Dare to dream of the $80 million payroll
At once insane and tantalizingly possible, the Oakland Athletics are buyers this offseason. Any questions about Billy Beane’s M.O. were answered swiftly when word came this afternoon of the first big winter trade (Winter? I was wearing shorts on a 71 degree sunny day today.). Middle infielder Cliff Pennington and prospect Yordy Cabrera were traded to Arizona for former All Star CF Chris Young and $500,000 cash. Cabrera was later sent to Miami for reliever Heath Bell, but we’ll ignore that for the time being.
Young will earn $8.5 million this year and $10 million in 2014 if the A’s pick up his option. If not, the buyout price is $1.5 million. Coco Crisp, the A’s current CF, makes $7 million in 2013 with a $7.5 million 2014 option ($1 million buyout). That puts the A’s investment in four outfielders – Crisp, Young, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick – at $24 million, nearly half the 2012 payroll. Even with that kind of money, the four players combined for 13.6 WAR in 2012, making the 2013 expenditure pretty good value any way you slice it.
When the news was first released, the most prominent immediate fan reaction was to wonder what would happen to Crisp. It was Crisp who was re-signed only nine months ago, and many fans wondered if that was a wise decision considering the number of nearly ready young outfielders in the A’s farm system. Once Cespedes signed with Oakland in February, it seemed as though Crisp’s days were numbered. When the A’s had their nine-game losing streak at the end of May, Crisp’s name surfaced as trade bait, despite his struggles throughout the first two months of the season. Yet Crisp got himself right in June, perhaps because he got the starting CF job back. His energy and skill at the top of the order made him arguably the most dangerous weapon in the A’s lineup by the All Star Break. Now Crisp seems almost indispensable among many fans, at least judging from reactions on Twitter. It’s a remarkable story that stands among many on the A’s squad. Crisp does have a lengthy injury history, though this year he was out at times because of illness (flu, pinkeye) rather than a muscle or joint problem.
If anyone is likely to be moved or non-tendered, it’s Jonny Gomes, Seth Smith, or both. Both contributed nicely in a DH+occasional OF platoon situation. Smith will hit his second arbitration year, and his value is strictly in that platoon role vs. RHP. Gomes is the opposite, mashing against lefties and coming in very cheap with a $1 million salary for 2013. Both players will command around $3.5 million, and both will want multiyear deals if possible and more plate appearances – which may be few and far between if the “Four Horsemen” stay healthy and get their 550-600 PAs. Young assumes Gomes’ role, which is a shame because Gomes is such a likable guy and a local, but that’s how the business works. Beane has already said on a conference call Saturday that Gomes would be affected by the Young acquisition.
I’ve put together a spreadsheet showing the A’s projected 2013 payroll. It makes certain key assumptions about the makeup of the A’s roster:
- Stephen Drew’s $10 million mutual option is picked up. Drew showed improvement late in the season and appears healed from his ankle injury troubles. That’s not going to make the A’s or anyone commit to a really rich deal, no matter how much Scott Boras pushes for one.
- Seth Smith is retained. I don’t think this is a given because of the reasons previously defined. If he stays it’s probably for $3.5 million. If he is replaced by someone in the A’s system like Collin Cowgill or Shane Peterson, the A’s will save $3 million in the process. Keep that in mind for future payroll projections.
- Brandon McCarthy is re-signed. The elder statesman of the pitching staff, he’ll never reach 35 starts in a season because of lingering shoulder problems. But he is very effective when healthy and is a great clubhouse leader and spokesman for the club, and his (and his wife’s) media presence helps put a face to a team that might otherwise go relatively anonymous. He should be affordable to keep, and worth it.
- Brett Anderson is not traded. If Anderson had not suffered elbow trouble that resulted in Tommy John surgery, Anderson might already be elsewhere. Having come back late in the season, he looked very good in limited action. He has ace-quality stuff, which as we’ve seen in the playoffs, can be pretty important.
- No other big trades or free agents signings are done. This is the A’s we’re talking about, so nothing’s for certain when it comes to personnel. I’m keeping it like this to illustrate what the the payroll looks like now and to show how much headroom remains.
All told, the payroll is as much as $65 million. Brandon Moss should have Super Two status, so he may earn more than what is listed. Without Smith (and Gomes), the payroll is only $62 million. The pattern for the A’s has been to respond to an encouraging season (2006, 2010) by bumping up payroll. In 2007 the A’s came off an ALCS appearance and boosted payroll to $79 million, with $46 million devoted to five players: Jason Kendall, Eric Chavez, Mike Piazza, Mark Kotsay, and Esteban Loaiza. None of those five produced in any meaningful way for various reasons, and all except Chavez were off the team during or shortly after the end of the 2007 season.
The 2008 season showed promise, with a solid young core and a .500 record. Payroll was bumped for 2009 from $48 million to $62 million. We know how 2009 went: Matt Holliday produced well but not like a superstar he was advertised to be, and Jason Giambi proved that you can’t go home again. So we know how this could play out if the team flames out. The A’s could easily spend another $10-15 million without much trouble, but if the team is 10 games back by July trading deadline, we could very well see another selloff. The Marlins tailed off in the NL East by the end of June, resulting in the trades of Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante, Gaby Sanchez, Edward Mujica, and Heath Bell. Not even a new ballpark could keep the fans from leaving in droves, forcing the directive for Larry Beinfest to cut costs posthaste.
It’s not by accident. This is a script all low-revenue teams have to work with. The A’s pulled in 1.6 million fans this season. Say they brought another 400,000 fans in to bring the 2013 total to a cool 2 million. At $30 a person, that translates to $12 million in extra revenue, about half of that going to payroll. The annual winter revenue sharing payment should also help. Success has cascading effects, as there’s also a lower percentage of no-shows and greater revenues from media and sponsorships. It’s a snowball effect. We’ve seen it run positively in the last few weeks, and negatively in recent years.
That makes a $62-65 million payroll something of a jumping off point. The A’s could support an $80 million payroll if things continue to go well. $80 million isn’t still in the bottom third of MLB, but it’s a good deal of extra budget to play with. However, we know that free agent spending has yielded mixed results, and that cost per win can be very difficult to pin down at times from a GM standpoint. Fortunately the team is strong in the outfield and pitching staff, making the weak spots easier to live with. How should Beane and Forst use $15-18 million of headroom? They could stand pat. They could make another trade or pick up a free agent (or two). They could go into the international market as they have in the past (Cespedes, Iwakuma, Ynoa) to bid on a young arm like Japanese high school phenom Shohei Otani. They could save it for some midseason deadline deals. Whatever way the front office chooses to go, the possibilities are practically endless. The future is bright, it’s ahead of schedule, and the A’s world – from owner to fan and everything in between – can’t be anything but happy about it.