Oakland A's: An Early Free Agency and Offseason Primer

Nick HouserCorrespondent IIAugust 27, 2014

Oakland A's: An Early Free Agency and Offseason Primer

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    Outside of losing one big name, not too much should change this team.
    Outside of losing one big name, not too much should change this team.USA TODAY Sports

    The Oakland A's are all-in for 2014, but what happens this offseason if they lose? Heck, what decisions will the team be facing if it wins the World Series?

    The team opened the 2014 season with an $82 million payroll, its biggest in the last 15 years, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. Winning the World Series or not, the A's aren't likely to spend that kind of money in back-to-back seasons unless there's a strong chance of repeating. Even then, big spending is doubtful.

    Oakland must decide which players to try to re-sign, which free agents to pursue and how much to offer arbitration-eligible players.

    Here's a look at what's ahead.

Key Free Agent: Jon Lester

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    Jon Lester is 3-1 with a 2.60 ERA in Oakland.
    Jon Lester is 3-1 with a 2.60 ERA in Oakland.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The A's acquired Jon Lester from the Boston Red Sox in a trade-deadline blockbuster July 31. In nabbing one of the game's best pitchers, they lost outfield stud Yoenis Cespedes.

    Let's hope the trade is worth it, because in giving up Cespedes—under contract for the rest of this year and next—Oakland gained Lester for just two months (not including playoffs).

    Unfortunately for the Athletics, Lester will command top dollar in the free-agent market. The ace will turn 31 before next season and is a three-time All-Star already. In a nine-year career, he's finished with fewer than 10 wins just three times—two of which came in his first two seasons in Major League Baseball. Those three years were also the only times he's ever finished with an ERA higher than 3.50.

    Additionally, Lester's sub-3.00 ERA this season is a career best.

    Earning $13 million currently, Lester will command much more in free agency. He already spurned Boston's reported offer of four years, $70-$80 million earlier this season.

    If they haven't already, A's fans should prepare to see Lester in another uniform in 2015.

     

Key Free Agent: Jed Lowrie

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    After a career year in 2013, Lowrie is having one of his worst in 2014.
    After a career year in 2013, Lowrie is having one of his worst in 2014.Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Re-signing shortstop Jed Lowrie, or not re0signing him, may be the biggest decision the A's face this offseason.

    Initially, Oakland intended for Lowrie to be a stopgap until prospect Addison Russell became ready for the big leagues. But in going all-in, general manager Billy Beane sent Russell to the Chicago Cubs in a deal that included Jeff Samardzija. Next-best prospect Daniel Robertson is currently in Single-A and a ways away from making his big league debut.

    Hence, the A's need a shortstop.

    Looking at soon-to-be free agents, however, Beane may be wise to act swiftly with Lowrie. Big names such as Hanley Ramirez, Asdrubal Cabrera and J.J. Hardy headline the category. Lowrie and Jimmy Rollins represent the next tier of talent at shortstop. It's worth noting that Rollins has an option, so he may avoid free agency altogether. After that, there's not much left.

    The top three should be snatched up for hefty sums of money. Then attention will turn to Lowrie and Rollins, should he be available. If not, Lowrie becomes that much more valuable. But even if Oakland-born Rollins is available, Lowrie is five years younger and could still be $5 million cheaper.

    Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle said it best:

    If Oakland opts to give Lowrie an extension, though, the team might get a bit of a break: Lowrie's batting average took a hit during his funk in May and June, and he's part of a club that has put together the best record in baseball. If ever there is a time to get a good all-around shortstop at a slightly reduced rate, it would be now, because Lowrie certainly is happy playing for Oakland.

    The sooner the organization decides on what to do with Lowrie, the better it will be for its pocketbook. 

Other Notable (A's) Free Agents

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    The A's have decisions to make about both of their utility infielders.
    The A's have decisions to make about both of their utility infielders.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The following A's players will also be eligible for free agency at season's end:

    • Luke Gregerson, RP
    • Jason Hammel, SP
    • Jonny Gomes, OF
    • Alberto Callaspo, IF
    • Geovany Soto, C
    • Nick Punto*, IF (*option)

    Soto, Hammel and Gomes are most likely gone. The A's acquired Soto for depth in place of a recovering John Jaso (concussion) and Stephen Vogt (foot). Next season, those two should be healed, and Soto will not be needed. Hammel has pitched poorly in Oakland and surely will not be re-signed. Gomes left Oakland a season ago in search of more frequent playing time (before subsequently being traded back).

    Making $2.75 million currently, Punto has a club option worth the same amount. He's serviceable and can play multiple infield positions. But he's having one of the worst years of his career and will soon turn 37. Oakland may turn to a guy like Andy Parrino to fill Punto's current role.

