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Offseason outlook for the Oakland Athletics

The 2022 A’s were as bad as expected after trading away Matt Olson, Chris Bassitt, Matt Chapman and Sean Manaea last offseason and declining to add any real upgrades in the free-agent market. The fire sale continued into the summer, as Frankie Montas and Lou Trivino were traded, while Elvis Andrus and Stephen Piscotty were simply released. Expect more turnover this winter.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration-Eligible Players

Option Decisions

Free Agents

The A’s head into the offseason without a single dollar committed to the 2023 payroll. Their fire sale, which dates back to last winter, has stripped the payroll down to the bare minimum. They’ll have five arbitration-eligible players (plus another pair of potential Super Two players) on whom they need to decide, but it’s a pretty straightforward bunch. Deolis Guerra missed the entire season recovering from Tommy John surgery and figures to be non-tendered. Tony Kemp is hitting .233/.307/.333 as of this writing and only has one year of club control left. They could tender him simply to have some semblance of roster continuity and give the fans at least one more name they can recognize, but he’s due a raise on this season’s $2.25M salary and the A’s might want to give those at-bats to younger players.

Each of Ramon Laureano, Sean Murphy and Paul Blackburn will be tendered contracts, though that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a return to the roster next season. In the case of Laureano and Blackburn, it at least appears likely they’ll be back. Laureano was an in-demand trade chip last offseason and drew interest this summer, too, but he’s controllable for another three seasons and the A’s probably feel they’d be selling low if they moved him on the heels of a .211/.287/.376 batting line.

Laureano missed the first month of the season serving out the final portion of an 80-game PED suspension and looks like he’ll end the year on the injured list owing to a hamstring strain. His stock is probably as low as it’s been since the A’s acquired him in what looked like a forgettable, minor trade with the division-rival Astros. But, from 2018-21, Laureano batted .263/.335/.485 with 49 homers, 34 steals, plus baserunning value and strong glovework (plus a penchant for highlight-reel grabs).

A good first half in 2023 might be all it takes to boost Laureano from a buy-low candidate to a premium outfielder with (as of next summer) two-plus seasons of club control remaining. Unless a team is willing to pay for the 2018-21 version of him right now, it’s most sensible to just hold.

It’s a relatively similar tale with Blackburn, who ascended from DFA fodder that went unclaimed on waivers early in the 2021 season to a 2022 All-Star. It’s fair to be cynical and point out that, yes, someone from the Athletics needed to be named to the team, but Blackburn was far more than a token All-Star. His end-of-season numbers don’t reflect that, though that’s due to an injury.

Through his first 16 starts of the season, Blackburn was outstanding. He pitched to a 2.90 ERA in that time, offsetting a pedestrian 17.7% strikeout rate with an excellent 5.9% walk rate and a hearty 50.5% grounder rate. Blackburn’s 87.2 mph average exit velocity in that time was strong, and he allowed all of seven “barreled” balls through those first 16 starts (3.2%). Virtually no one was squaring the ball up against him, he wasn’t walking many hitters, and he was erasing plenty of traffic on the bases with timely double-play grounders.

Things went awry for Blackburn beginning in mid-July, when he began experiencing discomfort in his pitching hand. He tried to pitch through pain for the next month, serving up 25 runs in 24 1/3 innings before eventually succumbing to the injured list. He was diagnosed with a torn tendon sheath in his right middle finger and placed in a splint for up to eight weeks. Suffice it to say, to trade Blackburn right now would be selling low. Like Laureano, he’s controlled another three seasons, so if he starts strong in 2023 he could quickly build up trade value.

If there’s one glaring trade candidate on the Oakland roster right now, it’s Murphy, who’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter and should see his salary jump from $725K to more than $3MM. Obviously that’s not a large sum, but the A’s, even more so than usual over the past year, have endeavored to tear the payroll down to its lowest possible levels.

Beyond the salary ramifications, Murphy’s value is arguably at its apex — and the A’s have an in-house option whom they hope can emerge as a similarly productive backstop: top prospect Shea Langeliers, acquired from the Braves as one of the centerpieces to March’s Olson trade. The presence of Langeliers alone certainly doesn’t push Murphy out the door — Langeliers has batted just .220/.242/.398 in his first 124 MLB plate appearances, after all — but Murphy will draw widespread interest on the heels of a breakout season.

