With majority of their 2013 roster under team control for 2014, the Oakland A's could have a quiet off-season and still go into the 2014 campaign with post-season aspirations. However, as the A's front office demonstrated last off-season, Oakland isn't likely to stand-pat given how close the team appears to be to a World Series title.
At quick glance, the A's don't have any major glaring areas in need of improvement. Their offense scored the third-most runs in the American League in 2013, and that was with key contributor John Jaso missing the final two months of the season and middle-of-the-order bats Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick having disappointing seasons. Their pitching staff also was among the best in the league, finishing second in the AL in team ERA, with strong contributions from both the starting rotation and the bullpen.
While the A's aren't faced with a long list of potential free agents, they do have some significant questions to address for the off-season. We take a look at those below.
Question #1: Should the A's re-sign Bartolo Colon?
After finishing last season on the suspended list, Colon was not necessarily a hot free agent commodity despite a strong pre-suspension 2012. That is likely to be a different story in 2013, as Colon is coming off of a suspension-free year during which he posted an ERA+ of 141 and led all A's pitchers with a 5.1 WAR. Colon is 40 years old and teams may still have questions about him given the recent suspension, but it would be surprising if Colon didn't receive at least a couple of offers of deals worth seven figures for one or two years.
Colon indicated after the season that he was interested in pitching three more years, and that could be a sign that he will be looking for a multi-year deal this off-season. A multi-year deal may make it less likely that the A's re-sign Colon, given the risk involved in projecting how a pitcher at age 41-42 will hold up. On the other hand, if Colon is willing to go year-to-year, it is certainly possible that the A's will give him an offer in the $10-14 million range.
Colon's value to the pitching staff this season cannot be overstated. He was the only A's starter besides Sonny Gray to post an ERA+ better than 100. Colon was a stabilizing force in the rotation. He averaged better than 6.1 innings per start and walked only 29 in 190.1 innings, giving the A's almost an automatic game every five days during which the bullpen would not be stressed. Colon was the only A's starter to allow fewer than two walks per nine innings (1.4). The younger members of the A's staff talked frequently throughout the season about how much they learned from watching Colon attack the strike-zone.
Age and durability are both still questions for Colon. He landed on the disabled list again in 2013, as he has each of the past four seasons. However, he missed just two weeks and he was hitting 93 MPH during his post-season start, so it appears there is still plenty left in Colon's tank. In all likelihood, whether Colon comes back to Oakland will depend on whether he seeks one-year or two-to-three years in the open market.
Of course, there is an argument to be made that the A's don't need Colon (or any other veteran starter) going into next year. A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Dan Straily and Sonny Gray are all under team control for next year. And then, of course, there is Brett Anderson, who had a lost 2013 season but could easily be the A's top starter in 2014 if he returns to form.
Griffin and Parker are both locks for the rotation next year. Both regressed some during their sophomore seasons, but both were valuable starters in 2013 (Griffin was second among A's pitchers with a 2.3 WAR, while Parker was third at 1.9). Both did end the season with elbow discomfort, although Griffin was reportedly cleared to pitch in the ALCS had the A's moved on to that round. Parker's post-season MRI revealed a strained forearm requires rest, and not surgery, to correct. If the A's are confident that Parker will be fine going into the 2014 season, the A's may consider sticking with their young corps and saving the money that would go to Colon to address other needs.
Straily and Gray both split their seasons between Triple-A and the big leagues, but by the end of the season, they were arguably the A's best two starters. Straily allowed two runs or fewer in each of his last five regular season starts and he pitched very well (save one pitch to Jhonny Peralta) during his one post-season outing. Straily's command improved over his 2012 big league stint, as he did a better job of locating within the strike-zone, cutting his HR/9 by more than half. Given his minor league track record and his improvement in 2013, Straily could be in-line for a breakout 2014 campaign and he should receive an opportunity to be part of the A's rotation from the start of the year.
Gray may soon find himself at the top of the A's rotation. Oakland's top pick in 2011 reached the big leagues midway through his second full professional season. He didn't pitch like a rookie, striking out more than a batter an inning and allowing just four homeruns in 64 innings. Gray has top-of-the-rotation stuff. His command can betray him at times (as it did in his Game 5 outing against the Tigers), but he is the pitcher on the A's staff most capable of morphing into an ‘ace'. Gray will have off-season surgery to repair a left thumb ligament he tore during Game 5 of the ALDS, but he is expected to be ready for spring training. Like Straily, Gray should get the opportunity to start the year in the A's rotation.
