Playing Pepper 2022: Oakland Athletics

It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching.  Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside.  Not in this space!  Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch.  There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper!  If you want to keep up with the A’s during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well.  You can follow that here!

Oakland Athletics
86-76, third in the AL West
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Chris Bassitt (3.9)
Top hitter by bWAR: Matt Olson (5.8)

Perhaps it’s fitting that we are running the Reds and the A’s back to back because they have been fairly linked in this offseason, ditching players left and right to try to cut costs and start building again.  As we did earlier today, let’s give some space to the Athletics fans who have had to live through this teardown.  Even if it’s not uncommon, it’s still painful.  (Note: Nico answered his questions right as the lockout was ending.)

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Nico Pemantle Athletics Nation
Jason Burke Locked On A's LockedOnAs
Josh Iverson Baseball Trade Values jive_mlb

C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Oakland’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?

Nico: Well, 90% of what will happen hasn’t happened yet. I am assuming that from the quintet of Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Frankie Montas, Chris Bassitt, and Sean Manaea, likely 3 will be traded but who, and for what, remains to be seen. Of course I didn’t like losing Starling Marte, but it was a foregone conclusion. I guess losing most of our bullpen was good, given that they were awful.

Jason: There hasn’t been a ton to like about the A’s off-season, honestly. Before the lockout they acquired Brent Honeywell Jr. from the Tampa Bay Rays and that’s a move that is intriguing come opening day because of his prospect pedigree from just a couple of years ago. If he can stay healthy, he should be a solid arm for Oakland, and they’ll have control of him for years. Obviously I didn’t like the Bassitt, Olson and Chapman trades, but we kind of knew they were coming so that made the moves a little easier to stomach. This isn’t the first time this has happened for A’s, but hopefully it’s the last time with the team working towards a ballpark solution. 

Josh: On a macro level, obviously there’s a lot to be disappointed about. Oakland missed the playoffs in 2021, but entered the offseason with a winning core mostly intact. But the team’s latest run of success meant a stretch of later draft picks, as well as many prospects being dealt to help the major league club. This, combined with some high profile failures like Austin Beck, Kyler Murray and Lazaro Armenteros meant the farm was severely depleted. They also lost key free agents like Starling Marte and Mark Canha, and John Fisher is notoriously one of the cheapest owners in the sport, so there were never plans to spend significant money to replace those players. That left two options: either try to thread the needle with an 86-win team in an increasingly competitive AL West, or just blow it up. You can see what they chose.

Personally, the lockout gave me ample time to prepare for the fire sale, so none of their trades have hit me too hard. I’m pretty happy with the returns for Matt Olson and Chris Bassitt, and while a bit underwhelmed at the return for Matt Chapman, I can see the value there. I’m a bit frustrated that the team hasn’t traded Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas yet; their value isn’t going to go any higher than it is right now, and every time they take the mound for the A’s is just another opportunity for their elbow or shoulder to start barking.

But my biggest disappointment of the offseason is the team’s apparent refusal to spend any of the money saved in these trades. I’m not asking them to match 2021’s payroll; there’s no real reason for that. But I wish they had been more aggressive in signing low tier free agents on one-year deals with the intent of A) providing a more watchable product on the field and B) potentially moving them at the trade deadline for more prospects. The only free agent they did sign was Stephen Vogt ($850k) and that move was made clearly for his clubhouse presence rather than any potential on-field value. Obviously it takes two to tango, but they should have been in on guys like Zach Davies, Matt Boyd, Jose Quintana and maybe even Tommy Pham.

C70: The stadium issue seems to be progressing positively, if slowly. How optimistic are you that the long-term future of the A’s is in Oakland?

Nico: As someone who sees Las Vegas as a bluff/backup plan, I’m optimistic the A’s will stay in Oakland. There are still hurdles to overcome with the Howard Terminal project but at least the city of Oakland seems intent on making it work. It’s just frustrating to think that even if successful, we’re looking at 2027 but shovels in the ground would at least allow for the possibility of increased payroll so we’ll see…

Jason: Ballpark news has been largely positive outside of a rejected recommendation from a couple of weeks ago, but that wasn’t an official vote and that could still turn in favor of the Howard Terminal project. I believe that Vegas is being used as the boogeyman to make the City of Oakland move quickly to keep the team, but the A’s don’t really have any intention of leaving. Of course, that could all change, but I’m feeling fairly optimistic that the team will stay. My reasoning is because it would make more sense for a baseball team in Vegas to be an expansion club than a team with an established history like the A’s. Baseball fans that move to Vegas aren’t going to give up their Yankee or Phillies or Cardinals fandom because the A’s moved in. But if the team was brand new and in their city, they just may. 

