Where Do the Athletics Go From Here?

Last week, the Padres’ managerial search came to a surprising end when they signed Bob Melvin to a three-year deal. Even though the A’s had picked up his contract option for the 2022 season, the team allowed him to interview for the vacant position in San Diego, and he ended up moving on to greener (or browner) pastures. One of the most respected and successful managers in baseball, Padres general manager A.J. Preller got the man at the top of his list.

With Melvin at the helm, the Padres are hoping to take another step forward after an ugly late-season collapse caused them to miss the playoffs, which led to previous manager Jayce Tingler’s dismissal. His successor inherits a roster full of young talent, an organization committed to using its resources to build a winning franchise, and a front office that’s been aggressive in supplementing the homegrown core. But while San Diego still has some glaring questions on its roster even with Melvin in place, the A’s are facing a far murkier future.

Over the past decade, the A’s have won 806 games with Melvin as manager, fifth most in the American League over that period, and earlier this summer, he surpassed Tony La Russa to become the winningest manager in Oakland history. That also includes six trips to the postseason, tied with the Astros and trailing only the Yankees for most in the AL in the last 10 years. Even though Oakland hasn’t advanced past the divisional round in any of those appearances, it has been among the most successful organizations in baseball during the past decade.

Athletics executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane recognized the level of success Melvin enjoyed despite some difficult circumstances in Oakland.

“Bob, arguably, has been the most successful manager we’ve had here, especially when you consider the challenges that he’s had. He’s had a roster that has turned over multiple times since he’s been here. He has one of the lower payrolls to deal with. From a professional and personal relationship, his tenure speaks for itself.”

Melvin obviously had no control over the amount of payroll space the team was working with or the unsettled stadium situation in Oakland that has cast an air of uncertainty over the future of the franchise, but his success is impressive nonetheless. The six postseason appearances certainly stand out, but he also oversaw a three-year rebuild from 2015 to ’17, losing 274 games in those three seasons. Essentially, he guided two separate talent cores to two separate three-year postseason runs during his tenure as the A’s manager.

But even though they were in the playoff conversation through the end of the season, the A’s showed some signs in 2021 that their competitive window is nearing an end, something that Melvin’s departure further cements. Case in point: After bringing in a number of veteran players at the trade deadline to shore up the roster, an already long list of free agents-to-be for Oakland got even longer. There are 11 players set to leave once free agency starts after the World Series ends, with two more players holding options for the 2022 season.

Oakland A’s Pending Free Agents
Player Position Age 2021 WAR
Starling Marte OF 33 5.4
Mark Canha OF 33 2.6
Yan Gomes C 34 1.6
Josh Harrison IF/OF 34 1.5
Andrew Chafin RP 31 1.4
Jed Lowrie 2B/DH 38 0.9
Sergio Romo RP 39 0.2
Yusmeiro Petit RP 37 0.0
Jake Diekman RP 34 -0.1
Mitch Moreland 1B/DH 36 -0.2
Mike Fiers SP 37 -0.3
Khris Davis DH 34 -0.4
Trevor Rosenthal RP 32 DNP
Chafin: $5.25MM mutual option / $500K buyout
Diekman: $4MM club option / $750K buyout

That’s a pretty significant exodus of talent. The A’s do have a comparable replacement for Marte already on the roster in Ramón Laureano, who will return from an 80-game PED suspension early next year. Losing Canha is a potentially more serious issue, since Oakland doesn’t have a young outfielder ready to step into an everyday role in left field. The bullpen is also set to lose a bunch of arms, though that isn’t as pressing a concern for a team that’s consistently built cheap and effective bullpens year in and year out.

All those pending free agents are concerning, but the real issue is the group of players in the middle of salary arbitration who are set to earn raises next year. The core of the roster is in this group, and paying all of them as well as replacing those free agents with new talent will be difficult for the perennially frugal franchise.

Oakland A’s 2022 Estimated Arbitration
Player Position Age Arbitration Year Estimated Arbitration Salary
Sean Manaea SP 30 Arb 3 $10.2M
Chris Bassitt SP 33 Arb 3 $8.8M
Chad Pinder IF/OF 30 Arb 3 $2.8M
Matt Chapman 3B 29 Arb 2 $9.5M
Matt Olson 1B 28 Arb 2 $12.0M
Frankie Montas SP 29 Arb 2 $5.2M
Tony Kemp 2B 30 Arb 2 $2.2M
Lou Trivino RP 31 Arb 2* $2.9M
Ramón Laureano CF 27 Arb 1 $2.8M
Deolis Guerra RP 33 Arb 1 $0.9M
*Super Two player

MLB Trade Rumors estimates those 10 players will cost the A’s a little over $57 million in arbitration in 2022, nearly two-thirds of the team’s total payroll from 2021. Along with the guaranteed contracts already on the roster, that brings Oakland’s estimated 2022 payroll to just under $83 million. That’s roughly $4 million less than 2021’s outlay and $11 million less than what was spent 2019. Without a significant infusion of cash into the payroll, the A’s already appear to be up against their ceiling, and that’s without adding talent to replace the players leaving in free agency.

