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Extending their stay: who might the Oakland Athletics sign long-term?

Following Sonny Gray’s departure ahead of Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline, the Oakland Athletics need to show their fan base that they aren’t being lied to once more.

Matt Chapman / Photo by Chris Lockard
Would the A's lock-up Matt Chapman now? / Photo by Chris Lockard

Since his arrival as team president, Dave Kaval has done an excellent job in re-engaging the Oakland A’s fan base by being on the front lines. During Wednesday’s game against the Giants in San Francisco, he led a small armada of Oakland supporters into McCovey Cove for a good-natured takeover on the shores of AT&T Park. Earlier in the week, a fan reached out to him on Twitter and suggested carrying minor league baseball caps of the A’s affiliates at the hat store at the Coliseum. Kaval replied that he was on it. That’s just this week’s task list, and certainly feels like more than Lew Wolff accomplished in his tenure as the A’s owner.

Kaval has brought with him some hope and excitement for the future, along with the promise of a ballpark location announcement coming later this year, including what a tweet that could have been a spoiler for that announcement on Wednesday.

While a new ballpark is certainly atop the wish list of things that A’s fans would like, right alongside some new digs is the ability to buy a jersey and have that player stick around for a bit. The rebuild claimed another fan favorite on Monday when Sonny Gray was traded to the Bronx to join the Baby Bombers (now the Baby-faced Bombers?), and the only caveat getting fans through this one, along with the trades of Sean Doolittle, Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes, is that this time things will be different.

The term rebuild doesn’t have the same negative connotation that it did when the Cubs and Astros went all-out in their efforts. Now a rebuild comes with the understanding that the team will presumably be much, much better in a relatively short period of time.

Before the Astros became the team that has dominated baseball this season, they started trying to sign some of their big ticket guys early, buying out their arbitration years and getting a year or two of extra team control–all for a reasonable price. The Astros were going into the extension talks just three years ago with a number of players. George Springer rejected a seven-year, $23 million deal before he had played in the big leagues. Jose Altuve signed an extremely team-friendly deal in 2013, which he is still under. That deal was for four years and $12.5 million and included two team options for $6 million and $6.5 million in 2018 and 2019.

One other player signed a deal like this with the Astros. Jon Singleton, thought to be the first baseman of the future (before A.J. Reed was their first baseman of the future, and since they have come to the conclusion that first base is a stupid position) signed an extension worth $10 million over five years with three option years worth $2.5M, $5M and $13M. Singleton hasn’t been in the big leagues since 2015 and has been in Double-A all season with Reed holding the position at Triple-A Fresno. This is obviously the downside of signing a player before they reach the big leagues.

The A’s have plenty of young talent either already in Oakland, or pretty darn close. In addition to a ballpark announcement, a signing or two, which is a low-cost investment for the team to make, would do wonders for the team’s public image and put a face (or two) on their rebuild efforts.

So who could the A’s consider for one of these deals?

The Guys That Have Been Talked About Already

San Francisco Chronicle beat writer Susan Slusser reported last month that the A’s front office has had brief extension talks with both Marcus Semien and Khris Davis. Semien is now the longest-tenured Athletic after being acquired from the White Sox in the Jeff Samardzija deal following the 2014 season. The shortstop is under club control through 2020 as is, and is set for his first offseason of arbitration this winter. Danny Espinosa was a similar player through his age 25 season and missed time in his age 26 season, like Semien has. Their batting averages, power numbers and stolen bases line up pretty well with Marcus getting a slight edge, perhaps due to bias. Espinosa received $1.8M in his first year of arbitration in 2015 ahead of his age 28 season. Semien will be looking at something similar for 2018.

Tim Anderson (now 24) of the White Sox signed a deal with the White Sox that will see him make a little over $23 million over the next five seasons and has options of $12.5 and $14 million for 2023 and 2024. The length of that deal is probably not what the A’s are looking for, given that Semien is nearly three years Anderson’s senior, but somewhere in the four year, $20-25 million range wouldn’t be a terrible investment. When healthy over the past two years Semien has been worth roughly three bWAR each season. The common rule of thumb is that one win above replacement is worth about $8 million on the open market, so the deal would benefit both sides. The A’s would get a little savings in the long run while banking on Semien’s abilities staying consistent, while Semien would gain a life-changing sum of money and protect himself financially in the long run if he were to get injured. If you’ve have read “The Arm”, you know this isn’t a decision that can be taken lightly.

The one problem with locking up Semien for multiple seasons would be that Franklin Barreto and the newly acquired Jorge Mateo are being groomed as the A’s double-play combo of the future, which would mean that Semien would have to move off of shortstop. With Matt Chapman at third, that leaves left field as the next-best option for Semien. An extension would gain an extra layer of risk if he were to switch positions.

As for Khris Davis, who doesn’t love a dinger or 42? He’s the thump in the middle of the order that improves the batters around him with his mighty swing. I like Davis as a person and in the lineup, but my guess is that the A’s are moving towards a more athletic group in the outfield and potentially a different set of skills than they currently exhibit offensively. While Davis has the athleticism to play left field, his exceptionally weak arm is the worst in baseball by a wide margin and by season’s end should qualify to be among the worst in recorded history (since in 2002). His DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) sits at -10, and while that twice as good as some other Bay Area outfielders *cough* Denard Span *cough*, it’s still not good by any means.

An outfield that supports the pitching staff would do wonders for the team’s overall defense, an area that desperately needs to be improved upon as they work their way back towards contention. The problem is that with his defensive limitations, Davis’ bat likely isn’t enough to make him a valuable trade chip just yet as we’ve seen mashers sitting on the free agent market well past the Winter Meetings and signing for relative peanuts. He ranks 17th among MLB outfielders in wRC+ at 122, but his fWAR sits at 1.1. His contract runs through 2019, and he’ll likely remain in Oakland for at least most, if not all of that deal. He could be a potential chip at the 2019 trade deadline as the A’s look for extra pieces as their rebuild starts to bear fruit. The return for him now wouldn’t be much more than a projected return, so may as well hold onto him for the time being.