Josh: The A’s are closer to securing a new stadium in Oakland than they’ve ever been. That’s an objective fact. But that doesn’t mean it’s a lock to happen. Things have generally been going well, though as you note, it’s been slow. This is already a lengthy legal process, and COVID definitely slowed it down substantially. Recently, there was a setback (opinions of which have ranged from minor to major) regarding the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s Seaport Planning Advisory Committee recommending not to remove Port Priority Use Designation from Howard Terminal, the proposed stadium site. There is also buzz about potentially placing the project on the public ballot. I’m nowhere near an expert on the process or any of the politics involved, so I won’t speculate as to how those two issues will impact the project long-term.

I also think the Las Vegas rumors can be ignored, at least for now. I won’t go as far as to call them a leverage play, but Oakland is the path of least resistance and I think the team will get a better deal there than they would anywhere else. Plus, on the league side, they would rather have an expansion team in Vegas so they can get the new team’s expansion fees. And no other owner wants the Giants to have the massive Bay Area market all to themselves.

To me, the major takeaways: There is momentum here. There are some definite obstacles that need to be overcome to make this happen. I’m cautiously optimistic. And to clear up a common misconception – as I understand it, this is a privately financed stadium and the A’s are not asking taxpayers to foot the bill.

C70: Will either Matt Olson or Matt Chapman be moved before the end of the season? (This was rendered moot, as it was a tough spring for Playing Pepper questions.)

Nico: Before the end of the season? At least one will almost certainly be moved before the start. Oakland really needs to rebuild its farm system and sadly that means saying goodbye to some of our favorites.

Jason: Chapman, Olson and Chris Bassitt have all been moved, and it’s looking like Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas will be the next to go, though the A’s have two years of control on Montas, so they may slow play his trade. If the A’s are going full tear down (and at this point why not), then Ramón Laureano and Sean Murphy could be trade deadline targets for teams, and their sticker prices will be steep because of the years of team control they’d come with. While it stinks to go through this cycle every few years, we know what the deal is as A’s fans. It also gives us an opportunity to fall in love with the next group of young guys while they develop and hope that they’ll be the ones to get over the hump. 

Josh: Both were traded in the week or so following the end of the lockout, so I’ll go more in depth on my thoughts on each deal here. Entering the offseason, the A’s farm system had no real positions of depth. That’s definitely not a bad thing, as it has allowed them to just target the best players available in each deal they’ve made. Specifically, it seems like they’ve placed an emphasis on near-MLB talent (perhaps with the goal of returning to contention quicker than a pure tanking team like Baltimore will) as well as restocking with young arms.

I won’t get into the Freddie Freeman of it all, but Atlanta always felt like a natural fit for Olson, a Georgia native. He’s always been solid, but he found another level last year, cutting his strikeout rate nearly in half while sustaining his light-tower power. Oakland’s return for Olson was headlined by catching prospect Shea Langeliers. He should be ready by 2023 and profiles similarly to current A’s catcher Sean Murphy, as superlative defenders with big raw power and a questionable hit tool. Murphy could certainly be on the move in the next 18 months or so as a result. The second piece, Cristian Pache, is better known nationally, but a disappointing 2021 saw his stock fall pretty drastically. He has one of the best outfield gloves in the game, and if he even hits a little bit, he’ll be a very valuable player. Ryan Cusick has a live arm, touching triple digits, and is likely ticketed for a relief role. But the A’s will give him every chance to start. Joey Estes was a 2021 breakout who profiles as more of a back-end starter. In all, this feels like a very fair return for two affordable years of Olson (prior to his extension, of course).

Chapman’s recent injuries and offensive struggles make him significantly less valuable than Olson. But even knowing that, I was a bit underwhelmed by the return. The Toronto Blue Jays headlined the deal with righty Gunnar Hoglund, a 2021 first-round pick who looks like a nearly finished product, but is still rehabbing from pre-draft Tommy John Surgery. The A’s haven’t been afraid to buy low on injured arms with pedigree, most notably doing so in their 2017 trade for Jesus Luzardo, and Hoglund fits the bill perfectly. While he likely doesn’t have the same upside Luzardo did, he has a good chance to be a mid-rotation arm in the next couple of years. Opinions range on infielder Kevin Smith, who posted good Triple-A numbers with the batted ball data to support it, but doesn’t have a set position and has a little too much swing-and-miss. He has a chance to break camp with the club and will see a lot of time on the left side of the infield. Zach Logue is a typical A’s pick-up, an MLB-ready back-end arm with plus command and sneaky but not quite overpowering stuff. And Kirby Snead looks like a solid left-handed reliever, a need for the A’s after losing Jake Diekman and Andrew Chafin to free agency.

C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?

Nico: This is the problem. You can only get so excited for Luis Barrera or Brayan Buelvas. I suppose Nick Allen is fun for his defense, but if I have to pick someone it would be Tyler Soderstrom because the bat might play big time.

