As we near the mid-point of the 2014 season, the Oakland Athletics sit comfortably atop not only their own division, but major league baseball as a whole. At the time of this writing, the A's are four games ahead of the Angels, Tigers, and Blue Jays for the top record in the American League, and one game better than the Brewers (best in the NL) overall. Baseball Prospectus currently pegs Oakland's odds of reaching the postseason at 97.6%, including a 71.1% chance to take the division.
They aren't a fluke either. The reigning AL West champion has a staggering +126 run differential, easily the best in baseball, and 74 runs ahead of the next best team (Seattle). In fact, they may actually be underperforming, as their pythagorean record suggests that they should be a 52-win team.
The club is firing on all cylinders, ranking among the league's best in all facets of the game. With a 3.02 team ERA that ranks second in the majors, Oakland's pitching staff has been remarkable despite a high magnitude of noteworthy injuries. Offensively, the club is pacing baseball in a number of categories, including wRC+ (112), walk rate (10.6%), OBP (.336), and WAR (15.9), while they rank highly in plenty of others. Oakland has also been phenomenal on defense, fielding a club 23.5 UZR that ranks second in baseball and saving an estimated 24 runs in the field (fourth).
Buyers or Sellers?
By nearly every qualification, the Athletics are the best team in baseball at the moment. While the club is a near-lock for a playoff spot, Billy Beane's Athletics have long-eluded postseason success. With this year representing as good of a chance as any, Oakland is in a position that could enable them to capitalize on their standing and finally make a splash at the deadline.
Since trading away Matt Holliday in July of 2009, the Athletics have made no major mid-season moves, and it's been even longer since the organization splurged on a deadline acquisition. Over the past five years, the biggest name acquired by the A's in the week leading up to the July 31st trade deadline is probably Alberto Callaspo, who Oakland received from the Angels in exchange for former first round pick Grant Green last July. And the list is pretty depressing after him, as guys like Jordan Norberto and Clayton Mortensen lead the way.
As Oakland looks to win their first world title in nearly 25 years, it's about time that they push in their chips and make a real run at a ring.
The Athletics are one of the most well-rounded teams in baseball, but that doesn't mean they couldn't use a few upgrades.
Depth has truly been Oakland's savior when it comes to their rotation. Debilitated by the pre-season losses of AJ Griffin and ace Jarrod Parker, the Athletics were forced to turn to the likes of Tommy Milone and Jesse Chavez to slot into their rotation. Fortunately, the pair has been a hit, and ace-like performances from offseason addition Scott Kazmir and the 24-year-old Sonny Gray have propelled the staff into one of the better crews in the game.
Unfortunately for the A's, their fifth starter spot has been a revolving door of Dan Straily (currently in Triple-A after posting a 4.93 ERA in Oakland), Josh Lindblom (a single spot start), Drew Pomeranz (3.21 ERA in 8 starts, but now hurt), and now Brad Mills, who Oakland acquired last week for a mere $1.
While the club may be inclined to wait for Pomeranz's broken hand to heal (which may take awhile), their best option would be to go outside the organization and acquire a starter that could adequately fit into their playoff rotation.
The Athletics probably don't have the pieces (or financial wiggle room) to go after a David Price or Jeff Samardzija, but they should be players in this summer's secondary tier of starting pitchers, which may include the likes of Jason Hammel, Ian Kennedy, Brandon McCarthy, and John Danks.
Hammel is enjoying a career-year with Chicago, and as a half-season rental, he would be unlikely to cost too much. Kennedy, who has a 3.04 FIP with the Padres this season, would be well suited for the spacious O.co Coliseum as a heavy flyball pitcher.
McCarthy has had a rough go in his second year with the Diamondbacks, currently leading the NL with 10 losses while holding a career-worst 5.38 ERA. A free agent following the season, McCarthy's peripherals point to a much better performance than the raw numbers would indicate. His 4.07 FIP and 2.98 xFIP are both significantly better than his ERA, and he currently has the highest strikeout rate of his career (7.42 K/9) while also walking batters at a pace considerably less than his career norms (1.67 versus 2.34 BB/9). A reunion would seem to be beneficial to both sides.
Of the quartet I mentioned, Danks would probably be the least likely to wind up in Oakland. He is due a total of $28.5 million over the next two seasons, so Chicago would likely have to pick up a substantial portion of that to make a deal work.
Trade Likelihood: Low
The A's are reportedly already in the market for a second baseman, and rightfully so. If there has been one position of true weakness for the Athletics, it has been their black hole at second base. To put it bluntly, Athletics second baseman have been horrible this season. Heading into Wednesday, A's second basemen rank 26th in the majors with a 65 wRC+ and -0.2 WAR. The combination of Callaspo, Eric Sogard, and Nick Punto has been downright atrocious, combining to hit .211/.299/.262. Though they may have the Face of MLB runner-up, this is a position that definitely needs upgrading.
