Sunday, September 13, 2015

Looking Ahead to Next Season, Because This One is Done!

The season is not yet over, but for the home 9, the green and gold, the Oakland Athletics… it might as well be. This has been a dispiriting season for many reasons, but I think this really could be an excellent moment to begin a comeback. Rocky-style. But not like the first movie, because he ends up losing in that one.

So, as we prematurely begin the offseason, let’s take a look at what the A’s have, what they need, and what strategies they can pursue to improve.


Here’s where the roster will stand at the end of the year, assuming no one implodes in the meantime.

SP:
1. Sonny Gray
2. Jesse Hahn
3. Jesse Chavez
4. Kendall Graveman
5. Chris Bassitt/Sean Nolin/Aaron Brooks

RP:
1. Sean Doolittle
2. Drew Pomeranz
3. Pat Venditte (because he makes the world a more interesting place)
4. Evan Scribner?
5. RJ Alvarez?
6. Ryan Dull?
7. Live-Armed, Undersized Righty Number 45C

C: Stephen Vogt/Josh Phegley
1B: Mark Canha/Stephen Vogt
2B: Brett Lawrie/Joey Wendle
SS: Marcus Semien
3B: Danny Valencia
LF: Coco Crisp?
CF: Billy Burns
RF: Josh Reddick
DH: Billy Butler/tire fire

Reserve IF: Eric Sogard (because nerd power
Reserve IF: Max Muncy
Reserve OF: Tyler Ladendorf
Reserve OF: Anthony Aliotti

Ok, let’s be honest. This is not a playoff caliber team as it is currently constructed. It’s the kind of roster that a true fan would have to squint at for quite awhile before he or she concocts a semi-plausible path to contention.

Now, I am a true fan… but I’m in grad school now, and simply don’t have the time to stare at these names that long. Plus I now live where it snows in the winter, and I just don’t want to be that depressed.

So, instead of accepting this roster and hoping for 7-12 simultaneous offensive breakouts, let’s imagine that Billy Beane (have you accepted Billy Beane as your lord and savior yet?) will take action! 


This is not at all a difficult eventuality to imagine, seeing as Beane ALWAYS does something, but this is going to be a particularly difficult offseason. While the minor league system is now relatively strong, it will not start spitting out major league position players for another year or two. Yet, the young pitchers stockpiled by Beane in the past two years are beginning to emerge at the same time that Sonny Gray has transformed into a legitimate ace. Simultaneously, a couple of contracts that were never going to turn out especially well (Coco and Butler), have turned into raging tire fires a bit earlier than could have been predicted, hamstringing the team’s buying power in free agency this offseason.

The A’s are promising, especially their pitching, but as it stands now they will need another year in the wilderness to let the young guys develop, allow the pitching to gel, and begin the process of sloughing off their dead salary weight.

That would be the predictable, logical, and rational way to approach the offseason- make a few moves around the margins, pick up a few bargain free agents, make some cute commercials about how fast Billy Burns is (and hope everyone forgot about Rajai Davis), and coast into spring training. But I think we all know that’s not what’s going to happen. Beane is going to do something strange, something that makes either the A’s fans or his opposing GMs yell Fuckin’ A at the top of their lungs. Let’s be honest, whatever he does will probably make both groups yell a bit, it wouldn’t be any fun otherwise.

Ideally, any strategy the A’s pursue this offseason would give them a chance to compete while also leaving the team in position to continue building towards the seemingly bright future of 2017. Blocking promising rookies with veterans only makes sense if Beane can dump those veterans quickly and in exchange for something of moderate value if the year isn’t going well by the time my birthday (otherwise known as the week before the trade deadline) rolls around.

So, shop around the league for players that other teams have given up on. Who knows, maybe we can find the next Josh Donaldson out… there……. grawsahafhghsjw…..dfds…

Sorry, just had to go into the other room to splash a few gallons of water on my keyboard. I’m ok now, just don’t mention… you know… that guy who we won’t mention.

Ok, good, I think we got away with it. 

Without further ado, here are the four deals I think could substantially improve the team for the upcoming year without significantly impacting the future. I don’t speculate as to the actual trade terms- there are easier ways for me to disappoint my future self, like not going to the gym. But I do think that all of these trades or signings are doable without Beane having to dip too deeply into the reservoir of talented minor leaguers he has assembled this year.

#1: Former top prospect seeks new digs:

Gregory Polanco ascended through the minors with a frankly ridiculous amount of hype. For a Pirates team that was beginning to compete, and already had a superstar in Andrew McCutchen in center and a budding star outfielder in Starling Marte, Polanco seemed set to complete a true super-outfield.

Instead, he has thoroughly disappointed in his first two years in the bigs. Yet, looking at his production without freighting it with the expectations he has endured, Polanco has actually had a promising career through his age 23 season. His disastrous performance against same-handed pitchers, 56% below average, has concealed his solid work against righties (7% above average). Even a mild improvement against lefties, or a more extreme platooning schedule (which A’s manager Bob Melvin has proven adept at) could render him an above average hitter, and keep in mind that he is only 23! Average with the bat is really all Polanco needs to be in order to be a productive player- his stellar speed and baserunning skills and his solidly improving defense in right field give him a high floor and his pedigree and youth suggest more could be possible.

So, now that we have established that Polanco could be worth buying low on, will the Pirates really sell? I think if the Pirates get bounced from ANOTHER wild-card game, they will be willing to shake things up, and some young pitching depth and a C+ prospect could be all the Pirates need to make the swap.