Jason: Tyler Soderstrom is the A’s best prospect at the moment and I’m very excited to see what kind of hitter he becomes and where he ends up playing. He’s also a couple of seasons away from the big leagues, so the prospect I’m most intrigued by for the upcoming season is probably Adam Oller, one of the guys the A’s got back in the Bassitt deal. His ceiling isn’t as high as Soderstrom, but in reading a little about him, he strikes me as similar to Bassitt—a guy that will work his butt off and may not have the best “stuff” but can find other ways to get the job done. 

Josh: There isn’t a wrong answer here. Tyler Soderstrom, their 2020 first-round pick, looks like he’ll be a really special hitter. Pache has already debuted, but he could be electric. I love catchers, and Langeliers does a lot of things right. Even a guy like Logue or Adam Oller could be a fun mid-rotation success story, akin to the next Bassitt.

But I want to bring attention to shortstop Nick Allen. I have no idea how he doesn’t show up on the back-end of any Top 100 prospect lists. Allen is arguably the best defensive shortstop in the minor leagues, which on its own would give him a 2-3 WAR floor. But he also has a chance to hit. He’s already a solid contact hitter with some speed, but he added some pop during the 2020 layover. Last year he posted a 126 wRC+ as a 22-year-old in Double-A. Subsequently, he did run into some issues in his first taste of Triple-A , but he’s off to a great start in the Cactus League this year. He’ll likely start 2022 at Triple-A and is a near lock to debut at some point this summer. Importantly: incumbent shortstop Elvis Andrus, he of the 72 wRC+ and 1.1 fWAR in 2021, has a $15 million option for 2023 that vests with 550 plate appearances this year. There is no way the A’s let that happen. He’ll be a part-time player by August at the latest.

C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?

Nico: I expect a painful rebuild with the hope of contending again relatively soon (2024?) and the possibility of several lean seasons leading up to a new ballpark hopefully). I won’t be a bit surprised if the 2022 A’s finish in last place as the 2015-17 teams did. Baseball is cyclical.

Jason: My expectations for the season vary on any trades that happen either in the coming days or at the deadline. My hope is that this team is still better than the Rangers (it could be close with a couple of surprise performances), but if they hold onto Murphy, Laureano, Manaea and Montas, maybe, just maybe, they can finish above the Angels too. This isn’t to say that the A’s will be close to the postseason. The Halos are just perennially disappointing and both teams could finish around 78 wins if I’m being optimistic. 

Josh: I’m usually quite optimistic, but I think this team is going to be really bad. We’re working with an 86-win baseline from 2021 here. They lost Marte, Canha, Olson, Chapman, Diekman, Chafin, Chris Bassitt, Josh Harrison, Yan Gomes, Mitch Moreland, Sergio Romo, Jed Lowrie and more. The only established big leaguer they added was 37-year-old Stephen Vogt. Meanwhile, the Rangers, Angels and Mariners each got significantly better, while the Astros remain the team to beat. This is pretty clearly a last-place team. They might even be the first A’s team to lose 100 or more games since 1979. I’ll back off that a bit, maybe call it 65-97. But even that would be historically bad for them – they’ve only lost 90 or more games eight times since moving to Oakland in 1968.

C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good A’s Twitter accounts to follow.

Nico: I wouldn’t know, having never been on Twitter or any social media account. I prefer to live an actual life. Go A’s!

Jason: With the influx i prospects the team just added, Melissa Lockard (@melissalockard) of The Athletic is one of the best follows on A’s Twitter. She’s been covering the A’s minor leagues for 15 years and just has tons of information to share. If you’re into the A’s ballpark saga, Casey Pratt (@CaseyPrattABC7) is the best to follow. He breaks down complex jargon into understandable bits. Finally, Amelia Schimmel (@SchimmelAmelia), the A’s PA announcer, is just an absolute delight. 

Josh: If you care at all about the Oakland stadium saga, Casey Pratt (@CaseyPrattABC7) is a must. He’s following each step of the process closer than anyone, and knows how to explain everything to a baseball audience that might not be as versed in the politics of it all. Along those lines, @OakStadiumWatch has plenty of updates from a fan’s perspective. And Dallas Braden (@DALLASBRADEN209) brings more positive energy to Oakland baseball than you’d think anyone possibly could.

If it’s alright, I’d also like to plug my website here. I help run Baseball Trade Values (@BaseballValues), where we maintain an MLB trade simulator somewhat similar to ESPN’s NBA Trade Machine. We also have trade boards where users can post and discuss their trade proposals, regular articles and biweekly podcasts. We know we aren’t perfect and it isn’t an exact science, but since August 2019 our model has a 95% success rate when compared to real-life trades. So we think it’s a useful (and fun) tool, and we don’t know of anything else quite like it.

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