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The A’s continue not going for it

The A’s have plenty of top-level talent, but they haven’t significantly added to it.

Cincinnati Reds v Oakland Athletics Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

It’s typically not a good sign when a team’s offseason is defined by what they didn’t do. When winter comes, teams need to evaluate where they’re at competitively and either add to the major league roster or to the minor league system. “Winning the offseason” like the Reds did a few years ago doesn’t always translate to success, but it’s better than standing pat. Inaction doesn’t win championships.

The Oakland A’s didn’t do nothing this winter. They signed Trevor Rosenthal, Mitch Moreland, and Sergio Romo to one-year deals and they brought back Mike Fiers and Yusmeiro Petit. They also acquired Elvis Andrus and Adam Kolarek in two separate trades. Those are all fine enough moves on their own if only because it’s hard to find any fault in a one-year contract, but none of these are likely to be franchise altering.

These additions say less about Oakland’s philosophy than their decisions not to extend qualifying offers to Liam Hendriks or Marcus Semien. This winter, a qualifying offer was worth $18.9 million should the player accept as Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman did. If Hendriks or Semien received a qualifying but ultimately turned it down, the Athletics would have received a compensatory draft pick after the second round.*

*Assuming they signed for less than $50 million guaranteed. Hendriks signed for $54 million, but he likely would have earned less with a qualifying offer dragging his value down.

From a team’s perspective, there’s no reason not to extend a qualifying offer if you’re certain the player will accept. The only reason to refuse is if you think they will and you don’t want to pay them. We’ll never know whether Hendriks and/or Semien would have accepted but gauging from what they ultimately signed for, the answer is: probably not.

Both Semien and Hendriks ultimately received deals comparable to the qualifying offer. Semien got a one-year, $18 million deal from the Blue Jays and Hendriks got three-years, $54 million. If $18.9 million for a year of either was an overpay, it was only by a small margin.

Hendriks has been one of the very best relievers in all of baseball the past two seasons. Even if we believe 2019 was a fluke, Semien is still a three-to-four win player. Rosenthal is a fine consolation prize after losing Hendriks, but imagine if the A’s had Rosenthal and Hendriks or even just Rosenthal and another high draft pick. That’s not how the A’s operate though. It’s always one or none and never both.

The A’s have fantastic talent at the top of their roster, and it wouldn’t have taken much to fill their holes. Oakland entered the winter with Tony Kemp starting at second and Chad Pinder at short. The starting job still belongs to Tony Kemp who has never been worth a win in a season. Elvis Andrus taking the six-hole is clearly a worse option. He’s put up a 74 wRC+ over the last three seasons, but hey, he’s getting paid less than Khris Davis this year, so it’s a win, right?

With Davis gone, the A’s needed someone to slot in at designated hitter, and Mitch Moreland who they’re turning to. He’s far from a sure thing, though. Moreland was a benefactor of the shortened season, posting career-best marks in wOBA and wRC+ at .372 and 135 respectively. The odds are against him repeating that performance. Both ZiPS and PECOTA project him to be below average at the plate. Even if his glove were as good as it once was, it’s redundant on the same roster as Matt Olson.

The A’s were fortunate that while Olson, Ramon Laureano, and Matt Chapman weren’t themselves in 2020, Sean Murphy, Robbie Grossman, Tommy La Stella and Mark Canha all had exceptional seasons. La Stella and Grossman, of course, are gone now. Grossman signed with the Tigers and La Stella went across the Bay to the Giants. Murphy likely isn’t going to keep drawing walks at Troutian levels, and Canha will need to get his power back with a less lively ball.

Even if all their core offensive pieces stay healthy and produce, the A’s will need to add a bat sometime before the trade deadline. One would hope they would have added someone dependable by now, but a wait-and-see approach is cheaper in the long run.

The bullpen has been a major reason that the A’s have succeeded over the last three seasons. It still figures to be a strength in 2021, but it’s hard to argue that it didn’t get worse. Rosenthal was great last year, but he’s been less consistent than Hendriks. Joakim Soria is gone, replaced with Sergio Romo which is another slight downgrade. Jake Diekman was stellar last year, but he’s shown no signs of lowering his career rate of walking five batters per nine innings.

The rotation still has the same question marks it had the year before. It’s reasonable to think Jesús Luzardo will get better results, but outside of him, there’s cause for concern. Chris Bassitt probably isn’t going to have an ERA under 3.00 again. Mike Fiers could miss the first part of the season. Sean Manaea’s velocity has dipped since he got hurt. The A’s are going to have to dip into their rotation depth, but that isn’t a strong point of the roster.

On paper, the A’s are looking up at the Angel and Astros in the AL West. Both PECOTA and FanGraphs have the A’s winning roughly 83 games. The fact that FanGraphs still gives the A’s a 32.5 percent chance of making the postseason is more an indictment of the American League than a vote of confidence in Oakland. There’s perhaps only one truly great team in AL—the Yankees—and there’s a smattering good-but-obviously-flawed teams as well. The A’s certainly fall into the latter category.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.