Díaz Signing Provides Minimal Relief for A’s Fans

© Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of a frenzied week at the Winter Meetings that saw teams ink five different players — Xander Bogaerts, Aaron Judge, Trea Turner, Justin Verlander, and Jacob deGrom — to contracts through their age-39 seasons, The Athletic’s Jayson Stark declared that it was “just like ‘old’ times.” All of these cornerstone stars will also receive at least $25 million annually through the duration of their deals. Meanwhile, last year, only the short-term pacts for Max Scherzer and Verlander fit both of these criteria; in the 2021 and ’20 offseasons, no contracts did. All of this while one big domino, Carlos Correa, has yet to fall.

This offseason’s free agent class is a special one, following multiple remarkable feats including Judge’s historic home run total and deGrom and Verlander’s dominant returns from serious arm injuries. But the sheer amount of money and years included in the contracts doled out thus far is also due, at least in part, to the open minds (and wallets) of team owners.

And just like the “old” times, the Steinbrennerian behavior of the Mets’ Steven Cohen and the Padres’ Peter Seidler, who both took over their respective teams heading into the 2021 offseason, has left other teams with smaller markets and/or more miserly owners in the dust. Only this time, the Oakland Athletics haven’t unearthed anything akin to their early-2000s Moneyball tactics, which by now have been adopted by all of the big market teams, in order to close the gap. Unless there’s something about Jace Peterson and Aledmys Díaz we don’t know, that is.

Since my colleague Kyle Kishimoto wrote about the Peterson signing, the official terms of his contract have been reported: via Jon Heyman, he’ll receive $9.5 million over two years. Kyle detailed how his improvements on offense and at third base in Milwaukee will likely slot the left-hander into the strong side of a platoon at the hot corner for the A’s.

The right-handed Díaz, who received a two-year, $14.5 million contract, can spell Peterson against lefties at third, which is also his best defensive spot. However, unlike Peterson, whose paltry 57 career wRC+ against southpaws makes him a strict platoon player, Díaz can hold his own against same-handed pitching. In fact, throughout his career, Díaz has put up reverse splits, notching a 109 wRC+ versus righties and a 96 mark versus southpaws.

Against righties, the best spot to utilize Díaz might be at second base, since his defense at the keystone grades out as above average as well. Though he came up as a shortstop, he’s cost his teams 17 Outs Above Average (OAA) at that spot. Besides, one of the A’s few bright spots last year was Nick Allen’s defense at short: the rookie managed 8 OAA there in just over 500 innings.

Speaking of when he came up, Díaz exceeded expectations in his 2016 debut as the Cardinals’ shortstop, slashing .300/.369/.512 and notching 2.8 WAR. However, his .370 WOBA belied an xWOBA mark .48 points lower, something I wish I’d known before I drafted him for my fantasy team that offseason. The next year, he sophomore-slumped his way to a .259/.290/.392 line, resulting in a midseason demotion and a 2018 trade to the Blue Jays for minor leaguer J.B. Woodman, who is now out of baseball.

But since the trade, Díaz has quietly put up a 102 wRC+ while playing above-average defense, especially after a move off short. Poor baserunning grades, despite an above-average 59th percentile sprint speed, have largely kept him from being a more productive regular. But he has still held his own on contending teams as a useful utility player.

The A’s front office was given a budget, however minuscule, and they figured they might as well spend the little money they had on some roster filler and a couple of veterans to flip at the trade deadline, or at least advise their greener players if they stick around. And Peterson and Díaz were two of the more productive vets who could be had at bargain prices. Perhaps the team calculated that their upside as potential trade chips will outweigh throwing more minor leaguers onto the field before their development is complete. This way, they can ensure that premature call-ups don’t shatter their minor leaguers’ confidence.

Maybe I’m wrong and Oakland has another Moneyball revolution up their sleeves. It’s always possible that Díaz will magically run into one (and no, I don’t mean with his elbow). But I just don’t see him returning to his rookie self, especially when his luck was off the charts that year. He’s already 32, and at this point, I’m inclined to believe that what you see is what you get.

Without a meaningful change in their appetite to spend, the payroll gap between teams like the A’s and teams like the Mets will continue to grow. (I still can’t believe the Mets were the New York team I used for that comparison.) One piece of good news for the A’s, however, is that, barring a move to a larger market like Las Vegas, Peter Siedler has demonstrated that there is another way to up a team’s budget. Both the Padres and the A’s rank at or near the bottom in terms of market size. One 2012 list had the Padres with the larger market; a 2007 ranking had the A’s. If the right owner can have the Padres spending like they do, maybe the same can be said of the A’s. But in the meantime, unless a local stadium deal materializes soon and the current owners can redirect their relocation funds towards player payroll, a move may be the only way to return the franchise to competitiveness. Without a new owner, a move, or another Moneyball, A’s fans will have to hope that their current compete-and-rebuild strategy is successful enough to get by with more supplements than stars signed through the free agent market.

Alex is a FanGraphs contributor. His work has also appeared at Pinstripe Alley, Pitcher List, and Sports Info Solutions. He is especially interested in how and why players make decisions, something he struggles with in daily life. You can find him on Twitter @Mind_OverBatter.

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1 year ago

Peterson and Diaz were signed to be traded to a contender in need of a utlity man/depth at midseason. It’s a cheap way to acquire future value. Or best-case scanario is one of them makes a Brandon Drury-esq leap and provides even more trade value.

These aren’t moves made to try and compete. They’re cheap placeholders that someone else might find useful later on.

1 year ago
Reply to  josephd10

I think you absolutely correct.

1 year ago
Reply to  josephd10

“A cheap way to acquire future value” is “a move made to try and compete.”

1 year ago
Reply to  hahiggins

Just not this season. Maybe not until ’25.

1 year ago
Reply to  josephd10

I assume this was the motivation but it’s not how I would have done it. Utility players do not return much of anything at the deadline. This is spending $5M or whatever for the chance to acquire a lottery ticket in the DSL who probably will eventually serve as org depth.

It’s pitching that returns actual prospects at the deadline. If there were no bad contracts they could take on for prospects, then: They should have spent this money on Taylor Rogers or Craig Kimbrel, high variance relievers who could be flipped if they do well. And Wade Miley or Mike Minor. Or they could have signed someone who is a starting-caliber position player to plug an injury for a contender midseason, like Frazier or Justin Turner.

And they still might do that. But these moves don’t do much. They’re moveable at the deadline in the sense that having an extra utility man is useful for almost everyone but because they’re not actually starting caliber it doesn’t increase the demand or the return.

Mitchell Mooremember
1 year ago
Reply to  josephd10

That’s one color of lipstick to put on a pig, But if that’s the gambit, didn’t the As still shoot themselves in the foot, as both players are likely less valuable trade deadline chips on two year deals rather on one year deals?