The A’s could still make one last run at the playoffs in 2022, even without any additions to the roster. Chapman, Olson and Laureano form a solid trio to anchor the lineup, and the starting rotation that was such a strength of the club in 2021 is largely intact. The bullpen will need some help, but that should be easy to solve. There are also two strong internal candidates to take over for Melvin in Mark Kotsay and Ryan Christenson; the culture of the team probably wouldn’t take a hit if one of those two stepped in as manager.

But then the cracks start to show. Olson had a career year in 2021, but Chapman took another significant step back at the plate after a rough and inconsistent 2020. Kemp, Pinder, Stephen Piscotty, and Seth Brown all seem perfectly suited for part-time roles but would likely be overmatched if asked to be everyday starters. Since the A’s traded away prospects in their valiant effort to make the playoffs, their farm system is a bit depleted, too. The talent on the major league roster is still present, but the depth behind those starters is lacking.

Then there’s the ugly elephant in the room: the A’s are in the midst of a protracted battle with the city of Oakland and Alameda County over a potential new stadium. Team ownership has been hesitant to increase payroll until that is secured, and I wouldn’t bet on 2022 being the year they’ll change their minds. That puts the A’s in an awkward position. Do they run out the same core in 2022 and hope that a few small acquisitions and a bunch of luck leads to one last postseason run before that core prices itself out of Oakland’s tiny payroll in ’23? Or do they make the difficult choice to tear everything down this offseason — an offseason that’s already clouded by the impending expiration of the league’s CBA? If Melvin had stayed in Oakland, the first option would have been the easy choice. Without him in the manager’s chair, that second option certainly looks to be the more likely outcome right now.

Trading away Manaea, Bassitt, Chapman, Olson or Montas would probably bring back a huge haul of young talent, and moving all of those players this offseason could set the organization up for a quick rebuild cycle. That’s essentially what happened after the 2014 season: The A’s made a ton of win-now moves at the trade deadline of that season but ended up losing the AL Wild Card Game to the Royals. They wound up trading away Josh Donaldson and Jeff Samardzija, who was acquired for that run, during the offseason, and got back Bassitt and Marcus Semien in the deal for the latter.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the organization, it’s no surprise Melvin departed for San Diego. He had already guided the team through one rebuild phase; a second probably didn’t seem too appealing. Beane and A’s general manager David Forst were already in a tough position before he left. Now they’re facing an offseason without a key member of their decision-making trio and another hole to fill. It’ll be fascinating to see which path they decide to take this offseason.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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1 year ago

I really feel like people have a completely warped idea if what happened in the 2014-2015 off season because of Donaldson

Oakland didn’t rebuild. They added opening day payroll from the previous year.. they traded Donaldson for 2 MLB ready starters and Lawrie. And tried to makeup for the offensive difference between Lawrie and Donaldson by trading for Zobrist and signing Butler to a 10 mil a year contract. They traded Samardzija for Semien, Bassist, and Josh Phegley. All opening day starters.

That is not “rebuilding”. It didn’t work out, but that doesn’t change the fact that weren’t rebuilding.

As far as Melvin goes.: For the A’s sake, I hope he’s not the only major change. The whole player dev and scouting needs a complete overhaul. Melvin was only a single link in a chain that had a reliever with the lowest k/9 in baseball, a 4.72 fip, and 0.0 war lead the A’s in relief IP, and was 7th overall in the MLB.

Both Hendricks and Montas took major leaps off season by buying their own equipment and realizing the A’s coaches were having them there their worst pitches the most often .

1 year ago
Reply to  Towel

Ok but Bassitt, Manaea and Treinen improved over time. Luzardo was good until he was terrible. Petit was somehow useful. Puk was always bad. I’d call it a mixed bag more than an abject failure. The minor league system is more an indictment of player development.

1 year ago
Reply to  Towel

Bingo bingo bingo, the thing is, they have many more pieces they could move for prospects this offseason before it was really just Donaldson and “Shark”, this time, they have some serious talent, the mindset could be to trade them for quick turnaround prospects and really go for it when they have a stadium figured out somewhere and can spend some cash.