If the A's do re-sign Colon (or bring in another veteran starter) that could leave lefties Anderson and Milone on the outside looking in. The A's have a decision to make with Anderson, who has a team option worth $8 million for 2014 and another team option (this one worth $12 million) for 2015. Anderson has been plagued by injuries since his breakout rookie season in 2009, and there are legitimate concerns that he will never remain healthy enough to be the top-of-the-rotation starter the A's expected him to be when he signed his current contract. On the other hand, Anderson had no trouble with his arm in 2013 (his injuries were all to his leg and foot) and, if he is healthy, he could be the A's best starter in 2014. The A's could also consider making Anderson a back-end reliever should they decide not to re-sign closer Grant Balfour (more on that later), if the A's believe that Anderson's command issues out of the bullpen this season are correctable.
Whether the A's plan to keep Anderson in the rotation, the bullpen or on the team at all, they are likely to pick up his option, as $8 million in modern baseball money isn't that significant for a player of his talent. Oakland could try to move Anderson. Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle has reported that the Toronto Blue Jays are interested in Anderson. MLBTradeRumors.com also reported that the Blue Jays may be interested in dealing shortstop Jose Reyes. It would likely take more than Anderson for the A's to pry away Reyes, but given A's starting shortstop Jed Lowrie's ability to play other positions, the A's could make a run at adding Reyes, who would improve their infield defense, as well as enhance the top of their line-up.
Milone's future is the most murky among the group of A's 2013 starters. The left-hander had his struggles in 2013. He posted a 4.14 ERA in 156.1 innings and he walked only 2.2 batters per nine innings, but he allowed more than a hit per inning and 1.4 HR/9. The A's removed Milone from their rotation in favor of Gray late in the year, although Milone did have two solid starts for the A's in September.
Even if the A's don't have a clear spot for Milone on Opening Day, they would be wise to hold onto him, especially if they don't re-sign Colon (or bring in a replacement for Colon). Oakland's starting pitching depth at the Triple-A level is relatively thin at the moment, with Andrew Werner and Arnold Leon being the top starters expected to return to Sacramento next season. Unlike last off-season when Straily and Gray could be penciled in as top prospects expected to be mid-season contributors, the A's top starting pitching prospect going into 2014 (Raul Alcantara) isn't expected to be big-league ready for another year and a half, at the very least. Given that lack of upper-level starting pitching depth, Milone would serve as excellent insurance for the A's for when the inevitable injuries strike.
Question #2: Should the A's re-sign Grant Balfour?
The A's other free agent besides Colon this off-season is Balfour, who has been a rock for Oakland at the back-end of their bullpen for much of the past three seasons. Although his 3.9 BB/9 led to some hairy ninth innings, Balfour was one of the most efficient at closing out wins this season. He saved 38 games in 41 chances (and 24 in 26 chances last season).
Balfour struck-out 72 in 62.2 innings in 2013 and he posted an ERA+ of 145. He allowed just 48 hits, although seven of those left the park (1.0 HR/9). Whether one believes in the value of saves over other relief innings, Balfour was still one of the better right-handed relievers in the AL this season and, without question, Balfour will be difficult for the A's to replace.
Although he will be hard to replace, Balfour is likely to sign with another team this off-season. He is likely to command a multi-year contract worth at least $10 million a year. The A's did sign Balfour to a multi-year deal to bring him to Oakland, but the year-by-year cost was much lower back then, as he hadn't developed a reputation around the league as an established closer. Given Balfour's age (35) and the volatility in the effectiveness of relievers (especially older ones), a multi-year contract for Balfour would be risky for a small-market team like the A's.
If Balfour does leave, the A's have several in-house candidates to replace him in the ninth inning. Set-up men Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle both have experience closing and both have closer's ‘stuff'. Cook has more of a history as a closer, but Doolittle might be better suited for the job given that Doolittle has better command. Cook also struggled at times versus lefties this season, while Doolittle has generally pitched equally well against both righties and lefties.
Even if the A's go with an in-house replacement for Balfour in the ninth, they could look outside of the organization for another veteran reliever. With the exception of Balfour, the A's main relievers in 2013 (Doolittle, Cook, Jerry Blevins, Jesse Chavez, Dan Otero, Evan Scribner and Pat Neshek) are all under team control for 2014. The A's also have hard-throwing Pedro Figueroa in Triple-A and he will be out of options unless he is granted an extra option year for missing most of the 2011 season after Tommy John surgery. That should be a solid group for 2014, but the A's front office has consistently been good at identifying solid relief arms out on the open market and adding another middle-innings or set-up man could be key for the A's in 2014.
