After four winning seasons, the window may now be closed for the Athletics, as the team seems intent on cutting payroll and trading several key players.
Arbitration-Eligible Players (salary projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
With such a large and increasingly expensive arbitration class on the horizon, 2021 seemed like a make-or-break year for this version of the Athletics, who looked increasingly like an all-in team as the season proceeded. The A’s made big trade deadline moves for Starling Marte, Josh Harrison, Andrew Chafin and Yan Gomes to help down the stretch, but it wasn’t enough, as Oakland finished 86-76 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
The disappointment is palpable among A’s fans, who already face the uncertainty of whether or not their team will even still be in Oakland in a few years’ time, and now are looking at yet another step-back or reload of the roster. As general manager David Forst plainly put it, “This is the cycle for the A’s. We have to listen and be open to whatever comes out of this. This is our lot in Oakland until it’s not.”
Obligatory note: we aren’t talking enormous payroll numbers here. While the Athletics do have a big arbitration class, those costs are belied by the fact that Elvis Andrus and Stephen Piscotty represent the club’s only guaranteed salary commitments. Cot’s Baseball Contracts and Roster Resource project Oakland’s current 2022 payroll to sit in the range of roughly $81.2M to $85.36M, which would still represent one of the lower payrolls of any team in baseball. Just standing pat in this range would make it tricky for the A’s to make any necessary upgrades, but executive vice president Billy Beane and Forst have done more with less in the past, so a case can certainly be made that Athletics owner John Fisher could or should spend enough to allow one more season with this core group of players.
And yet, that is not how Fisher (or any Athletics ownership group of the last 25 years) operates. The only question now is just how much payroll will be slashed, and the first herald of the spending cuts came when longtime manager Bob Melvin was allowed to interview with the Padres and ultimately take San Diego’s managerial job. Melvin was still under contract for the 2022 season, but Oakland let Melvin go without any compensation, seemingly just to get Melvin’s reported $4MM salary off the books. There hasn’t yet been much news about who the Athletics might yet hire as Melvin’s replacement, and under the circumstances, it is probably best to expect a first-time manager more willing to take a lesser salary.
Some reports suggest the A’s might be aiming to spend as little as $50M on player salaries in 2022, and if such a drop is coming, there is no shortage of potential sell-off moves available to the team. Since extensions now seem to be out of the question, impending free agents like Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea are the likeliest to go. Matt Olson, Matt Chapman and Frankie Montas are only controlled through 2023, and Olson’s projected $12M arbitration salary would represent the biggest outlay on the Athletics’ books, so the All-Star first baseman may have already played his last game for Oakland.
If there is a silver lining to this situation for Athletics fans, past history has shown that the team isn’t likely to deal all five of these players. Beane has never taken the A’s through a total rebuild over his 24 years running the front office, so it doesn’t seem likely that he would embark on such a course now (with the caveat that the A’s may still be feeling pandemic-related revenue losses). If we’re targeting which A’s players are the likeliest to be traded, it is also worth guessing which may still be on the roster come Opening Day. Montas, for instance, is probably the least likely of the “big five” members of the arbitration class to be moved, if for no other reason than he is less expensive that Manaea and Bassitt, and Oakland isn’t likely to move all three of its top starters.
The other optimistic slant on the Athletics’ winter is that Beane and Forst have walked this road before and have consistently been able to get the A’s back on track within a couple of years, at most. As difficult as it will be to replace some of the names likely to leave Oakland within the next few months, it isn’t totally out of the question that the A’s can still be competitive in 2022, if Beane/Forst can acquire some MLB-ready younger players who break out on their new team.
For two years of a power-hitting, Gold Glove first baseman like Olson, for instance, the A’s can justifiably ask for multiple top prospects and a player off a trade partner’s big-league roster that could help the Athletics in 2022. Someone like the Yankees’ Luke Voit makes for a reasonable example — Olson would be taking over first base anyway — and the Yankees have already been linked to Olson. (Of course, the A’s might not be interested in Voit and his salary if they aren’t planning to try to contend next year.) The A’s have often focused on MLB-ready starters in major trades as well, which is how they came to acquire Bassitt and Montas in the first place.
The Yankees, to be clear, are just one example. Any of the Brewers, Guardians, Padres, Red Sox, Mariners, Dodgers, Mets, Phillies or Braves could make sense for an Olson trade, perhaps in some cases hinging on other roster moves at first base and/or whether National League teams will have a DH in 2022.
