All offseason, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s 2020 season and looking forward at what moves each team might have to make to set themselves up for improvement in 2021. Today, Callie takes a look at the A’s!
2020 was the culmination of a plan that began all the way back in 2012. In 2012, the first piece of this A’s core was acquired with the draft selection of Matt Olson. The first spike in the A’s railroad track of success was hammered in. From then on, more and more tracks were laid. In 2014, the A’s drafted Matt Chapman and traded for Mark Canha and Marcus Semien. In 2015, the A’s traded for Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, and Liam Hendriks. Sean Murphy was drafted in 2016, and Jesus Luzardo and Ramon Laureano were traded for in 2017. Each move, big and small, led up to this year. Each player, a piece of a track that allowed this train to get so far. But then the train ran into the Astros (Ironically a team with a train in its stadium). Now the A’s have been left scrambling to build more track so this train won’t be derailed.
2020 Record: 36-24, 1st Place in AL West
Team MVP: Mark Canha
Team Cy Young: Liam Hendriks
Biggest Positive Surprise: Chris Bassitt becoming an ace
Biggest Negative Surprise: Offensive underperformance
It’s hard to complain when a team wins its division and beats one of the best teams in baseball in the playoffs. But after the 2018 and 2019 seasons, many felt that anything less than an ALCS appearance would be a failure, which I think is quite ridiculous. Like I said in my opening paragraph, the A’s were building up for 2020. They were ahead of schedule in 2018 and 2019. No postseason disappointment can change the fact that the A’s won 36 games, tied for the third-most in baseball. It was an interesting 36 wins, as the A’s saw a lot of players both surprise and disappoint. I already wrote about two of those players – the surprising Sean Murphy and disappointing Matt Chapman – but the trio of Marcus Semien, Matt Olson, and Ramon Laureano went from wRC+s of 137, 134, and 126 respectively to wRC+s of 91, 103, and 102 respectively. However, 2020 also saw Robbie Grossman have the best season of his career, and on the pitching side Chris Bassitt secured his future in the rotation by having the 6th lowest ERA among qualified starters. Furthermore, Liam Hendriks proved that his 2019 wasn’t a fluke. It was a strange year that has led the A’s to one of the strangest off-seasons ever
2020-2021 Offseason Preview
Key Losses: Marcus Semien, Mike Fiers Joakim Soria, Robbie Grossman
Area(s) of Greatest Need: Shortstop
I am going to say something controversial: the A’s should let Marcus Semien walk. Marcus Semien is 30 years old, has only had one good offensive season, and is a bad defender. His MVP level 2019 season was a result of a career-high ISO, a career-high BB%, and a career-low K%. In every other season of his, he has been league average or worse offensively. Semien’s career xwOBA is .319 and his career xwOBACON (His xwOBA when making contact) is .358, both below the MLB averages of .321 and .376 respectively. While Semien has been praised for improving his defense and becoming one of the best defenders at SS, that’s not necessarily true. Semien’s 21 DRS since 2018 does rank 8th among shortstops in that time span, but that is more a result of playing next to Matt Chapman, whose high-quality defense means Semien needs to cover less space and can play closer to second base. When looking at Statcast’s OAA, which takes Semien’s positioning into account, he has been worth -10 outs above average since 2018. The potential risk of a long-term contract for him becoming an albatross is too high for the A’s to take.
Mike Fiers has been on a downward trajectory for a long time. He hasn’t finished a season with a FIP- below 110 since 2016, hasn’t had a K% above 20% since 2017, hasn’t had an HR/9 below 1.20 since 2015, and hasn’t been in at least the 40th percentile in xwOBA since 2015. His fastball averaged 88 MPH this year and hasn’t averaged 90.5 once in his MLB career. Since his 2018 season, he’s been tied with Reynaldo Lopez and Jakob Junis for the 5th highest FIP- in baseball, with a mark of 112. With a healthy A.J. Puk ready to take his spot in the rotation, the A’s should part with the 35-year-old.