    Callaspo is much like Punto. However, while he may be six years Punto's junior, he costs about twice as much. He too is coming off one of his worst performances. If the A's can sign him cheaper than his current $4.875 (say a cool $3 million even?), then he could end up staying.

    At 30 years old and coming off a high-quality year, reliever Gregerson could also command quite a bit in the market. If Oakland believes it can compete next season, it should push to re-sign Gregerson. If not, then a guy like Evan Scribner could replace him in the pen in 2015.

Notable Arbitration-Eligible Players

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    Josh Donaldson has been a stud since switching from catcher (minors) to third base.
    Josh Donaldson has been a stud since switching from catcher (minors) to third base.Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    The following players will be eligible for arbitration, with current salary included (and free-agent year in parentheses):

    • Jeff Samardzija, P, $5.35M (2016)
    • Brandon Moss, 1B, $4.1M (2017)
    • Josh Reddick, RF, $2.7M (2017)
    • John Jaso, C, $2.3M (2016)
    • Craig Gentry, OF, $1.15M (2017)
    • Jesse Chavez, P, $775k (2017)
    • Ryan Cook, P, $505k (2018)
    • Josh Donaldson, 3B, $500k (2019)

    Samardzija is an ace on most other teams, and though he hasn't pitched to his full potential in Oakland, his numbers this season are still pretty good. He won't blow the roof off during arbitration, but he does stand in line to receive a decent increase in pay.

    Moss should receive a small boost, but he may end up in a relatively similar position near his current $4.1 million.

    Reddick, Jaso, Gentry and Cook will also likely see small bumps as well.

    Donaldson may finally get paid. Making only $500,000 after placing fourth in AL MVP voting in 2013 and netting his first All-Star nod in 2014 seems insane. There's no way he jumps from $500,000 to $10 million, but you have to figure his salary increases by at least 500 percent. Even then, $2.5 million seems insulting for such a quality player.

    The bigger question is Jesse Chavez.

    Had he stayed in the bullpen and quietly pitched effectively, he'd see a modest raise that likely still kept him under the million-dollar mark. But after the year he's had, he could have an argument to be paid more like a starting pitcher. The problem is: Will he continue to be a starter or a reliever?

    Keep your eyes on Chavez's arbitration proceedings. They could end up being the most interesting of the bunch this offseason.

Prospects on the Rise?

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    Burns could be used in place of Sam Fuld if the team parts ways with Fuld.
    Burns could be used in place of Sam Fuld if the team parts ways with Fuld.USA TODAY Sports

    The top six prospects in the Oakland A's organization are currently in Single-A or lower.

    Perhaps one of the more notable names in the system, Raul Alcantara pitched in three games for Double-A Midland before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. He won't sniff Oakland in 2015, but it will be interesting to see how he rebounds from the injury.

    First baseman Max Muncy and catcher Bruce Maxwell may find their way to Triple-A next season. If they blow people away with their talent, or there are major injuries to big leaguers, you may see one of them before the end of the 2015 season. The A's are stacked (for now) at catcher in Oakland and at first base in Sacramento, though.

    Of prospects 11 through 20, only two are currently on the Sacramento River Cats: Billy Burns and pitcher Tucker Healy. Watch for Healy to compete for a spot in the bullpen in 2015. Burns, 25 years old, will certainly compete for a spot in spring training.

    Don't count on being dazzled by any prospects arriving in Oakland. At least not in 2015.

The Projected Rotation and Lineup

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    Jarrod Parker is currently on the mend with his sights set on 2015.
    Jarrod Parker is currently on the mend with his sights set on 2015.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Both Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin are slated to return in the 2015 season. Parker, however, is coming off his second Tommy John surgery, something not many pitchers have done successfully.

    Assuming a good bill of health for both, the A's will have a starting rotation of Jeff Samardzija, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin. The team will also have Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz.

    Again, assuming a full return, the rotation may remain a strength in 2015.

    The lineup will still feature a majority of starters from 2014 as well. Shortstop is the biggest question mark, and fans likely will still pine for a better second baseman. But realistically, you could see the same exact lineup in 2015, with the exception of Jonny Gomes and one or both of Alberto Callaspo and Nick Punto. Here's a sample:

    • Coco Crisp, CF
    • John Jaso, DH
    • Josh Donaldson, 3B
    • Brandon Moss, LF
    • Derek Norris, C
    • Jed Lowrie, SS
    • Stephen Vogt, 1B
    • Josh Reddick, RF
    • Eric Sogard, 2B

    If the A's contend with this current roster, and they have nearly an identical roster in 2015 (minus Yoenis Cespedes, Jon Lester and depth players), next season could be yet another exciting year for A's fans. Let's just hope they don't lose, give up on the near future entirely and fire-sale in the offseason.

     

    All contract information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. All statistics via Baseball-Reference.com.