The A’s Movin’ and Shakin’
by Jim Silva
Well, what do you know – the A’s went and made some more moves before the season started. Yeah, not really a surprise. So let’s take a look at what the moves mean to the A’s 2016 lineup.
In an attempt to make it easier on the A’s PA announcer, Beane/Forst traded Bret Lawrie to the White Sox for two minor league pitchers. There is chatter that says Lawrie was moved because he was a negative clubhouse factor. That move leaves most of the infield picture settled, with Jed Lowrie at second, Marcus Semien at shortstop, and Danny Valencia at third. It isn’t a surprise that someone was moved. Once the A’s acquired Lowrie, the writing was on the wall for Lawrie or Valencia. Lowrie is a known commodity, whereas Lawrie still had some growth left – specifically power potential. It removes a lot of uncertainty in the infield in Oakland, but also means there won’t be much chance for anyone outperforming their projections at second base or third base.
The other big move the A’s made actually complicates the first base situation even though it doesn’t involve an infielder. Oakland picked up Khris Davis from the Brewers of Milwaukee for two solid prospects – Jacob Nottingham, the catcher Oakland got in the Kazmir trade with the Astros, and Bubba Derby, a 6th round pick last year who put up gaudy strikeout numbers in the lower levels of the A’s farm system in 2015. Davis will be the everyday left-fielder, which will of course shake up the outfield situation – we will get to that in a bit. What it also does is mess with the first base situation. Mark Canha was likely to get a lot of time in left unless Coco Crisp made a remarkable recovery from his chronic neck ailments. Canha also plays first base, so what is likely to happen is that he and Yonder Alonso will fight for playing time. If Alonso suffers an injury and misses significant time (which is a thing for Alonso), then Canha takes over. It will be interesting to see what gets sorted out in spring training. The A’s have a glut of left-fielder/first baseman types who are big question marks. One thing that hasn’t changed is that the health of Coco Crisp, their highest paid player, will determine a lot of personnel moves.
The acquisition of Khris Davis and his extraneous ‘h’ means that all the intrigue involving Jake Smolinski, and Andrew Lambo is virtually over. Davis hit 21 home runs in 259 plate appearances in the second half of the 2015 season making him the biggest power threat in the A’s lineup. The former Brewer has been an average, to slightly below average, defender in left field for the last three seasons with DRS (defensive runs saved) values of -2, 4, and -6 in 2013, 2014, and 2015. Last season he showed league-average range in left at 1.78 (the league average was 1.79). Davis put up much better walk totals last year than he had in the past, with 44 free passes in 440 plate appearances as opposed to his 2014 totals of 32 walks in 549 plate appearances. Davis swung less often than he had in the past, displaying improved plate discipline. His minor league record shows multiple seasons of OBP’s above .400, so maybe this is Davis finally making the adjustments to major league pitching, possibly explaining his breakout second half of 2015.
Assuming Coco Crisp stays with the A’s, he will be fighting with Billy Butler for DH time, and with Lambo and Smolinski for an outfield reserve spot. Crisp can play centerfield, which neither Smolinski nor Lambo can manage. Coco can spell Burns in centerfield, or play there for an extended stretch if Burns can’t follow up his rookie breakout with another quality year. A healthy Crisp makes the A’s outfield much deeper, but it makes it unlikely that Smolinski and Lambo both make the team, unless the A’s manage to move Billy Butler or Coco Crisp. Crisp and Butler are owed a lot of money and had poor seasons last year, making a trade unlikely.
On a sunnier note, Crisp being limited to fewer games in the outfield might mean he and his useful bat make it through the season, which would make the bench deeper. Last season the A’s gave Sam Fuld 325 plate appearances, even though his slash line was .197/.276/.293. Fuld is useful for his glove, but has lost all of his offensive value since coming to Oakland. He has put up back to back seasons with an OPS between .568 and .569 – not the kind of consistency you want from your fourth outfielder. He is the kind of guy you carry if you decide you have room for a 5th outfielder who is a glove-only option, and that doesn’t happen much these days as teams are more likely to carry 13 pitchers, and only 12 position players.
The Starting Rotation
There is more to come for the A’s this off-season – probably in the next few days – because the A’s designated Sean Nolin for assignment. This means that they have to trade him within 10 days, or hope he clears waivers so they can send him down to AAA to start the season. The team is in this position because they needed to make room on the 40-man roster when they acquired Khris Davis. Nolin is too valuable a piece to just lose for nothing, so we have to assume the A’s have a deal in the works that involves the former Blue Jays’ starting pitcher. The only other possibility is that the A’s are hoping that his mediocre numbers in his six starts last season when he was called up, mixed with his lost time due to injury in 2015, will make teams leery about making a waiver claim on the 6’4” lefty. That seems like a really big gamble to take, so the only logical explanation is that the A’s will be trading him this week. If they were going to expose someone to a waiver claim without a deal in place, Felix Dubront or Aaron Brooks would be better candidates, since losing them wouldn’t represent a hit on the A’s future (or their present, for that matter).
The A’s got better for next season, this is certain. They just improved their offense, while giving back prospects, including Nottingham, who had just been named the 66th best prospect in baseball. It begs the question: what direction are the A’s going? Davis is under team control for the next four seasons, but that involves arbitration and possibly some huge raises – likely one of the reasons the A’s moved last season’s MVP Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays for prospects. Giving up Nottingham might have been the only way the A’s were going to nab a cleanup hitter without losing Franklin Barreto, their top prospect, or Sean Manea, their top pitching prospect. It isn’t what a rebuilding team does though. So do the A’s have enough to make a run in 2016? They have completely rebuilt their major league bullpen, and picked up a cleanup hitter while stabilizing their outfield picture for the next few seasons. They have improved their bench depth and are hoping for health to improve their starting rotation. They do not look like a rebuilding team because clearly they aren’t. This is what it looks like when a small-market team tries to assemble the best roster they can on a shoestring budget so that they can make a run if the pieces all fall into place. The A’s are unlikely to nab a playoff spot in 2016, but they have put themselves in a position to compete, and in poker parlance, they now have a chip and a chair – they are in the game.