Olson is valuable enough that the Athletics shouldn’t dilute their potential trade return by attaching an undesirable contract (i.e. Piscotty or Andrus) to a possible trade package, yet the club might explore this tactic with other trade chips at some point in the winter. For instance, if Olson and Manaea are dealt to get some new young talent in the pipeline, the A’s could go into full salary dump mode and package something like Bassitt and Piscotty together to a team willing to absorb Piscotty’s salary in order to ultimately give up lesser prospects in the deal. As much as it would hurt to give up any of the “big five” for a miminal return, deploying this strategy in one trade would sting less if Oakland has already banked some prospects in earlier trades. Also, moving Piscotty or Andrus might free up enough payroll to spare the A’s from having to make a subsequent trade of a Chapman or a Montas.
Identifying specific target areas for the 2022 A’s is a little difficult at the moment, considering we don’t yet known the breadth of the club’s fire sale. Third base, for example, could either be a set position or a big vacancy depending on whether Chapman stays or goes. To this end, Chad Pinder might be a useful piece to keep in his final year of arbitration eligibility, since Pinder’s versatility at least gives the A’s some flexibility in how they address various positions.
It is safe to call outfield help a must, since Marte and Mark Canha are both free agents. Ramon Laureano is the lone starter remaining and will return in center field, though he’ll miss the first 27 games of 2022 to complete the remainder of his 80-game PED suspension. Piscotty is penciled into the right field job at the moment, but after three seasons of injuries and replacement-level play, it is difficult to know what expect from him next year.
Among internal options, Seth Brown and Tony Kemp are the most probable candidates to see time in the corner outfield slots. However, both could also be needed at other positions (Kemp at second base, Brown at first base or DH), thus opening the door for any of Luis Barrera, Skye Bolt, Cody Thomas, or Buddy Reed to earn some outfield playing time. A low-cost veteran could be added to that group, yet this is another decision that could hinge on how much emphasis the Athletics are putting on 2022. If the A’s are taking a full step back from a run at the playoffs, the team might decide to just let the youngsters play and see who emerges as an MLB-capable player.
Assuming Kemp isn’t traded, shortstop prospect Nick Allen’s development could factor into Kemp’s primary position in the lineup. Allen is expected to make his MLB debut in 2022 and is already more than ready from a defensive perspective, so his longer-term role is Oakland’s shortstop of the future. With Andrus at shortstop for one more year, the A’s could break Allen in as a second baseman, thus freeing up Kemp to see more time in left field.
Jed Lowrie is one of the Oakland free agents who might be a realistic candidate to be re-signed, and thus he could also be part of the infield picture. After two injury-ruined seasons with the Mets, Lowrie returned to the A’s and played in 139 games last season, providing around league-average offense over 512 plate appearances. Heading into his age-38 season, Lowrie may have a tough time competing with younger utility infield types on the free-agent market, and the A’s could welcome back a familiar veteran to provide leadership through what might be a transitional year.
James Kaprielian and Cole Irvin could end up being the top two starters in the Oakland rotation depending on what happens with Manaea, Bassitt and Montas. Since it seems quite likely at least one of that trio will be dealt, the Athletics will need some starters. Daulton Jefferies probably has the inside track on one spot and A.J. Puk another if he can stay healthy, which is a big if considering all of the injuries Puk has already faced in his short career.
Any of Grant Holmes, Brian Howard or Paul Blackburn will be in competition for another starting role, but this is certainly an area where the A’s will have to land some kind of inexpensive veteran depth, just to cover any possible innings. It also isn’t exactly a surprise to say that the Athletics will look to acquire some MLB-ready starting pitching in any trades since every team is always looking for more arms, yet Oakland’s need is particularly strong considering how many of their current starters could be traded.
Chafin declined his half of a mutual option and Jake Diekman’s club option wasn’t exercised, so those two join Sergio Romo and Yusmeiro Petit as prominent A’s relievers now set for free agency. Beane and Forst have traditionally been pretty aggressive in adding to their bullpens over the years, though that strategy might not be optimal in a winter of budget cutbacks (and with the Trevor Rosenthal signing still lingering as the major misfire of last year’s offseason).
The Athletics could at least offer opportunity to any free-agent relievers, as the A’s head into 2022 with Lou Trivino penciled in as closer even if he had trouble sticking in the role last year. In the event of a lockout related to collective bargaining talks, the subsequent roster freeze could lead to a flood of relievers hitting the market when (if?) the freeze is lifted just prior to or during spring training. A surplus of available relievers could help Oakland score a bargain signing or two — particularly since the A’s could reasonably offer save chances and a spacious home park to any potential targets looking to reestablish value.
If the front office succeeds in landing some intriguing prospects over the winter, A’s fans may feel a bit better about the team’s overall direction by Opening Day. Unfortunately, getting to whatever promising longer-term future awaits will require some more immediate pain, as the Athletics’ “cycle” of roster construction and destruction never stops spinning. With the Astros reinforcing their pennant-winning squad and the Mariners, Angels and Rangers all looking to make substantial upgrades this offseason, the Athletics’ first goal may be figuring out just how to avoid a last-place finish.