After earning a third straight playoff berth, the Athletics are in for an offseason of change. Longtime front-office head Billy Beane might be on his way out after two-plus decades of success, while the roster could lose a handful of key free agents.
This year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
The A’s have never been known as a high-spending team, but this offseason could be especially difficult in the wake of a pandemic-shortened year. The timing is terrible for an Oakland club that is loaded with noteworthy free agents, including in its middle infield. Marcus Semien has been the A’s primary shortstop since 2015, while they acquired second baseman Tommy La Stella from the division-rival Angels before the Aug. 31 trade deadline. La Stella made a wonderful impression on the organization during his short time with it, but whether the Athletics will make a serious effort to re-sign him is unknown.
With Semien and La Stella potentially on the way out, there’s no greater need for the A’s than in their middle infield. They already opted against giving Semien a one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer off a somewhat disappointing season, leaving him unfettered heading into free agency. The A’s have made it clear that they hope to retain Semien, but it’s hard to imagine them outbidding the rest of the field. If Semien exits, where would that leave Oakland? The A's could plug in Chad Pinder, but he has minimal major-league experience at shortstop, and they aren't likely to spend enough to sign Didi Gregorius or Andrelton Simmons in free agency. Similarly, a trade for Francisco Lindor or Trevor Story looks improbable. The Athletics might be a suitor for Korea’s Ha-Seong Kim, a 24-year-old who’s a candidate for a reasonably priced contract over the long haul. Otherwise, the A’s might be looking at someone such as Freddy Galvis, who would only be a Band-Aid at the position.
The A’s love La Stella at the keystone. Again, however, are they going to spend to sign him? La Stella shouldn’t cost that much (something in the two-year, $14 million range sounds realistic). But if the A’s don’t retain La Stella, they’ll have some other options in free agency, including Galvis, Kolten Wong, Jonathan Schoop, Jason Kipnis, Cesar Hernandez and Marwin Gonzalez. That isn’t the most exciting bunch, but most or all of them should be within the A’s price range, and at least some look like passable starters. Of course, the A’s do have Tony Kemp, Vimael Machin and Sheldon Neuse in the fold if they decide to stick with options who are already under team control.
Aside from potentially the middle infield, the A’s don’t seem as if they’ll be all that busy on the position-player front this offseason. The Matts (third baseman Chapman and first baseman Olson) have their spots locked up, as do catcher Sean Murphy and designated hitter Khris Davis. The outfield could lose Robbie Grossman to free agency, but Ramon Laureano, Mark Canha, Stephen Piscotty and Seth Brown are still in place.
Turning to the pitching side, Oakland is going to have to make moves, as it might see a few veteran hurlers depart. The rotation could say goodbye to free agents Mike Fiers and Mike Minor, although four-fifths of it does look set with Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea, Jesus Luzardo and Frankie Montas staying in the mix. That still leaves one open spot, which could go to prized prospect A.J. Puk if he battles back from a couple years of arm problems (including left shoulder surgery in September). Otherwise, Daulton Jefferies and James Kaprielian may be the A’s most realistic picks from within the organization.
Fortunately for Oakland, if it decides to search for a starter from outside, it will have several affordable choices. Free agency is loaded with veterans who should sign short-term deals, including Fiers, Minor, Cole Hamels, Mike Leake, and ex-Athletics Rich Hill, Jon Lester and Brett Anderson. It’s a long list that extends well beyond those names. On the trade front, Lance Lynn (Rangers) and Joe Musgrove (Pirates) are among possibilities the A’s could fit in from a financial standpoint.
While most spots in the A’s rotation are spoken for, the bullpen is facing a great deal of uncertainty at the outset of the offseason. Closer Liam Hendriks was one of the premier relievers in the league from 2019-20, but he’s a free agent. Oakland didn’t issue him a qualifying offer, so he figures to walk away without the A's getting any compensation. Yusmeiro Petit, Joakim Soria and T.J. McFarland have joined Hendriks on the open market. That quartet gave Oakland 90 innings in 2020, and the only member who recorded below-average numbers was McFarland. It’s going to be tough to replace that group, although an A’s bullpen that was elite this past season still has some strong holdovers in Jake Diekman, J.B. Wendelken, Lou Trivino, Jordan Weems and Burch Smith (if Smith recovers from a flexor strain). It’s also not out of the realm of possibility they’ll re-sign any of Petit, Soria or McFarland, who aren’t going to command big deals on the open market, or add at least one of the many available relievers in free agency. Even Puk could slide into a prominent bullpen role next year if he’s healthy and doesn’t secure a rotation spot.
This isn’t going to be the most thrilling offseason for the A’s, whose front office and roster could combine to lose a few important figures. The A’s have consistently been in the hunt in recent years despite their small budget, however, and there is still quite a bit of talent on hand for the reigning AL West champions. However, Beane (if he doesn’t go elsewhere) and general manager David Forst might have to pull off some shrewd moves in the coming months to keep Oakland at the head of its division in 2021.