Question #3: What should the A's outfield situation look like in 2014?
The A's had arguably one of the deepest outfields in the major leagues this season, although several of the A's outfield corps had down years at the plate. Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Chris Young and Seth Smith were the A's regular outfielders and all of them came into the 2013 season with significant experience as starters in the big leagues. Add in Brandon Moss (who played mostly first base in 2013 but has historically been a corner outfielder) and the A's outfield was as deep as it gets.
Much of that group should return in 2014. Young and Crisp have team options for next season; Crisp's ($7.5 million) is expected to be picked up, while Young's ($11 million) is expected to be declined. Cespedes is already signed to a contract for next season, but Smith, Reddick and Moss are all arbitration-eligible and will likely see significant pay raises for 2014.
It is pretty much a no-brainer that the A's will bring back Reddick and Moss, and they may try to sign both to long-term deals to avoid arbitration. Moss is the A's best power-hitter, while Reddick provides significant defensive value and his offensive production is likely to increase if he has better health in 2014 (he suffered through wrist problems for most of the year and will have off-season surgery).
Whether the A's bring back Smith is a more difficult question. Smith had an up-and-down year at the plate, getting off to a fast start in April, but then struggling for most of the middle months of the season before rebounding in September and October. Smith had Lasik surgery on his eyes during the season and was a much better hitter after the surgery. However, he doesn't bring much defensive value with him and he is limited to facing right-handed pitchers. He may command as much as $5-6 million in arbitration, money that may be better spent in other areas.
The A's could go out and acquire a replacement for Young (and possibly Smith), but they have a good one in-house already in Michael Choice. The A's top pick in 2010 had a solid first year at the Triple-A level this season, hitting .302 and finishing among the finalists for PCL MVP. Choice got his feet wet at the major league level in September, and he acquitted himself well. Although the numbers didn't always show it, Choice hit the ball hard during his MLB time and he also played well defensively. Choice posted OPSs above 800 against both righties and lefties with Sacramento, so he shouldn't be as limited to platoon situations as both Young and Smith were in 2013.
Outfielder Shane Peterson could also be considered as an in-house replacement for Smith. Peterson had a somewhat disappointing 2013 season after a breakthrough 2012 campaign, but he finished his year with Sacramento swinging the bat well. Peterson, who can also play a solid first base, provides more defensive flexibility than Smith, as he has experience playing all three outfield positions and first base. Peterson isn't a burner, but he runs the bases well and he has always seen a lot of pitches per at-bat. Given his defensive skills, his base-running and his approach at the plate, Peterson could be an excellent fifth outfielder/25th-man.
Question #4: What will the A's catching situation look like?
Although Stephen Vogt played in all but two innings during the post-season, the A's actually carried three catchers on their ALDS roster: Vogt, Derek Norris and Kurt Suzuki. The A's were without the services of their top catcher – John Jaso, who had to miss the series (and the final two months of the regular season) dealing with the after-effects of a concussion.
Of that group of four catchers currently on the A's 40-man roster, all but Suzuki are expected back for 2014. Suzuki has an $8.5 million club option for 2013, and the A's aren't expected to pick up that option. Oakland could explore bringing Suzuki back on a cheaper deal, but if Jaso is cleared to catch next season, there wouldn't be an obvious place for Suzuki on the A's 25-man roster.
Assuming Jaso is cleared to catch by doctors in the coming weeks, the A's are likely to stay pat on the major-league level with Jaso, Norris and Vogt as their catchers. Vogt would likely start the 2014 season in Triple-A under this scenario and he would give the A's excellent depth from Triple-A.
Given the difficulty in projecting how players recover from concussions, the A's will likely scour the minor league free agent market for the best catcher available. Prospect David Freitas had a down year at the plate in 2013, and if Jaso were to have to miss significant time next season, Freitas would be the next option behind Norris and Vogt. Given the value the A's place on catchers and their ability to handle the pitching staff, the A's may look for a more veteran option as plan 1C.
Question #5: Can the A's improve their infield defense?
With third baseman Josh Donaldson (6.5 oWAR), shortstop Jed Lowrie (4.4 oWAR) and first baseman Brandon Moss (3.6 oWAR) all putting together excellent offensive seasons, the A's had one of the more productive infields on offense. Defensively, the A's infield left something to be desired. Donaldson was above-average at third (1.8 dWAR) and second baseman Eric Sogard was a plus with the glove (1.0 dWAR), but the rest of the A's infielders rated well below-average. The A's had trouble turning double-plays all season and were the least efficient at turning groundballs up the middle into outs for much of the year.
