A’s Complete Roster Overhaul, Add Ben Zobrist

The White Sox have had an incredibly busy offseason, but the goal’s always been clear. The Padres, too, have had a busy offseason, striving for an obvious purpose. Right before the Padres took the industry by storm, it was the Dodgers who were making moves every half hour, toward, again, a clear goal of contention. The A’s have had their own busy offseason, but theirs had been more confusing. Giving three guaranteed years to Billy Butler seemed like a move for a team trying to win. Dealing away a long-term asset like Josh Donaldson seemed like the opposite. To Oakland’s credit, though, they stuck to their own message — they weren’t trying to rebuild. They don’t believe in rebuilds. And now we can see how things all come together.

When the Rays signed Asdrubal Cabrera, after having acquired Nick Franklin last summer, they were provided the flexibility to move Ben Zobrist in advance of his contract year. Zobrist, of course, appealed to just about every team in baseball, on account of his talent and flexibility. Now Zobrist has been moved, and he’s been moved to the A’s, along with Yunel Escobar, in exchange for John Jaso, Daniel Robertson, and Boog Powell. The trade’s interesting from the Tampa Bay side, just because it involves moving one of the best players on the team. And the trade’s interesting from the Oakland side, because it adds a great player at little short-term cost. Score yet another point for those who issue reminders that you shouldn’t judge offseasons until they’re complete.

Not that Billy Beane is necessarily finished. It’s still not even the middle of January, and he would appear to have a few remaining millions of dollars to spend, if he liked. But the roster looks complete, in terms of meaningful players. It doesn’t seem like there are any remaining dominoes. The big difference between yesterday’s A’s and today’s A’s: today’s A’s feature a new All-Star-caliber player, and all that’s been subtracted from the big-league squad is a DH who was all but out of a job.

This was the kind of move the A’s have long been trying to make. When the A’s dealt Donaldson, they wanted to bring in a different quality player. They tried hard for Chase Headley right away, but Headley ultimately opted not to go to Oakland, so the A’s were left searching elsewhere. Given Beane’s creativity, they’ve drawn some links to Colorado and Troy Tulowitzki. But Zobrist will do, and since Zobrist was traded, he had no say in his destination. He couldn’t turn the A’s down, like Headley. So the A’s are happy to have him, and for anyone who isn’t already familiar with Zobrist’s ability, here’s a brief summary:

  • 2011: 11th in baseball in position-player WAR
  • 2012: 13th
  • 2013: 18th
  • 2014: 12th

The downsides are these: Zobrist is 33 years old. He hasn’t hit for power since 2012. This is his final year of team control. But as far as that last point is concerned, Zobrist is likely to be good enough to justify a qualifying offer after the year, and anyhow, the A’s are most focused for the moment on 2015. Zobrist’s lowest WAR since 2009 is 3.7. He plays a lot, he switch-hits, he gets on base, and — importantly — he plays all over the field. Zobrist isn’t just a plug for the A’s hole at second base. What the A’s have now is depth at almost every position.

However you feel about Josh Phegley, he has been able to hit at Triple-A, so he’s a decent backup for Stephen Vogt. Vogt has demonstrated an ability to play first base and the corner outfield. Zobrist can play just about everywhere. Brett Lawrie can handle second and third. Marcus Semien can handle most of the infield. Yunel Escobar is a capable defensive shortstop. Sam Fuld, Craig Gentry, and Coco Crisp can all handle center. Billy Butler is depth at first base if Mark Canha isn’t. And the rotation has depth even before you factor in the attempted comebacks of Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin. Zobrist adds to the top of the A’s roster, but they’ve also positioned themselves now to avoid any catastrophes at the bottom. More than anything else, depth is Oakland’s current greatest strength.

Steamer’s just Steamer, but if you choose to believe in Steamer for a second, then based on the depth charts, Oakland projects to be at least league-average just about everywhere. The biggest issue is left field, where the A’s are projected for 1.9 WAR against an average of 2.2. Not only is that close enough to not mean anything — we don’t know how the playing time is going to work out. And Sam Fuld was a three-win player just last year. Put everything together and the A’s project for a .520 winning percentage. That’s fifth-highest in the American League, right by the Indians. It actually slots the A’s just ahead of the Angels. Projections come with big error bars, but it’s obvious now the A’s have constructed a team they think can make the playoffs.

