With Montas Gone, Do The Oakland A’s Buy, Sell or Hold?

Orioles Athletics Baseball

Buy, sell or hold? For the Oakland Athletics, it's going to be a close call. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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The Oakland Athletics went into 2019 with a solid Plan A: acceptable starting pitching backed up by perhaps the league’s best infield defense, lights out bullpen, and a lineup stocked with patience and power. The season is long, however, and pitchers are fickle. Plan A’s rarely last long. Things started to go sideways before Opening Day when Jesus Luzardo hit the Injured List with a left shoulder strain. The real problem, however, would be the bullpen.

The A’s bullpen was a huge strength in 2018. Blake Treinen had a season for the ages, Lou Trivino played an excellent Robin to his Batman, and they were backed up by a strong supporting cast, which eventually came to include Fernando Rodney and Jeurys Familia. At the start of 2019, Familia had left as a free agent, but he was replaced by Joakim Soria, and all the other major pieces of the puzzle returned. Treinen, however, has been more ordinary than dominant, and Trivino has been worse. Rodney struggled to the point of losing his roster spot and is now trying to prove he can still get Major League hitters out for the Nationals triple-A team. Soria stumbled out of the gate and holds a 5.05 ERA on the season. Only Liam Hendriks has been a stabilizing force.

None of that is good, but it’s not bad enough to tank a season. Despite all those struggles, the A’s still have a better than average reliever ERA and a top five reliever FIP. It’s been enough to mostly hold up a rotation that features a host of not-terrible castoffs from other teams and out-of-nowhere ace Frankie Montas. With his 2.70 ERA and peripherals that back it up, Montas is currently fourth in wins above replacement (via Fangraphs) among all pitchers, tied with Chris Sale and just ahead of Jacob deGrom. (Side note: Lance Lynn has been the best pitcher not named Max Scherzer by WAR, and my brain can still not compute this fact.)

Then, Friday morning, still glowing from another Montas gem, disaster struck: Montas was hit with an 80-game suspension for using a banned substance, effectively ending his season. Shortly after, Treinen hit the Injured List with shoulder soreness and Sean Manaea had a setback in his rehab.

That left the A’s looking at a 41-38 record, eight games out of first and two games behind Cleveland for the second wildcard, in a cluster that also includes the Red Sox and the surprising Texas Rangers. With the trade deadline just over a month away, should the A’s be looking to buy, sell or hold?

The projections now see them as an 84-win team, with Boston, Tampa Bay and Cleveland duking it out for the wild cards with around 90 wins. That’s close enough to go for it or at least not sell off any big pieces if they think they are at least as good as the projections. That would mean some positive regression in the outfield, where Stephen Piscotty, Mark Canha and Chad Pinder have disappointed and some stabilization from Trivino and Soria.

Where the A’s have a chance to overperform their projections is in starting pitching. Fangraphs doesn’t think any of their starters are better than a 4.35 ERA going forward, and doesn’t buy the smoke and mirrors acts of Mike Fiers and Brett Anderson. They could be better than that, and at some point they’ll get contributions from their rotation of the future, namely A.J. Puk, Luzardo and (hopefully) Manaea.

All of that points to the A’s usual strategy of making some modest adds in the hopes of things breaking their way. The other reason to hold is that there’s not a whole lot to sell. Core pieces like Matt Chapman and Matt Olson aren’t going anywhere (they’re not, right Billy Beane?) Khris Davis just signed an extension, and none of their veteran starting pitchers would fetch much. A good July could build a market for any of their relievers, but if the bullpen is performing, the A’s are probably hanging around the playoff race.

They could try for the weird strategy of buying and selling. What would that look like? Perhaps selling off someone like Soria but adding a starter (Mike Leake?) or an outfield bat. Marcus Semien could net a big return, but he’s someone you hold if you want to contend, despite the presence of Franklin Barreto in the minor leagues.

The A’s are a bubble team right now, and the next month will determine which fork in the road they take. The status quo option is to find a cheap win or two and hope for the best, but history suggests we shouldn’t assume anything when it comes to the Oakland front office and the trading deadline.