Since moving to the Coliseum in 1968, the A's have always built their teams around pitching and defense, so the 2013 club was somewhat of a departure from the norm (although the A's outfield defense was good). The A's were able to play around their defensive inefficiencies, but at times it put a strain on a young pitching staff. Going into this off-season, the A's may look at whether they can improve their infield defense without losing the advantage they maintained at the plate in 2013.
One spot the A's could upgrade defensively would be at first base. Moss has served admirably as the team's regular first baseman against right-handed pitching since midway through last season. However, Moss is much better suited to play left field or DH than he is to play first base. In September when the A's brought back Daric Barton and moved Moss to an outfield/DH role, they had their best defensive alignment of the season.
Barton is one possibility for the A's at first base. The former perennial top prospect looked to be playing his final season in the A's organization until he re-emerged with a strong September with Oakland. Barton is a solid defensive first baseman. Offensively, he has never morphed into the Jason Giambi-clone the A's were hoping they had acquired in 2004. However, he can still put together good at-bat, as he showed in September when he hit .318/.403/.439.
This will be Barton's second year of arbitration-eligibility and he made $1.1 million last season. With the way the arbitration system works, Barton is likely to make at least that same amount even though he spent most of the season in Triple-A. Barton is also out of options (as he was this season), so if the A's commit significant money to him, they will be doing so with the knowledge that they could be spending that money on a player in Triple-A once again.
If the A's don't bring back Barton, they could still try to upgrade at first base through the free agent market. Boston's Mike Napoli leads that list, but it isn't a particularly enticing group of free agents and most of them are poor defenders (with the exception of Casey Kotchman). The A's could also look to the trade market.
Another option the A's could consider is moving Lowrie from shortstop to first base. Lowrie has played only a handful of games at first in his major league career, but he has good hands and the position might be a good fit. This isn't a likely scenario, however.
A more likely (although still not probable) scenario would be for the A's to move Lowrie to second base. Lowrie didn't fare particularly well from a range perspective at second base this season, but if the A's could acquire a shortstop like Jose Reyes who plays the position well and is a contributor on offense, it is a move worth exploring. The A's could also consider keeping Moss at first base, making Lowrie the regular DH and looking for a good glove at short.
The A's second base situation is going to be murky heading into next season even if Lowrie remains at shortstop. Oakland has several second basemen on their 40-man roster and all are under team control for 2014 (Eric Sogard, Alberto Callaspo, Jemile Weeks, Andy Parrino and Scott Sizemore). The A's may look to move one or two of these players before spring training.
Callaspo proved a valuable bat for the A's after he was acquired from Anaheim during the season. He posted a 759 OPS and maintained a solid 25:19 K:BB during his time with the A's. Callaspo isn't a good defender, but he can play both second and third base. With his defensive versatility and his contact-hitting skills, Callaspo is a valuable back-up for the A's and he should return.
Sogard hit .266/.322/.364 in 410 at-bats with the A's this season. With a 1.6 oWAR and a 1.0 dWAR, Sogard was actually one of the team's most valuable all-around players in 2013 (his WAR was higher than that of Cespedes, for instance). Although his best position is his natural spot at second base, Sogard held his own with the glove at shortstop this season. He should be given the first opportunity to be the A's everyday second baseman this spring if Oakland doesn't move Lowrie to that spot or bring in another second baseman.
The A's will have to figure out what to do with Sizemore and Weeks. Sizemore entered last spring with the inside edge on the A's second base job, but he tore his ACL just days into the season and missed the remainder of the year. It was the second straight year Sizemore tore his ACL, bringing back memories of catcher Landon Powell, who suffered two ACL tears in the same knee while in the A's minor league system. Sizemore has the potential to be an asset offensively if he is healthy, but he was considered a below-average defensive second baseman even before the two knee injuries. Sizemore is arbitration-eligible for the 2014 season, so the A's will have to decide if he fits financially, as well.
Weeks spent most of the season in Triple-A, where he did a good job getting on-base and he added defensive versatility by learning the shortstop and centerfield positions. He isn't yet arbitration-eligible, so there isn't any reason for the A's to move him unless there is a team that is interested in Weeks as part of a bigger trade.
Parrino should return in a similar role as the one he had in 2013. He had a down year at the plate, but he wowed A's coaches at the Triple-A level with his glove at second and short. Parrino could work his way into a back-up role on the A's roster if he can show more with the bat, and he'll serve as Triple-A depth when he isn't on the A's roster.