By Rich Campbell
The Oakland Athletics finished the 2021 season with a record of 86-76, good for third in the American League West trailing Houston and Seattle, with a +56 run differential. After winning the division in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season with a record of 36-24 (following Wild Card appearances with 97 wins in both 2018 and 2019), this year’s result undoubtedly disappointed players and fans.
In the background, poor attendance and threats to leave for Las Vegas seemed to diminish the team’s well-established home-field advantage, resulting in just a 43-38 (.530) record at Rickey Henderson Field after winning at home at a .639 clip the previous three seasons combined.
While the unsettled stadium issue looms large on the franchise, the focus here is on the four key questions the team – and some key employees – must answer this off-season:
Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? This question is in the hands of four key figures in the franchise: Managing Partner John Fisher, Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Billy Beane, General Manager David Forst and Manager Bob Melvin. Fisher writes the checks and the other three have headed up the decisions about the on-field product for years. The rumor mill swirls with stories of Beane leaving baseball altogether or Beane departing to join his once-mentor Sandy Alderson with the big-market Mets (the team that drafted Beane, in a full-circle angle) or Beane departing to New York and taking Forst and/or Melvin with him. How this situation shakes out will directly impact how the remaining questions are answered –- and who makes those decisions.
What about the New Guys? The A’s brought in some great players in deadline deals: Starling Marte, James Harrison, Yan Gomes and Andrew Chafin. They each fit their roles perfectly, yet the club did not reach the playoffs. Each is free agent. It seems unlikely that Marte (cost) or Gomes (Sean Murphy is a younger/cheaper catching option) fits into the A’s plans. Chafin has a mutual option on his contract for $5.25 million and the A’s may be interested. The guess here is the 31-year-old Chafin opts for free agency and seeks a multi-year deal elsewhere. That leaves the 34-year-old Harrison as the most likely of this group to stay in Oakland on a reasonable one or two-year deal.
What about the Old Guys? The 2021 version of the A’s was full of old guys. Sorting by age: Sergio Romo (38), Jed Lowrie (37), Yusmeiro Petit (36), Mike Fiers (36), Mitch Moreland (35), Jake Diekman (34), Gomes (33), Harrison (33) and Khris Davis (33). Only Diekman remains under contract heading into 2022. It is easy to imagine a scenario where none of the others are back. If Melvin remains as manager, he clearly has a soft spot for Lowrie, Davis and Petit and may be interested in keeping a few of “his” vets in the clubhouse. Which depends upon the answer to the final question.
Forge On or Rebuild Or Somewhere Betwixt? The core of the lineup remains under team control: Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Ramon Laureano, Sean Murphy. Utility guys Tony Kemp and Chad Pinder are both 29 and under team control as is 28year-old Seth Brown, who hit 20 homers in 308 plate appearances while bouncing between AAA and the A’s. Mark Canha is likely gone as a free agent. Elvis Andrus, who broke his leg in the final series of the year, is under contract as is oft-injured Stephen Piscotty. In an ideal world clearing the Andrus and Piscotty deals would be the goal, but that likely is not realistic.
The whole rotation from 2021 is under team control, too: Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, Cole Irvin and James Kaprielian. Almost every team looks to reconfigure their bullpen in the off-season, but mainstays Diekman and Lou Trivino are under contract for 2022.
So do they make another run in 2022 by plugging a few holes? Or does the front office want to start a rebuild now by dealing some combination of Olson (value sky high), Bassitt/Manaea (both free agents after 2022), Matt Chapman (coming off a poor year)? The guess here is that once a resolution about who is making these decisions is settled, the middle ground will be taken and the bulk of the core will return and the verdict on a full rebuild will be deferred until the 2022 trade deadline.
Rich Campbell is a Marketing Professor at Sonoma State University by day and A’s fan by night. He has previously been a sports business contributor at Forbes.com and his academic writing has appeared in Sport Marketing Quarterly. You can find him on Twitter @RichCampbellPhD.