Back in my 2020 season preview, I predicted that Joakim Soria would have a great year and be one of the A’s most important relievers – and I was right. He was fourth on the A’s in appearances and took over Yusmeiro Petit’s role of set up guy for Liam Hendriks. He was also extremely effective, posting a 2.97 FIP and xwOBA in the 92nd percentile over his 22.1 innings. The Man from Monclova arguably has never had a bad year, so why should the A’s let him walk? One, the A’s have the depth to easily replace Soria, and more importantly, Soria’s success most likely isn’t sustainable. His K% was the lowest since his 2016 season, his swing and miss % was his lowest since 2011, his BB% was the highest since his 2013 season, and he was a flyball pitcher with a HR/FB rate of 3.1% – the lowest rate he’s ever had in the majors. Now, Soria has always been good at preventing home runs. His career 8.7% HR/FB rate is well below the major league average of 15%. But 8.7% is way higher than 3.1%. If his 2020 HR/FB rate was the same as his career HR/FB rate, his FIP would’ve been 4.04. The A’s cannot risk giving Soria a large contract when he could end up being substandard when players like J.B. Wendelken can easily fill his void.
Robbie Grossman had a career year in 2020, his 1.3 fWAR being the highest mark of his career. Despite finishing with a 126 wRC+, there are major concerns. His quality of contact wasn’t high (53rd Exit Velocity percentile, 41st Hard Hit% percentile, 31st in Barrel% percentile), and he finished the season in just the 48th percentile for xwOBA. It’s not worth offering Grossman a contract when the A’s could get better production from LF for cheaper by giving Chad Pinder the full-time job in left. Pinder has shockingly good career numbers for a guy who has spent most of his career as a bench player, having career marks of .344 and .440 in xwOBA and xwOBACON respectively, compared to Grossman’s numbers of .332 and .357. Pinder is also the superior defender, with a 14.0 UZR/150 in his 738.2 innings in left compared to Grossman’s 4.6 over his last 1475.1 innings. With Vimael Machin’s ability to play every infield position, there is no reason to not give Pinder the chance to start full time in left.
Desired Targets: Tommy La Stella, Liam Hendriks, Yusmerio Petit, Anthony DeSclafani
Tommy La Stella is one of the most interesting players in the MLB. He doesn’t hit for much power, nor does he draw very many walks. Despite that, he is one of the most productive hitters to play second base, with his 125 wRC+ being 4th among second basemen with at least 500 plate appearances since 2019. The problem with La Stella is that he hasn’t put together a track record of production. Prior to 2019, his career wRC+ was just 96, and he put up a paltry 1.9 fWAR in 947 plate appearances. His defense is terrible, with his -3.4 UZR/150 since his debut in 2014 being 9th worst among second basemen with at least 1500 innings in that time span. You need La Stella’s bat to be effective because his glove is one of the worst in the majors.
Fortunately, it looks like La Stella’s bat is sustainable. Over La Stella’s last 500 PAs he’s had an xwOBA of .358. If I were the A’s GM, I would offer La Stella a 2 year, $16 million contract. It would be a $4.75 million pay raise for La Stella, and make him the 12th highest paid 2B in baseball. There is a concern with how La Stella will age, as he is already 31 and his power is extremely questionable (His exit velocity was in the 36th percentile in 2020). So, if his contact skills deteriorate, his value will sharply deteriorate. But as the A’s don’t have any other second basemen suitable to be starting on a playoff team, re-signing La Stella must be a priority.
Put simply, Liam Hendriks is the best reliever in baseball. He is worth an $18.9 million qualifying offer because he has the near impossible ability to make every other bullpen arm better due to his ability to take on a massive workload while also being incredibly productive. Not including his 2018 season where he split time between AAA and MLB and the pandemic shortened 2020 season, Hendriks has averaged 70 IP a season since 2015, and over his entire career, Hendriks has posted a 3.17 FIP, equivalent to a FIP- of 60. This is 8th among qualified relievers since 2011. He has the track record and ability deserving of the 18.9 million dollar qualifying offer. You can replace other relievers. You can’t replace Hendriks (Note: it has been reported that Hendricks was not offered the qualifying offer – his value is still high to the team, and I would offer him a 3 year, $51M deal).
Yusmeiro Petit is in a much similar vein as Hendriks. From 2017-2019, Petit led all relievers in innings pitched and averaged 89 innings a season prior to the COVID shortened 2020. Petit most likely won’t maintain a workload like that in 2021 should the A’s re-sign him, as his K% and BB% were at their worst since his 2016 season. But he made up for his lackluster walk and strikeout numbers by improving the quality of contact he gave up. His barrel percentage was his highest mark since Statcast started tracking it in 2015, but his hard-hit percentage was at its lowest since 2016, his average exit velocity was its best since 2017. Petit defies age. His best years have come after his 30th birthday. While he might not be deserving of the high leverage spots of his 2019 season, he is still deserving of a 2 year, $11 million contract.
