Marcus Semien shielded his eyes from the soft Oakland sun Thursday afternoon, camping in shallow right field at the Coliseum under a pop up from Elvis Andrus. Once the baseball popped into his glove, it provided a fitting end to this week's Athletics-Toronto Blue Jays series.
The ex-A's shortstop deserved the game ball. He powered the Blue Jays to a 10-4 win over his former team and showed the A’s what they’re missing in the process. Andrus, meanwhile, went hitless in the four-game set.
Earlier in the ninth inning Thursday, Semien stepped to the plate seeking his fifth hit of the day. He settled for a 4-for-6 afternoon that included three runs scored, a double, a dinger and an RBI.
He batted 7-for-17 (.412) and recorded a hit in each game in the series. Andrus is 3-for-34 dating back to April 25 -- meaning Semien produced more hits Thursday than Andrus has mustered in his past 10 games.
Although general manager David Forst and the A's front office hoped to keep Semien in the offseason, the price tag was deemed too high and the Bay Area native ended up signing a one-year, $18 million deal with faraway Toronto to learn second base after becoming one of the game’s top shortstops over the years. The Blue Jays are fun to watch, and you can't blame Semien for wanting to join an infield that includes first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., shortstop Bo Bichette and third baseman Cavan Biggio.
Without Semien, there immediately became a massive hole at shortstop in Oakland.
The A’s had to creatively audible in the final weeks of the offseason, acquiring Andrus and backup catcher Aramis Garcia via trade from the Rangers for Khris Davis and Jonah Heim. More importantly, Texas also sent $13.5 million in cash considerations, which opened up a new world of possibilities for the A’s front office.
While Andrus’ production thus far has made this trade seem like a dud through the first week of May, it was key for the A’s in restructuring the bullpen and bench. Without the cash flow, Oakland likely wouldn’t have been able to sign relievers Trevor Rosenthal, Yusmeiro Petit and Sergio Romo or designated hitter Mitch Moreland.
Executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane and Forst deserve credit for their creativity, but the ugly truth still remains: Andrus has performed like the worst everyday hitter in the big leagues this year.
Yet, he still seems to have plenty of job security because the A’s simply don’t have anyone else who can hold it down at shortstop at the big league level.
Among qualified MLB hitters, he ranks dead last in on-base percentage (.193), slugging (.171) and OPS (.364) while toting the league’s third-worst batting average (.143). He ranks among the bottom five percentile in the following advanced statistical categories: Hard-Hit percentage (25.6), barrel percentage (1.2), expected slugging (.289) and weighted on-base average (.170). His average exit velocity (86.3 mph) and max exit velocity (107.3) are the lowest of his career in the Statcast era, since 2015.
In essence, his spot in the order has been akin to a pitcher’s place in a National League lineup so far. Andrus struggles to get on base and when he does make contact, he has not been hitting it hard.
For comparison, Semien is slashing .254/.326/.458 with seven homers and 16 RBI while learning a new position.
It’s not like Andrus is an elite defender anymore either. The 32-year-old’s range has declined and his -0.5 ultimate zone rating (UZR) ranks 19th among MLB shortstops.
Still, he remains the A’s top-paid player this season with an adjusted salary of $8.3 million, or nearly 10 percent of the team’s $87 million payroll.
With top shortstop prospect Nick Allen just getting underway this week at Double-A Midland after missing a key year of development in 2020, the A’s find themselves in quite a conundrum. It’s probably too early to elevate Allen to the bigs, even though his glove is ready, as it could stunt his long-term offensive development if he’s trying to learn hitting at the highest level.
So, do they let Andrus keep being a hole in the lineup? Or do they eat his remaining salary, release him to call up 33-year-old Pete Kozma, who hasn’t played in the bigs since 2018? Make Vimael Machin the guy? Find a free agent off the street? Promote Allen before he’s ready?
None seem like great options. And keep in mind Andrus is still owed $7 million in 2022, according to Spotrac.
The A’s were hoping Andrus would shore up the void left by Semien’s departure, but the hole is still there to a degree. Andrus is not a complete liability at defense and that’s enough to keep him in the lineup.
Andrus’ impact in the clubhouse as a respected veteran and something of a player-coach at this point can’t be ignored, but eventually, the A’s are probably going to want some sort of offensive production out of their shortstop.
A couple of weeks ago, when it was apparent Andrus was struggling, A’s manager Bob Melvin said he was still content with Andrus.
“The numbers don’t look great,” Melvin said on April 25. “He’s still playing a solid defense. When his number comes up in a big situation, he’s come through. I’m fine with how he’s playing.”
Without risk there is usually no reward, and the A’s will likely have to toil in shortstop purgatory unless they can get creative at the trade deadline. With the 23rd-highest payroll in the league, it could be worse, but there’s a closing window for the franchise to make a World Series run with its core of talent like Matt Olson, Matt Chapman and Ramon Laureano, who are all under club control.
Rosenthal is likely out another 2-3 months after going surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome and Romo has struggled, but Petit has been a rock for the A’s pen. Petit totes a team-best 0.98 ERA while ranking tied for second among American League relievers with 18 1/3 innings pitched. Moreland is slashing just .225/.305/.423 this year but has four homers, 13 RBI and provides a valuable left-handed power threat.
Without the Andrus trade, their roles likely would have been occupied by unproven guys with little to no big-league experience, which isn’t an ideal scenario. Would the A’s (19-14) still be leading the AL West? Would they have reacted differently to an 0-6 start?
It's impossible to know, but the stark contrast in one series between Semien and Andrus was on full display for all to see.