Because of his elite defensive skills and above-average power, the 27-year-old Murphy was already viewed as a quality player even after turning in a tepid .216/.306/.405 slash in 2021. This year, he’s boosted that stat line to a much more palatable .249/.331/.430, and even that slash undersells just how strong of a finish he’s putting together. Dating back to early June, Murphy has mashed at a .278/.362/.465 clip with 13 homers, 23 doubles, a triple, a 9.4% walk rate and just a 16.3% strikeout rate in 385 plate appearances. That’s standout production from any hitter but especially from a catcher with above-average framing marks, a strong 31% caught-stealing rate and perennially positive marks in Defensive Runs Saved.

The Rays, Guardians, Cubs, Marlins, Tigers, Red Sox, Twins and several others teams could plausibly look into Murphy this winter. There are only seven teams that saw their catchers combine for offensive production that was better than that of a league-average hitter in 2022, and one of them was the A’s, so there’ll be no shortage of potential trade partners. As things stand, Murphy looks like the primary offseason trade chip who could be sold at peak value. Teams are sometimes reluctant to trade for a new starting catcher midseason and have him learn an entirely new pitching staff on the fly — hence, to an extent, Willson Contreras staying put this year — so trading Murphy over the next six months could be easier than marketing him next summer.

Beyond that group, the Oakland roadmap is more or less wide open. It’s not necessarily an enviable spot, but aside from Murphy at catcher and Laureano in one of the three outfield spots, the A’s are lacking in established, everyday players. Slugger Seth Brown figures to be a regular, but he’s capable of playing first base, corner outfield or slotting in at designated hitter, giving the front office some flexibility. Cristian Pache, acquired alongside Langeliers in the Olson trade with Atlanta, will be out of minor-league options in 2023, so he’ll likely be penciled into center field despite hitting just .248/.298/.349 in Triple-A and .160/.211/.225 in the majors. Otherwise, there are seemingly no guarantees of playing time.

Nick Allen has played excellent defense at shortstop but hasn’t hit enough to firmly seize the spot.  Kevin Smith, acquired for Chapman, hasn’t hit much in the Majors or in Triple-A and will likely get another look at third base or second base next year — but he has options remaining and could begin the year in Triple-A. Dermis Garcia has shown some pop at first base but has also fanned 46 times in 108 plate appearances. I already touched on Langeliers’ status. There’s just very little certainty throughout the roster.

As such, even though they’re not likely to attract (or to be willing to spend on) marquee free agents, the A’s can offer something many contending clubs cannot: opportunity. Hitters searching for a rebound might not relish playing half their games in the cavernous Coliseum the same way a pitcher might, but the promise of an earnest shot at 500-600 plate appearances isn’t something every team can offer to players coming off down years.

The A’s can absolutely do that, and with basically nothing committed to next year’s payroll, there’s every reason to do so. Former stars and top prospects who’ve seen their stock drop could see some appeal in the playing time available in Oakland, whether that’s Miguel Sano, Joey Gallo, Didi Gregorius or Wil Myers. Oakland is going to need someone to fill out the lineup, and they’re not going to be the top choice for in-demand free agents coming off strong seasons.

The A’s would also make a nice soft landing spot for any notable names who are non-tendered; paying up for a year of someone like Cody Bellinger, if he’s cut loose by the Dodgers, brings a recognizable name and some major upside come deadline season. Only time will tell whether the A’s spend on a few larger names or spread out any available resources among a larger number of low-cost options. Either route is plausible, but since they can’t expect to contend next season anyhow, the focus ought to be on acquiring short-term players who have the chance to net the most trade deadline value (or perhaps non-tendered players with multiple years of club control remaining).

One target that seems like a given, however, is a veteran catcher. If the A’s trade Murphy, they’ll want someone with some experience to work alongside Langeliers. If Murphy stays put, the best thing for Langeliers will be to play everyday in Triple-A, necessitating some type of backup addition. Austin Hedges, Omar Narvaez, Roberto Perez, Kevin Plawecki and Tucker Barnhart are among the available names.