The second base market should be reasonably deep this summer, depending on whether or not teams like the Mets and Phillies decide to sell. As it was reported earlier this week, New York's Daniel Murphy could be on the block, and he may be an enticing option for the A's since he isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2015 season. If Philadelphia finally realizes that they are treading water in their current roster state, they could finally move Chase Utley, as long as he's willing to waive his 10/5 rights (though that may be unlikely at this point). Oakland would figure to be a logical destination for him.
Another name to watch is Tampa Bay's Ben Zobrist, who may be available this summer as the Rays dwell in the AL East cellar. Zobrist is having a down season, hitting just .247/.332/.370, though he still has a 102 wRC+ and 1.6 WAR, mainly due to his defense. Zobrist's calling card is his versatility, which would be a real asset for Oakland, who has proven to be extremely flexible with their lineup construction. He is also owed just $7.5 million next season on a team option, so he'd do little to hamstring the A's financially.
Another option for the club could be to go after a shortstop, enabling them to move Jed Lowrie to second, thus solving their keystone issue. Though purely speculative, Oakland could go after someone such as Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki, who would help create a dream left side of the infield along with Josh Donaldson. However, his high salary, and the fact that top prospect Addison Russell would be a must in a return package, makes that scenario rather unlikely.
Trade Likelihood: Moderate
The A's bullpen has been great this season, holding a 2.88 ERA and 3.31 FIP, which each rank among the top seven in the game.
Though Opening Day closer Jim Johnson has struggled (5.58 ERA in 30.2 innings), Oakland has gotten strong production out of Sean Doolittle at the back of the bullpen, while Like Gregerson, Dan Otero, and Fernando Abad have all been fantastic as well.
Of course, one can never have too much pitching, and it is a bit worrisome when Jeff Francis is occupying a spot on your 25-man roster. Oakland would probably be a good bet to make some kind of relief addition before August hits.
Trade Likelihood: Moderate
Pieces to Deal
While quite deep at the big league level, the Athletics farm system is among the weaker in the game, which represents a sizable barrier for the club to overcome in any deal. Because of this, a number of players currently on the 25-man roster could be used as bait.
MLB trade deadline is July 31st
Derek Norris: .302/.405/.509 (201 plate appearances), 8 HR, 35 RBI, 160 wRC+, 2.0 fWAR
John Jaso: .271/.360/.458 (203 plate appearances), 7 HR, 24 RBI, 132 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR
Stephen Vogt: .346/.364/.519 (55 plate appearances), 2 HR, 11 RBI, 147 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR
The Athletics have arguably the strongest catching crop in the majors, as their triumphant trio has combined to post a league-leading 3.9 WAR and second best 146 wRC+.
With three catchers currently on the active roster, Oakland could feasibly use one of them to help upgrade another position. Of the three, Norris is the least likely to move. As a 25-year-old with a 158 OPS+ making the league minimum, he's extremely valuable and the Athletics likely view him as a long-term solution at the position.
On the other side, Jaso would probably be the one most likely to be dangled in trade talks. At 30, Jaso is a year-and-a-half away from free agency, and has been a superb offensive catcher over the past three years, hitting .273/.383/.431. He is having another solid campaign this year, though with the presence of Norris, he has spent more time at DH, allowing Oakland to keep his bat (and highly selective approach) in the lineup.
Vogt has only been up for the past month, but has hit well in a small sample. He is likely to stay in Oakland and serve in a backup capacity over the remainder of the season.
Trade Likelihood: Moderate
.220/.319/.333 (311 plate appearances), 4 HR, 26 RBI, 86 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR
Lowrie is having a disappointing year after posting a 120 OPS+ last season, though that could be primarily the result of a rather unlucky .242 BABIP. Lowrie still provides plenty of value as an up the middle player, so it's likely that the only way he is dealt is if the organization feels that Russell is a better option down the stretch. He's also a free agent after the season, and with Oakland unlikely to re-sign him considering what should be a high price tag, they could try to recoup value while they still can.
Trade Likelihood: Low
.214/.279/.339 (183 plate appearances), 4 HR, 19 RBI, 75 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR
Reddick has been an interesting case for the Athletics. The oft-injuried right fielder was a key part of Oakland's reemergence in 2012, but since then, he has struggled to stay healthy, and even when on the field, he hasn't hit at nearly the same level as he did two years ago (though he is still outstanding defensively). While he still has vast potential, at this point, Oakland is probably better off running out an outfield of Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, and Craig Gentry.
The key part of Reddick's value is that he is still just 27 and is under team control through the 2016 season, so he would be a desired asset if available.
Trade Likelihood: Low
Corner Infield Prospects
The A's don't have much on the farm, but they do have a quality number of corner infield prospects that could be on the move this summer, especially since Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss seem to have the first and third base positions locked up for the foreseeable future. These names include Matthew Olsen, Daniel Robertson, Max Muncy, Miles Head, Ryon Healy, and Renato Nunez, who was recently selected to play in the All-Star Futures Game next month.