#2: Walk it up, out, and off:

To begin with, Moneyball was not about walks. It was about exploiting undervalued areas of baseball performance. It just so happened that when the book was written (by Michael Lewis, not by Billy Beane as Joe Morgan probably still believes), walks were undervalued. However, just because they have become more properly valued now does not mean that they should be foresworn. Walk are still an excellent way to avoid making outs, and as such the A’s should attempt to improve on their 16th overall ranking in walk percentage from this as yet uncompleted year.

So, if we go hunting for undervalued walkers, our first stop should be my own personal white whale- Carlos Santana. Former subpar catcher, awful third baseman, and now seemingly solid first baseman, yet Santana has never stopped walking. Even in his offensively challenged 2015, he has still walked 16% of the time, nearly matching his 17.5% strikeout rate!

So, with only $8.5 million guaranteed for 2016 and with a comparatively reasonable $12.5 million option for 2017, why would the Indians be willing to sell? The simple answer is that the Indians are caught in the middle right now, much as the A’s are. They have fantastic pitching and some good offensive pieces, but they need to take a long, hard look at the team they have and decide if they can compete with the players they have on the books. In particular their shoddy defense has sabotaged an excellent pitching staff, and in exchange for some prospects they might be willing to ship Santana west.

#3: The big free agent signing!

Daniel Murphy. Ok, so Daniel Murphy is just about the least sexy addition you could make to a roster. 


(not that he is an objectively unattractive man or anything…)

It’s just that for several years Murphy has been such a solid player for the Mets, unremarkable in both a good and bad way, that signing him for say, 2 years and $14 million, would seem like both an overpay and an underpay. Assuming the Mets don’t keep him around while they bask in the glow of their excellent 2015 run, Murphy may receive enough attention to bump that contract up to 3 years and $25 million or so. Still less than the A’s are paying for, gulp, Billy Butler.

Murphy is above all a versatile player, and though he is not stellar defensively, he can play first, second, third, and left. However it is his ability at third that is of most interest. He is a very good hitter against lefties, and could be the perfect complement for lefty-masher Danny Valencia. He can also fill in at left field against lefties in case Mark Canha’s subpar numbers against southpaws are not a small sample size abberation.

#4: Defensive caddy: Zack Cozart (my spell check is dutifully attempting to switch his last name to Mozart… which would be an altogether much more interesting blog post)

Marcus Semien has improved his defense dramatically over the course of the season. Perhaps the change has been wrought through a combination of Ron Washington’s skills as a premier infielder whisperer and Semien’s growing comfort at Shortstop now that he knows he has the trust of his front office. Or maybe it is a small sample size aberration. Whatever it is, Semien’s evolution has been promising, and his offense is sufficient to make him a good asset up the middle. 

So, why am I considering adding a defensively minded middle infielder to back him up? The main reason is that having one standout skill, and Cozart is very very good defensively, while sucking thoroughly at most other aspects at the game, is actually a good division of skills in this case. Though any player would of course desire to be well-rounded, for a backup player, having all your eggs in one basket talent-wise means that your manager can deploy you primarily in situations in which your skills will be emphasized and your deficiencies hidden.

For that reason, Cozart would be a perfect player to back up a shaky Shortstop and a second baseman in Lawrie who is relearning the position. Also in Cozart’s column is that, coming off a bad injury and having missed most of the season, he will come cheap in a trade. Not due to become a Free Agent until after 2018, Cozart will only make around $3 million in arbitration this coming year. Not a payroll breaking sum, but sufficient for the Reds to want to move him along and give breakout performer Eugenio Suarez a shot at the full-time gig.

Finale:

So there we are- add Polanco, Santana, Murphy, and Cozart. All players who have upside, are under control for multiple years at reasonable salaries, and fit into Manager Bob Melvin’s platooning strategies.

This would allow the A’s to trot out lineups that looked like this:

Key- Position, player, Career wRC+ split vs pitchers of that handedness. 
(wRC+ measures a player’s offensive performance, including ballpark and era. 100 is average, above 100 is good, below is bad)

VS RHP

C: Stephen Vogt (116)
1B: Mark Canha (135)*very small sample size alert
2B: Brett Lawrie (104)
SS: Marcus Semien (79)
3B: Daniel Murphy (115)
LF: Gregory Polanco (107)
CF: Billy Burns (94)
RF: Josh Reddick (111)
DH: Carlos Santana (120)


VS LHP

C: Josh Phegley (114)
1B: Carlos Santana (132)
2B: Brett Lawrie (105)
SS: Marcus Semien (119)
3B: Danny Valencia (136)
LF: Mark Canha (53)*very small sample size alert or Daniel Murphy (86)
CF: Billy Burns (115)
RF: Josh Reddick (89)
DH: Billy Butler (138)

Zack Cozart (R: 72) (L: 92) standing ready to jump in when needed.

Keeping in mind that splits are by definition small sample sizes and should be subject to substantial regression, suddenly 7 out of 9 spots in each lineup iteration are solidly above average, some of them very much so. And even the weak spots- Semien and Burns against righties and Canha/Murphy and Reddick against lefties have their upsides. Semien, Canha, and Burns are young and hopefully improving, while Reddick’s defense is good enough to play anywhere and Murphy’s 86 is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Coupled with a young pitching staff that hopefully takes a step forward together, and a bullpen that cannot possibly be as bad as last year, this team is suddenly interesting. And, if worst comes to worst and the team does not compete, Santana and Murphy can be traded for minor prospect hauls while Cozart certainly isn’t blocking anyone on the depth chart and can be cheaply released if he struggles. Meanwhile Polanco can get a stress free environment in which to develop.


Wow, I wrote a lot about this! Not because I actually think these things will happen, but largely in an attempt to distract myself from the pain of a meaningless September of baseball. Also, to avoid my grad school reading!

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