The Oakland Athletics surprised everyone in 2012 when they edged past the Texas Rangers to win the AL West division title. They surprised everyone again (albeit less so), by successfully defending that title in 2013. Billy Beane and company are now eyeballing a third straight division title, and they busily churned the roster this week towards that end.
Over the past few days, the Athletics have reconstructed their roster through three trades and a free agent signing. Per MLB Trade Rumors, the A’s will revisit the trade market soon when they pick a new home for Brett Anderson. Between his injury prone nature and $8 million salary, Anderson is likely too expensive for the A’s to retain.
First, let’s walk through the moves. The week started with the decision to tender a contract to Daric Barton, who is expected to earn $1.4 million in arbitration. Barton is an interesting depth piece, but he isn’t why we are gathered here today.
Late on Monday, the A’s finalized a trade with the Baltimore Orioles that sent second base prospect Jemile Weeks to Baltimore in exchange for pricey reliever Jim Johnson. The move was a bit surprising since Johnson is expected to earn over $10 million in arbitration.
Tuesday brought news that Scott Kazmir would join the Athletics rotation on a two-year, $22 million contract. The A’s then swapped prospects Michael Choice and Chris Bostick for Craig Gentry and Josh Lindblom. And to finish out the day, they acquired Padres reliever Luke Gregerson for platoon outfielder Seth Smith.
The moves transform the A’s bullpen. Oakland relievers performed ably in 2013 and posted the sixth best bullpen ERA (seventh best FIP). Closer Grant Balfour is currently a free agent and the A’s were apparently unwilling to consider a multi-year contract for him. However, their best relievers, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook, will return along with Dan Otero, Jesse Chavez, and Jerry Blevins. The A’s also acquired left-handed reliever Fernando Abad in late November.
The flurry of trades leaves the Athletics with a surplus of relievers. Johnson is likely to close in 2014. As previously noted, $10 million is a large investment for Oakland to make on a reliever, but they might have found his availability on a one-year contract to be preferable to options on the free agent market. It’s also possible that they considered him undervalued at the price of Weeks—who appears to be a prospect bust—and hope to re-sell him later.
Setup relievers Doolittle and Cook will now be joined by Gregerson, giving the A’s three formidable setup men. The A’s reportedly want to stretch Lindblum out as the swing starter, which leaves four relievers for two spots. If the roster battles aren’t solved prior to the season via trade, then Blevins and Abad will fight for the lefty specialist role while Otero and Chavez fight over the remaining middle relief post. Any way you slice it, the A’s now have a deep and potent bullpen that should complement the rotation nicely.
Speaking of the rotation, Kazmir will join Sonny Gray, A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker, and one of Dan Straily or Tommy Milone. While that isn’t the most star-studded rotation in the league, it’s deep from top to bottom. Both Milone and Straily posted about two WAR in 150 innings. In other words, they were slightly better than league average. Griffin and Parker are similarly adequate, while Gray was exciting upside. Gray’s strikeout rate will likely regress in 2014, but he still figures to be a valuable staff ace.
Kazmir fits well into that unit. 2013 was his best season since 2007 by any measure. His velocity was back after a five year hiatus and he posted a decent 4.04 ERA. His peripherals suggest that he was unlucky, as seen by his 3.51 FIP and 3.36 xFIP—basically he allowed more hits and home runs than expected.
Moving to Oakland could address that ill-fortune. The O.Co Coliseum is known for its spacious confines and the A’s have assembled a stingy defense. Translation: home runs are hard to come by and balls in play get gobbled up by the defense.
Josh Donaldson and Josh Reddick are among the best defenders at their respective positions, and you can add Gentry to that list. The 30-year-old center fielder is one of the best outfielders in baseball per Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Both measures agree that a full season of Gentry in center field could be worth 20 to 30 runs saved.
It’s unclear how the A’s plan to use Gentry. Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, and Coco Crisp all seem to have a firm grasp on an everyday job. Cespedes is a good defender in the corner outfield and while Crisp has lost a step in center field, he’s also coming off a four win season and no clear-minded analyst would suggest benching him in place of Gentry. All three incumbents have shown an injury prone nature at some point in their career, so Gentry might simply provide insurance for when one of them finally hits the skids. Gentry could platoon with Reddick until more playing time becomes available, or Cespedes may spend more time at designated hitter.
Altogether, these trades and signings appear inspired. The bullpen is incredibly deep and talented, which takes a lot of pressure off a rotation that is deep but lacks elite talent. In the outfield, they have exchanged a poor defending platoon bat for a defensively outstanding depth piece. The end result is more depth and a higher win projection. And they aren’t done. The Anderson domino will probably fall soon and the club has been in discussion about other trades as well.