It was just two seasons ago that the Athletics were flying high. They made the playoffs in each year from 2012 to 2014, and although they never went far — particularly in the latter year, when they were on the wrong end of one of the best postseason games ever — their solid core looked like it would grant them continued success.
But the bottom fell out in 2015, and it stayed out in 2016. Over the past two seasons, Oakland has lost 187 games, more than any other team in the American League. Billy Beane had neglected his farm system for years — even before 2014, it was one of the worst — and the Josh Donaldson trade robbed the big-league club of an MVP-level talent. 2017 doesn’t look much better, as FanGraphs projects the Athletics to go 78-84 and round out the AL West.
So why would a team that’s not contending in 2017 ink Rajai Davis — a 36-year-old outfielder — to a one-year, $6 million contract? Sure, he had a respectable showing in 2016 for the pennant-netting Indians, but at his age, he won’t get much better from here. This acquisition won’t move the needle for Oakland in 2017, so what’s the point?
Let’s put aside the value of having a veteran presence on one of the younger teams in the majors. Let’s also put aside the value of putting a competent product on the field, to motivate fans to buy tickets (which is especially necessary when this is your stadium). If Davis maintains his play from last year, he’ll give the A’s a solid outfielder, someone they can trade at midseason — and get some prospects for. Young players with six years of team control can aid the Athletics long after Davis is gone.
For an example of this strategy paying off, look at the Cubs. Following the 2012 season, a year in which they skidded to a 61-101 record, they signed Scott Feldman to a one-year, $6 million pact. They figured 2013 would be another rebuilding year, but they still wanted Feldman around — because of what he could bring back in a trade. Sure enough, the righty put up a solid half-season in Chicago, and in July, the club flipped him to Baltimore. In return came reliever Pedro Strop and a starter by the name of Jake Arrieta, who as you might have heard has fared pretty well for the Cubs.
The following offseason, Theo Epstein tried this strategy again, giving another one-year, $6 million contract to Jason Hammel. Like Feldman, Hammel held his own in the Cubs rotation; like Feldman, the Cubs subsequently dealt Hammel at midseason, this time to...the Athletics. In exchange for Hammel and Jeff Samardzija, Oakland sacrificed a number of talented prospects, chief among them shortstop Addison Russell — who just posted 3.9 fWAR for the World Series-winning Cubs.
Beane’s done this before, too. (Maybe he took a hint from Epstein.) Last winter, still reeling from his club’s worst season since 1997, Beane went out and snagged Rich Hill on a one-year, $5 million gamble. After washing out completely, Hill had made an unbelievable comeback in a September cup of coffee with the Red Sox, sailing to a 1.55 ERA and 2.35 DRA over 29.0 innings to close out 2015.
That month in Boston was no fluke — Hill carried his success over into 2016, where despite a nasty blister he earned a 2.12 ERA and 2.56 DRA in 110.1 frames. And that didn’t all occur in Oakland: At the trade deadline, the Athletics shipped Hill and right fielder Josh Reddick to the Dodgers, gaining a treasure trove of prospects in return. Jharel Cotton wowed in his late-season audition, and both Frankie Montas and Grant Holmes have tantalizing potential.
Davis has a much riskier profile than Feldman, Hammel, and Hill. He’s a lot older than the former two were when they joined the Cubs, and the latter’s junkballing ways made his age less of a factor. Still, at $6 million, a flyer on Davis is worth taking. If he plays at even an average level, he’ll attract interest from thirsty contenders come July.
“Average” isn’t out of the question for Davis, either. As I wrote back in August, Davis had a tremendous baserunning season in 2016, finishing with an unbelievable 10.0 BsR, according to FanGraphs. While his production at the plate declined — he tallied an 85 wRC+ after two seasons above 100 — that speed made him a two-win player by fWAR. Steamer isn’t too optimistic about his 2017, predicting a 0.5-fWAR performance in 546 trips to the dish; however, that system felt the same way prior to 2016, and look what happened after that.
As an Athletic, Davis will play adequate defense in the outfield, get on base at a decent clip, and steal the show (literally) once he’s there. If everything breaks right, that formula could add up to a one- to two-win player. Beane probably wouldn’t be able to parlay that into a future Cy Young winner or All-Star, but he’d nevertheless have a valuable asset. With the future finally starting to look bright in Oakland, Davis offers the A’s a chance to make it a little bit brighter.
. . .
Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, and about politics for The Diamondback. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.