offense from 2017 find other ways to score. He is still a quality outfielder and will start games against right handers in 2017. Morrison won’t be Alonso defensively, but he won’t hurt the team defensively at first base and offers more offensively than Alonzo. Both Aoki and Morrison offer left handed bats that are necessary to help balance out the lineup and won’t be expected to play against left handers.
Morales is the bigger prize. Morales has, in essence, been a bat for hire over the last four years. In Kansas City, playing on three different teams in that span after spending the first 8 years of his career with the Angels. Morales is a designated hitter only, but will be asked to play a few games at first in 2017. He has been very good as a DH over the last two years, slugging 52 home runs and knocking in 199 runs for the Royals in that span. This contract is probably pretty close to what Morales might get in 2017, considering his age and lack of a defensive position, but it probably would have been a two year deal with either a team or player option for the second one. Morales has no reason to lock in now, as he can make the rounds of the American League as a switch hitter with 20 to 30 home run power and the ability to knock in runs.
After all the moves, this is the Athletics 25 man roster:
Raul Alcantra – $510,00
Antonio Bastardo – $6.625 million
Wei-Yin Chen – 15.5 million
Daniel Coulombe – $510,000
Sean Doolittle – $2.63 million
Ryan Dull – $520,000
Nathan Eovaldi – $1 million
Kendall Graveman – $530,000
Sonny Gray – $3.7 million
Liam Hendricks – $1 million
Sean Manaea – $510,000
Zach McAllister – $2 million
Cristhian Adames – $510,000
Norichika Aoki – $1.5 million
Khris Davis – $5 million
Eduardo Escobar – $850,000
Brett Gardner –$ 12.5 million
Ryon Healy – $510,000
Aaron Hicks – $600,000
Bruce Maxwell – $510,000
Kendrys Morales –$ 6 million
Logan Morrison -$4 million
Josh Phegley – $510,000
Marcus Semien – $530,000
Joey Wendle – $510,000
The Athletics are also on the hook for Billy Butler’s contract in 2017 (released during the 2016 season) and Jed Lowrie’s contract in 2017 (release during this offseason). All in total, the salaries add up to $86.485 million, under the 87 million dollar cap set by the project.
If this roster doesn’t seem overwhelming, it’s not meant to be. The other 15 players on the Athletics 40 man roster are all in Triple-A and many have already seen big league time. An influx of young talent could push this team into contention for a wild card spot in 2017. More than likely, this will be a year of growth for this young Athletics team, but the moves made in the MLB project definitely would have made the team more competitive in 2017 and beyond.