Since Anthony DeSclafani recovered from his witch’s curse and stopped being constantly plagued by injuries, he’s had his ups and downs. In 2018, he had an xwOBA of .305, in the 46th percentile. Not bad for someone who hadn’t pitched in the majors in 2 years. In 2019, he had 2.4 fWAR in just 166.2 innings and posted a career-high in K%. But in 2020, he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball. His FIP of 6.10 was the 17th worst among pitchers with at least 30 IP. It was so bad he was left off the Reds Wild Card roster. His xwOBA was all the way down in the 6th percentile. However, I think it’s important to understand that you cannot draw many conclusions from a 33.1 inning sample size. If we look at DeSclafani’s stats since 2018, we will find that he has a FIP- of 108, which is below average as a starter. But here’s the thing: I don’t think the A’s should use DeSclafani as a starter. I think they should use him as a swingman/long reliever. When DeSclafani doesn’t face the opponent’s batting order for the third time, he averages a 4.30 FIP. And he did that in a very hitter-friendly park in GABP. A move to the bullpen full time would allow Sclafani to rely more on his slider and less on his fastball, a pitch that he has been very poor with in the past. He can also provide great depth in case someone in the starting rotation gets hurt. His versatility and high ceiling make him a worthwhile signing. A 2 year, $14.1 million contract would be a 1.1 million dollar pay raise and be the equivalent to Mike Fiers contract. I consider this a fair payday for someone who can be a quality 5th starter and reliever
2021 Projected Roster
1) Mark Canha
2) Tommy La Stella
3) Ramon Laureano
4) Khris Davis
5) Matt Olson
6) Matt Chapman
7) Sean Murphy
8) Chad Pinder/Seth Brown platoon
9) Nick Allen
For the rotation, bullpen and lineup, that’s just a quick guess. Just a few quick notes for them all.
In his 35 PAs in the second half of the season, after making some adjustments to his swing, KD went on a tear having a 122 wRC+. I have Pinder in a platoon with Seth Brown in case you really care about the platoon advantage, and calling up Nick Allen after just 72 games at high A may be insane, but I think he would be the most cost efficient SS the A’s could get this year. He can basically be Freddy Galvis or Jose Iglesias. I have Chapman hitting 6th because I want to see him get his OBP above .300 before moving him back up in the lineup.
In the bullpen, I expect J.B. Wendelken to take Joakim Soria’s role as a high leverage/set up guy to Hendriks. Over the past 3 years, Wendelken has posted a 3.03 FIP and held batters to an average exit velocity of just 86.7. He also can go deep in his appearances, putting up 74.1 IP in just 61 appearances since 2018. With the increased use of a slider that is (in this not so unbiased writer’s opinion) the best slider in baseball, there is no reason to assume Wendelken will be anything but a great reliever in 2020. I expect Diekman to serve a very similar role to Wendelken’s, a role he played in 2020. As I said, Yusmeiro Petit is probably going to move away from high leverage spots, but expect him to be the first man warming up in the bullpen on most occasions. Burch Smith got off to a spectacular start in 2020; hopefully, it lasts. His fastball did have a near 30% swing and miss rate in his 12 innings of work in 2020. Next, Lou Trivino is still good y’all. His xwOBA was in the 71st percentile this year, he had a career-high K%, and had a very respectable FIP of 3.92. Jordan Weems is my breakout relief candidate for 2021. He had a 3.05 FIP and .295 xwOBA in his 14 IP in 2020, and he provides unique value by being able to go deep in his outings, something I talked about the last time I wrote about him. Finally, I touched on when I talked about why the A’s should sign him, DeSclafani should be a swingman/long reliever.
If Puk (Or any other starter for that matter) isn’t healthy heading into the start of the 2021 season and DeSclafani has to move to the rotation, I would have Daulton Jefferies take his spot in the bullpen. Lost in his admittedly atrocious start against the Rangers (-0.2 fWAR in just 2 innings – how is that possible?), Jefferies has very good raw stuff. His fastball sits 94 and has plus horizontal movement and average vertical movement, and his cutter sits 90 MPH with good vertical movement. He is deserving of some sort of role to develop and prove his stuff.
2021 is going to be a fascinating year for the A’s. There weren’t many questions about the lineup or bullpen or rotation heading into 2020, but now there are. How the new pieces play will be fascinating to watch, as will the starting rotation and lineup.
Will Chris Bassitt continue his 2020 success in 2021? Will Sean Murphy continue to kill it on both sides of the ball? 2020 sent shockwaves into the future of baseball that we cannot begin to comprehend. 2021 will be when we first feel them, and I’m excited to see how they feel.
Featured Photo: Izzy Rendell