The Best Options

Sean Manaea and Matt Chapman are the two players that should be targeted in any extension talks. The lefty Manaea is now the de-facto ace of the rotation, while Chapman puts on a clinic at the hot corner night-in and night-out.

What works in the A’s favor with each is that they still have plenty of time on their contracts left (Manaea is through 2022, Chapman through at least 2023), which means plenty of room to grow in the green and gold. The art to these early extensions is projecting each player on the roster and offering the best options these extensions. Chapman and Manaea appear to be the best options and neither is close to their potential in the big leagues.

Manaea has proven to be dominant at times, but holds a 3.88 ERA this season (3.75 FIP) and is prone to the blow-up game, as evidenced by his outing against the Giants on Tuesday. If he puts it all together, he’s going to be a special pitcher. Baseball-Reference has a feature on each player’s page where they list comparable players, and comparable players through their current age. Two of the comps for Manaea are Brett Oberholtzer (currently in Triple-A) and Danny Salazar (a 2016 All Star). There is risk involved, whether it’s performance-based or the dreaded Tommy John surgery, but a deal this winter would eat up two more years of the Major League minimum salary for Manaea, giving him (presumably) an immediate raise, and also offer some security. They could just offer up a deal that would make him a free agent at the same time, following his age 30 season, so as not to screw over his future earnings, but would be betting on him improving and essentially outplaying his contract.

For instance, Josh Donaldson spent his time making the minimum, and has since earned totals of $4.3, $11.65 and $17 million since reaching arbitration. That’s where the A’s would be looking to save money, instead of feeling the need to trade him away due to future financial obligations.

A five-year, $30 million deal could get the job done, but guessing contracts is not necessarily my forte. It could be slightly more or less but that’s likely the general ballpark we’re working with.

As for Chapman, the idea that he would sign a deal so early into his big league career is more of a pipe dream. With the pace that he’s on defensively, he could become one of the most special players in the game if his bat comes along too. Chapman would be wise to bet on himself, and his ability to improve upon his current .202 batting average and .279 OBP. According to FanGraphs, Chapman has a DRS of 11 in 259.1 innings at third this season. That is already tied for 13th among all big leaguers this season, a season that started for him in earnest at the beginning of July.

Since DRS started being tracked in 2002, the best season put up so far has been Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays back in 2015 when he saved 42 runs in 1,174.2 innings while patrolling center. With the pace that he is on, Chapman would put up a DRS of 50 (rounded up from 49.86) in the same number of innings and would go well beyond that number in a full season. Again, this guy is special.

One reason Chapman might bite on an extension? He’s had some injury issues since turning pro, with a knee injury in 2014 and this year, and wrist issues in 2015 and this April. Guaranteed money would be a way for Chapman to guard against any of those minor injuries becoming major career roadblocks.

What About…

…if the A’s signed some of their minor league guys to one of those Jonathan Singleton-type contracts? It’s not a terrible idea from the team’s standpoint, but Singleton got so much crap for taking the deal (even though it worked out in the end for him personally) from fellow players that it may have been a one-time affair. Still, it’s worth looking into some of the younger guys like Franklin Barreto or the newly added Jorge Mateo and Dustin Fowler.

All three should be in the big leagues by 2019 (Barreto and Fowler could be regulars in 2018) and all three are either current or former top 100 prospects according to MLB Pipeline. Barreto is likely the most sure thing of that group, with Fowler still recovering from a torn patella tendon in his left knee and Mateo most often described as a “boom or bust” candidate in nearly all of the post-trade reaction analysis out there. That uncertainty surrounding Fowler and Mateo could lead to a deal being brokered between the two sides, but with the possibility of severely outperforming said deal, it’s unlikely that one would be reached this winter, and in terms of appeasing the fan base, signing one of the more well-known guys would have better optics than these former Yankees prospects that cost them Sonny Gray.

Some other options to consider: Chad Pinder, Bruce Maxwell, Ryon Healy and Jharel Cotton. Pinder has shown us a lot of potential as a super-utility player this season, patrolling both corner outfield spots well as well as being competent on the infield. He could end up being the A’s version of Milwaukee’s Hernan Perez; a versatile two-win player. Maxwell looks like he has the tools behind the dish, but I’d like to look at some of his defensive metrics once the season concludes to get a better idea of what we’re working with. Healy is a solid component on this club, but his current lack of defensive abilities isn’t really in the long-term plans. Cotton is another interesting case. Coming into this season fans were excited about his potential. After 15 starts in 2017 he holds a 5.49 ERA which has cooled some of the hype, but a lot of that can be linked back to his lack of command. He holds a 4.15 walks per nine rate this season while he put up a 1.23 rate while grabbing a cup of coffee last year. His minor league average over six seasons falls in the middle at 2.6 walks per nine, so with some work on his control, Cotton would be another piece worth a deal.

In essence, the whole concept behind signing these guys to a deal that eats up their arbitration and perhaps a year or two of free agency is that you’ll lock them in for a lower rate instead of having to pay market value down the road. Having as many fixed expenses as you can is one way to build up a future contender. Chipping away at some of that payroll three, four or five years down the line is one way to save a few million dollars (potentially) and be able to invest that money in a free agent that the team could use later on.

Obviously these deals are risky, but for these A’s, they’re almost a necessity to keep rebuilding the faith that this time is different. This time they are committed to Oakland, to the fans and to winning.

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