Over on the pitching staff, things are a bit more solid — but not by much. Cole Irvin could reach arbitration as a Super Two player, but even then he’d have another four years of team control remaining. Clubs may still come calling, and the A’s might even find an offer to their liking, but it’s rare to see players with this much team control remaining actually change hands. Besides, Irvin is limping to the finish line (6.97 ERA over his past nine starts) and, with a 4.11 ERA in 175 innings overall, looks more like an innings-eating fourth starter than anything else. Some teams will need that, but the free-agent market offers comparable arms who won’t cost minor league talent. A deal could be hard to piece together here, particularly since the A’s also badly need stable innings of this nature.

Irvin and Blackburn, then, should take two rotation spots. The A’s can offer a guaranteed rotation spot and a spacious home park to any number of rebound hopefuls in free agency — Matthew Boyd, Dallas Keuchel, Chad Kuhl, Michael Pineda, Joe Ross, Vince Velasquez among them — and there are plenty of in-house options for the final spots. Adrian Martinez, James Kaprielian, Ken Waldichuk, JP Sears, Zach Logue, Adam Oller and Daulton Jefferies will be in the rotation mix next spring. Kaprielian is out of minor league options and has pitched well of late (3.43 ERA since July 1), so he’s a favorite for a role either in the rotation or bullpen next year.

Speaking of the ’pen, the Athletics should have innings — and perhaps even saves — to offer free agents in that regard as well. A.J. Puk (a potential Super Two player), Domingo Acevedo, Zach Jackson, Dany Jimenez and Sam Moll have all had nice years (albeit some of them with troubling command issues), but there’s no set closer in Mark Kotsay’s group. Dangling that role to lure a high-profile name like Ken Giles, Tommy Kahnle, Corey Knebel or even Craig Kimbrel could make for a compelling selling point.

It’s not yet clear just how high the A’s will be willing to take their payroll. They opened the 2022 season with a paltry $48M in commitments and would need to do a fair bit of work just to get back to that point. Given the huge gap between their projected commitments and even 2022’s stripped-down Opening Day payroll total, they should have plenty of room to get creative; the oft-proposed but seldom-implemented strategy of acquiring prospects by absorbing a bad contract does make some sense for Oakland, even if we’re not accustomed to the idea of them providing salary relief to another team.

We’ve seen the Red Sox (acquiring Jackie Bradley Jr. and Adam Ottavino over the past two offseasons) and the Giants back in 2018 (Zack Cozart) take on underwater contracts in trades that saw the Brewers, Yankees and Angels all surrender mid-range prospects to shed those commitments. With few established big-league talents left to sell for prospects at this point and a completely blank payroll slate, the A’s could consider that tactic.

Obviously, Oakland isn’t going to absorb the $59M still remaining on Patrick Corbin’s deal with the Nats. The A’s are probably in no hurry to eat the remaining $30.5MMthe Yankees owe to Aaron Hicks, either. Smaller-scale commitments to (relatively) young players, however, could make some sense. Scott Kingery, for instance, is clearly no longer in the Phillies’ plans and has just a year $9M to go on his contract. The Phillies, a luxury-tax payor, might have extra incentive to shed even his contract’s $4M AAV from the books as they plan for the 2023 campaign.

That’s just one speculative example, to be clear, and there’s no indication yet that Oakland’s ever-frugal ownership group would green-light the addition of player salary to bolster the middle tiers of the farm system. Still, it’d be a sensible approach given the current payroll and state of the rebuild.

I’ve written a lot of these offseason outlooks at MLBTR over the years, but it’s hard to recall a parallel with the current state of the A’s: a team with no guaranteed money on the following year’s books, a tiny arbitration class (that could be further depleted by trades/non-tenders), a farm system that still ranks in the bottom half to bottom third of the league, and almost nothing on the roster in terms of established, cost-controlled players. The A’s could go in countless directions this winter as they look to fill this blank canvas, but two things seem clear: they probably won’t spend much money along the way, and this rebuild is going to take some time.

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