The A’s generally make offseason waves via the blockbuster trade, but they might target free agency this winter in an effort to upgrade any number of positions.
The shopping period officially begins Friday night at 9:01 p.m. PT, when free agents can begin negotiating with any club. The A’s have just one free agent of their own in reliever Edward Mujica, and he’s unlikely to return as Oakland looks to restructure a bullpen that struggled mightily last season.
This year’s free agent crop is regarded as one of the best ever, with starting pitching and the outfield particularly deep. No, the A’s won’t be shelling out the big bucks to sign lefty David Price, outfielder Jason Heyward or any of the other stars that headline this year’s class.
But there’s substantial room for improvement after an American League-worst 68-94 finish, and the A’s have some decent financial flexibility to address those needs. They have just $24,246,667 committed to 2016 salaries right now. They also have 15 players up for arbitration that could push that total to roughly $60 million, though that figure will shrink if the A’s decline to tender contracts to a few of those 15, which is likely to happen.
Even after factoring in salaries for their pre-arbitration players, there should be room to maneuver for a club that began last season with an Opening Day payroll of $83.8 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
It won’t be a surprise if the A’s target their starting rotation for free agent help. While stating that Oakland won’t go on a huge spending spree, executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane acknowledged the injury question marks surrounding his staff. Kendall Graveman, Jesse Hahn and Jesse Chavez all had their 2015 seasons cut short by injuries. Another starter, Chris Bassitt, missed time with a shoulder injury. Beane holds cautious optimism that Jarrod Parker might contribute to the rotation, but the right-hander has missed the past two seasons due to Tommy John surgery and a fracture to his throwing elbow.
“We have to have some depth in that area, and that’s a concern,” Beane said as the regular season wrapped.
The A’s won’t be in on top dogs Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmerman. A strong group of second-tier free agent starters features former Athletics Scott Kazmir and Jeff Samardzija, Wei-Yin Chen, Marco Estrada, John Lackey and Mike Leake among others. But all of them will probably look for a minimum contract length of three years, and the A’s in recent seasons haven’t committed that many years to starters on the open market.
Rather, they seem more likely to shop for a starter content with a one-year deal (think Bartolo Colon circa 2012), or perhaps a veteran or two looking to re-establish themselves on a minor league deal with a chance to make the club out of spring. In fact, the 42-year-old Colon might be an option again after indicating he’d like to return for a 19th season.
Improving the bullpen is a priority for the A’s, and that’s an area in which they’ve spent aggressively in years past. Unfortunately for Oakland, the reliever pool is one group that’s not considered particularly strong this winter. Submariner Darren O’Day, who posted a 1.52 ERA as an All-Star last season, is widely considered the best available relief arm.
Intriguing thought: A return to Oakland for former starter Trevor Cahill, who enjoyed a late-season revival pitching out of the Cubs' bullpen.
As for offensive upgrades, some of the A’s internal decision-making will influence which avenues they explore in free agency. Do they tender a contract to first baseman Ike Davis? He hit just three homers with 20 RBI in an injury-marred season and is coming off hip surgery. He’s due around $3.8 million in arbitration, based on projections from mlbtraderumors.com. Should the A’s cut ties with Davis, they could pursue a first baseman such as former AL MVP Justin Morneau, who will be affordable but has also had his career sidetracked by concussion and neck issues.
With Mark Canha an option as the regular first baseman, the A’s could instead target left field. They’re holding out hope that 36-year-old Coco Crisp can be a regular contributor again, but his past two seasons have been sabotaged by a chronic neck injury. Nori Aoki, who just had his option declined by the Giants, is an interesting addition to the open market. Gerardo Parra is appealing because of his age (28), but his price might be steep. Another left-handed hitter, David Murphy, has seven double-digit homer seasons on his resume, making him worth a look considering the A’s ranked 12th in the AL in homers (146) in 2015.
For those wondering if a Yoenis Cespedes reunion is possible, many predict the former A’s slugger will land a contract north of $100 million. If that’s the case, any return to the Coliseum will have Cespedes wearing a visitor’s uniform.