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The Oakland Athletics went into 2019 with a solid Plan A: acceptable starting pitching backed up by perhaps the league’s best infield defense, lights out bullpen, and a lineup stocked with patience and power. The season is long, however, and pitchers are fickle. Plan A’s rarely last long. Things started to go sideways before Opening Day when Jesus Luzardo hit the Injured List with a left shoulder strain. The real problem, however, would be the bullpen.

The A’s bullpen was a huge strength in 2018. Blake Treinen had a season for the ages, Lou Trivino played an excellent Robin to his Batman, and they were backed up by a strong supporting cast, which eventually came to include Fernando Rodney and Jeurys Familia. At the start of 2019, Familia had left as a free agent, but he was replaced by Joakim Soria, and all the other major pieces of the puzzle returned. Treinen, however, has been more ordinary than dominant, and Trivino has been worse. Rodney struggled to the point of losing his roster spot and is now trying to prove he can still get Major League hitters out for the Nationals triple-A team. Soria stumbled out of the gate and holds a 5.05 ERA on the season. Only Liam Hendriks has been a stabilizing force.

None of that is good, but it’s not bad enough to tank a season. Despite all those struggles, the A’s still have a better than average reliever ERA and a top five reliever FIP. It’s been enough to mostly hold up a rotation that features a host of not-terrible castoffs from other teams and out-of-nowhere ace Frankie Montas. With his 2.70 ERA and peripherals that back it up, Montas is currently fourth in wins above replacement (via Fangraphs) among all pitchers, tied with Chris Sale and just ahead of Jacob deGrom. (Side note: Lance Lynn has been the best pitcher not named Max Scherzer by WAR, and my brain can still not compute this fact.)

Then, Friday morning, still glowing from another Montas gem, disaster struck: Montas was hit with an 80-game suspension for using a banned substance, effectively ending his season. Shortly after, Treinen hit the Injured List with shoulder soreness and Sean Manaea had a setback in his rehab.

That left the A’s looking at a 41-38 record, eight games out of first and two games behind Cleveland for the second wildcard, in a cluster that also includes the Red Sox and the surprising Texas Rangers. With the trade deadline just over a month away, should the A’s be looking to buy, sell or hold?

The projections now see them as an 84-win team, with Boston, Tampa Bay and Cleveland duking it out for the wild cards with around 90 wins. That’s close enough to go for it or at least not sell off any big pieces if they think they are at least as good as the projections. That would mean some positive regression in the outfield, where Stephen Piscotty, Mark Canha and Chad Pinder have disappointed and some stabilization from Trivino and Soria.

Where the A’s have a chance to overperform their projections is in starting pitching. Fangraphs doesn’t think any of their starters are better than a 4.35 ERA going forward, and doesn’t buy the smoke and mirrors acts of Mike Fiers and Brett Anderson. They could be better than that, and at some point they’ll get contributions from their rotation of the future, namely A.J. Puk, Luzardo and (hopefully) Manaea.

All of that points to the A’s usual strategy of making some modest adds in the hopes of things breaking their way. The other reason to hold is that there’s not a whole lot to sell. Core pieces like Matt Chapman and Matt Olson aren’t going anywhere (they’re not, right Billy Beane?) Khris Davis just signed an extension, and none of their veteran starting pitchers would fetch much. A good July could build a market for any of their relievers, but if the bullpen is performing, the A’s are probably hanging around the playoff race.

They could try for the weird strategy of buying and selling. What would that look like? Perhaps selling off someone like Soria but adding a starter (Mike Leake?) or an outfield bat. Marcus Semien could net a big return, but he’s someone you hold if you want to contend, despite the presence of Franklin Barreto in the minor leagues.

The A’s are a bubble team right now, and the next month will determine which fork in the road they take. The status quo option is to find a cheap win or two and hope for the best, but history suggests we shouldn’t assume anything when it comes to the Oakland front office and the trading deadline.

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I have written about baseball from an analytical perspective for The Athletic, Slate and The Hardball Times. My coverage looks both at the game we can see on the field, ...