Just one week into the offseason, the Oakland Athletics have begun their rebuild toward an improved 2017.
In a largely unsurprising move, the front office’s opening salvo came in the form of a trade, sending slugging third baseman Danny Valencia to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for minor league pitcher Paul Blackburn.
Blackburn, a 2012 compensatory round pick (No. 56 overall) of the Chicago Cubs, has appeared in 90 games (85 starts) boasting a 29-17 record and 3.24 ERA.
The move came in response to a need of improved organization-wide depth in the rotation, as well as a fading interest in Valencia with the 2016 arrival of standout youngster Ryon Healy. The big league starting staff is not in need of players like Blackburn, though. What it needs is a top-line veteran to support the very young bottom half of the rotation.
Starting pitching is not the top need in either capacity, however, with two starting positions currently vacant in the outfield.
That shortage is something the front office has openly acknowledged. And, as general manager David Forst told CSN Bay Area’s Joe Stiglich, it will take fiscal commitment to be properly addressed:
“We need major league outfielders. We have to be (open) to any means of acquiring, whether it’s free agents or trades. It’s certainly not our history to be aggressive at the top end of the free agent market, but we have money to spend and we have some good options.”
Money must be spent in order for the A’s to return to the role of postseason contenders. And there are several places in which it can be spent.
Here are Oakland’s top three needs this offseason.
A center fielder
It is often claimed that the measure of a solid baseball team is its strength up the middle.
As they sit, the A’s are happy with a steadily improving and stellar offensive producer in Marcus Semien at shortstop. Second baseman Joey Wendle, who made his debut in 2016, has shown the skills necessary to be a solid contributor, and two-time All-Star Stephen Vogt is a point of strength behind the plate.
What that leaves is a huge gap in center field.
Fowler, who fits both needs a bit more adequately, carries a career on-base percentage more befit of a leader — .366 to Gomez’s .312. Gomez, though, brings the base-stealing speed Oakland lacked in 2016 (50 stolen bases, second-fewest in AL) — 32 stolen bases per 162 games to Fowler’s 19. Both 30-year-old former All-Stars would add defensive solidarity to an outfield that lacked exactly that in 2016.
Gomez would likely come with a more affordable price tag. While Fowler will search for an offer in the vicinity of $60 to $70 million over five years, Gomez could be reeled in for something closer to $10 million per year over three years.
No matter the choice, solidifying the middle of the field with an improved center fielder is the A’s biggest need this offseason. That need also offers an opportunity to fill the need in the one spot of the order.
An opening filled early in the 2015 offseason by lefty Rich Hill, Oakland is once again in the market for leadership in the rotation. While a Hill return is an outside chance, a guy like Doug Fister or Colby Lewis would be a much more feasible option.
Lewis, 37, has never separated himself as a star, but has been a consistent contributor in heart of a rotation that has twice pitched its way into the World Series.
Not only does he boast a plus-.500 (77-72) career record, he has never won at any park the way he has in Oakland, where he hold a career 9-4 record with a 3.33 ERA, including near perfection in June this season.
Fister, 32, is just two years removed from an eighth-place finish in the 2014 NL Cy Young Award race. Since that 16-6 season (2.41 ERA), though, he has gone 17-20 with an ERA near 4.50.
Having made just nine appearances in the East Bay (all starts), Fister is 4-4 with a 2.61 ERA within the concrete confines of the Coliseum.
Either starter could be added to the A’s staff for a price below the $6 million deal Hill agreed to, although Fister would be near that mark. With uncertainty surrounding ace Sonny Gray’s ability to pitch at the level he is so used to, manager Bob Melvin and pitching coach Curt Young will feel much more secure with their young staff if it had either (or any) established middle of the rotation-type starters on which to lean.
Right field power
With Mark Canha expected to return to a newly renovated infield, which includes Healy and Wendle, that leaves Forst with just one position to fill — right field. And while Khris Davis secured his spot in the heart of the Oakland order with his 42 bombs, someone to bat between him and Healy would add an element of fear in a lineup that offered little of it in 2016.
With the AL’s fourth-fewest home run total of a year ago (169), even despite Davis’ output, adding a bat to take the onus off Healy in his first full season is a necessity.
Due to limitations in the pocket book, top power threats like Jose Bautista and Mark Trumbo are all but out of the question. Someone like Colby Rasmus, who averages 24 home runs per every 162 games, could serve as an affordable option.
Rasmus has swatted 20 or more home runs in four of his eight seasons, but a down 2016 (.206 average and 15 home runs) will limit the offers he receives. It is also worth noting that he has never endure back-to-back seasons with fewer than 20 bombs, should the A’s be interested in a one-year pact — one that would be valued around $8 million.
Like the general manager said, this is an offseason in which the A’s have some money to spend. As is normally the case in those situations, however, there are several key needs. In hopes of returning to October glory, the work must be done now in the front office.