The 2014 Athletics are no more, and it's also the likely end of this particular core's run of dominance. The Athletics won consecutive AL West titles in 2012 and 2013, then limped to the finish line in 2014 just in time to snag one of the two wild card spots. Like the Rangers they stole the division from on the last day of 2012 to begin this whole stretch, single-game elimination was their downfall, and possibly the signal for the start of a downward trend.
It's likely a temporary one, though, since general manager Billy Beane is incapable of sitting still for long, instead putting his nervous energy toward revamping the roster a year early instead of a year late -- the goal being to keep the A's forever within striking distance of the postseason. Yoenis Cespedes and his 2015 were already dealt to make two months of Jon Lester happen, and Addison Russell's entire major league future was sent to the Cubs to get Jeff Samardzija in Oakland for a season and a half, so some of this occurred while the season was ongoing. With Lester, Adam Dunn, Jason Hammel, Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson, Jonny Gomes, Alberto Callaspo and Geovany Soto all free agents this offseason, much of the gutting has already occurred before Beane could make more phone calls, but there will be further turnover still.
Ken Rosenthal reports that a rival executive believes Beane will turn around and flip Samardzija and his final year of arbitration now in order to recoup some of the A's talent losses. Another thinks the Athletics' best player, Josh Donaldson, could be sent off before his first year of arbitration, much like Beane has done in the past with his high-quality pitchers many times before. It's possible neither of these things occur, but they would both be typical Beane, and would likely help with the goal of replenishing the youth that has only aged or been dealt in the past few seasons.
The positive behind losing all of those players is that the A's suddenly have a whole lot of breathing room. Their $82 million payroll on Opening Day was the loftiest in team history even before what remained of Dunn's $15 million was added, and it was the highest since 2007's $79 million season. In addition to the above free agents, Jim Johnson's $10 million is now off the books. While the A's have 14 players with arbitration payments incoming, they're only on the hook for $31 million guaranteed, according to Cot's Contracts. Except for Samardzija and Brandon Moss, none of the arb-eligible players are going to make much more than $2-3 million a piece, either.
Moss twice reminded the A's why he matters in the middle of their lineup on Tuesday. (Photo credit: Ed Zurga)
They still have Donaldson, Moss, Coco Crisp and the final year of Scott Kazmir's deal. Sonny Gray is young, great and pre-arb. Josh Reddick and John Jaso are inexpensive arb-eligible contributors, Donaldson is one of the game's better players, and closer Sean Doolittle is locked up cheap on a longterm extension he signed before settling in as the team's closer. There is still a whole lot of talent here, and they'll get even more back when A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker return from their respective Tommy John surgeries at some point in 2015. It's not enough on its own, but the A's have an entire offseason and a bigger bank account than usual with which to figure the rest out.
Free agency might not be the best place to plug all of their holes, but there are useful pieces. The A's won't be in the bidding for Lester, James Shields or Max Scherzer, but maybe a Brandon McCarthy reunion is in order. Maybe, recognizing they have rotation depth to fall back on, the A's take a chance on Justin Masterson rebounding. Maybe Lowrie walks, but the A's spend a little more money and bring J.J. Hardy and his glove to their infield for a much-needed defensive boost. Defense behind the plate could also become more of a priority, assuming the A's can lure Russell Martin, his glove and his on-base percentage from the Pirates. The A's could also leverage their bank account in trades, dealing someone like Samardzija in order to bring back not just prospects, but a major league player with salary and expected production attached. There will also be teams like the Red Sox, who are overflowing with outfielders, corner players and prospects: If the A's were to move Donaldson, they could pry an incredible package from the Sox, who are in desperate need of a third baseman. If the A's were to do that, someone like Chase Headley is likely available on a rebound-style, short-term contract to fill in the blanks.
The A's don't have to -- and won't necessarily -- do any of this with these specific scenarios or players -- Donaldson, Red Sox is a situational hypothetical, not something this author expects to actually go down. The point is that, while the core might not look exactly the same as it has the last few years, the A's have options to remain relevant with a little bit of shuffling and spending. They might end up taking 2015 off in a way, putting on a respectable showing that doesn't get them to October thanks to a loaded AL West, but they'll be back. The A's always are.