Even though Escobar isn’t the point, here, he’s not nothing — a couple years ago, he was a well-above-average player, and the issue last year was a mysterious defensive drop-off of massive proportion. His DRS dropped by an inconceivable 28 runs. His UZR also dropped by an inconceivable 28 runs. When asked in the middle of the season, Joe Maddon didn’t have a great explanation, and for Escobar’s career, he’s mostly been an above-average defensive shortstop. If that comes back, Escobar can be an asset, for $5 million this year and $7 million the next. There’s also a $7 million 2017 club option, so Escobar might be able to hold the fort until Franklin Barreto is ready. He’s at least an alternative to Semien, if it turns out Semien isn’t a great fit at shortstop.

What the A’s are losing isn’t insignificant. You couldn’t swing this kind of trade for an insignificant return. John Jaso has posted a 121 wRC+ two years in a row, following a 143. Daniel Robertson ranked as Oakland’s No. 1 prospect. Boog Powell just finished a year in the minors with an OBP of about .450 as a center fielder. Because Zobrist appealed to just about everybody, the A’s had to compete with just about everybody, and this deal saw them borrow from the future for the sake of the present.

But this isn’t the Addison Russell deal, or anything close. Russell, now and at the time of the trade, was considered an elite-level prospect. Robertson was Oakland’s No. 1, but only because Oakland doesn’t have a particularly deep or impressive system. He’s a shortstop, and he might remain a shortstop, but he might have to move to second or third. He has yet to play above High-A, and he has more of a line-drive bat than a power bat. On a given top-100 list, Robertson would likely rank somewhere in the middle. As for Powell, the discipline is impressive, as last year he walked more than he struck out, but he also has just three homers to his name, with a .067 ISO. He’s a center fielder, but not a spectacular one, so he profiles more as a reserve. The discipline could erode as he climbs higher and gets challenged more often. Powell’s useful, with a low ceiling.

It’s a trade Oakland could afford. They’re in position to win. Having Barreto and Semien made it less important to protect Robertson. Jaso can hit, but he’s had concussion issues, and he was almost out of a job. Now the A’s are good enough to contend with the Mariners and the Angels, and making the moves they’ve made in this order helps to generate enthusiasm for the season ahead, where a few weeks ago fan morale was lower. Not that that’s the important thing, but now the idea’s clearer. Beane never stopped wanting to win. He just believes more in this roster than in the roster he had in October.

On the Tampa Bay side, there’s real loss, here, which is obvious. In a way it’s interesting — both Tampa Bay and Oakland want to win, they both want to balance the short-term and the long-term, and they’re both lower-payroll ballclubs. Today they made opposite trades. But the Rays protected themselves against the Zobrist loss by signing Cabrera, and by acquiring Franklin, and given that this was almost inevitable, it will help the Rays to add Jaso to the roster immediately. Robertson becomes one of their better prospects, and even if he can’t handle shortstop in the long run, his bat should allow him to play in the majors at a less-demanding position. Robertson isn’t an upside-get, but he’s a safety-get, and that’s something the Rays value.

It stood to reason that Zobrist would bring back something approximating the Jason Heyward package, or the Justin Upton package. Jaso is the help in the short-term. Robertson is the potential help in the long-term. Powell is an additional wild card, and for whatever it’s worth, the Rays were also given $1.5 million. The Rays are still more of a good team than a bad team — this is a loss, but not a dramatic one — and this is simply what was out there for them. The Rays could still win in 2015. They’ll be in a tougher division than Oakland, though, from the looks of things, so now the Rays have helped themselves more down the road, when Zobrist would’ve been gone anyway. A move like this is never easy to swallow, but, Rays fans are used to it.

You never want to trade a Ben Zobrist, but the Rays knew they were going to, and they found appropriate value. As for the A’s, they’re enthusiastic about receiving a Ben Zobrist, and now a completely different Oakland team will look to have a very similar kind of Oakland regular season. Maybe not down to the last detail. But as confusing as Oakland’s winter has been, it all makes more sense now on the other side.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

“As for Powell, the discipline is impressive, as last year he struck out more than he walked, but he also has just three homers to his name, with a .067 ISO. He’s a center fielder, …”

if that is plate discipline, striking out more than walking, that sucks. Shouldn’t it be walking more than striking out?

9 years ago
Reply to  Eric

He has walked more than he’s struck out, so it was a minor error in wording, not analysis.

9 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

I wish my old midterms and finals had an edit button.