One of the joys of being a "have" is plundering a wounded have-not at the first smell of blood. Such an opportunity appears to be materializing for Chaim Bloom and the Red Sox this winter, if they turn their gaze west.
Red Sox fans can be forgiven for paying minimal attention to the Oakland A's recently, even as they established themselves as one of the best under-the-radar teams in the American League. They won 97 games in 2018 and 2019, beat the White Sox in a 2020 Wild Card game, and seemed poised to steal a playoff berth from the Red Sox this year until collapsing in September.
The A's may not be filled with household names, but their core is legit. Corner infielders Matt Olson and Matt Chapman are Gold Glove sluggers and All-Stars. Center fielder Ramon Laureano is a high flyer. Starters Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, and Chris Bassitt combined to win 36 games last year with a sub-3.50 ERA.
If there's one thing we've learned about the club during the Billy Beane Moneyball Era, however, it's that the A's are never built to last. Much like the Rays, they aren't undone so much by free agency as arbitration. Once the awards climb too high, Oakland must tear it down and start over.
That's where hardship meets opportunity. The A's have already made it clear they're open for business, because every core player listed above is looking at a substantial raise in arbitration, along with closer Lou Trivino and speedy utilityman Tony Kemp. Hard-throwing left-handed reliever Jake Diekman has a $4 million option that would be a no-brainer for most organizations, but maybe a no-go as the A's look to slash payroll.
And make no mistake, they're about to slash payroll. They signaled as much by letting manager Bob Melvin join the Padres, acknowledging he could earn a better long-term deal from San Diego than Oakland.
USA Today reported that the A's hope to pare their payroll from $90 million to as low as $50 million. Speaking at the GM meetings this week, general manager David Forst told the San Francisco Chronicle that he understands why people believe the A's are about to cut.
"You look at our history, and we have three- or four-year runs and recognize (that) where we are makes it necessary to step back," he said. "But we have not gotten to that point yet with ownership."
Bloom shouldn't wait around to pick up the phone or walk across the courtyard in Carlsbad, Calif., at this week's GM meetings, because the A's may hold the key to the 2022 Red Sox rotation.
With all due respect to Chapman and Olson, the Red Sox don't need corner infielders -- not with Rafael Devers manning the hot corner and prospect Triston Casas nearing his arrival at first base. The rotation is a different story, and Montas, Manaea, and Bassitt present three prime trade targets.
The 28-year-old Montas actually started his career with the Red Sox in 2009 out of the Dominican under Theo Epstein. He made a minimal impression and was just 2-9 with a 6.54 ERA at Low-A Greenville in 2013 before being shipped to the White Sox in the three-way trade that put Jake Peavy in the Duck Boat business.
Montas joined the A's in 2016 and continued shuffling along until introducing a swing-and-miss splitter in 2019 that proved transformative. He looked like a Cy Young candidate through 15 starts, but an 80-game PED suspension stopped his season in its tracks.
After a down 2020, he bounced back this season to go 13-9 with a 3.37 ERA, setting career-highs in starts (32), innings (187), and strikeouts (207). He also ranked among the league leaders in spin rate on his fastball and chase rate on his secondary stuff. His splitter is one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball (.126 average against) and he pairs it with a 96 mph fastball and a slider that has been a put-away pitch in the past.
MLB Trade Rumors projects that he'll earn $5.2 million in his second year of arbitration, leaving him one more year of team control in 2023, unless that system changes in the new CBA. That's a small price to pay for a top-flight starter, but the suspension is a red flag, as is the fact that he had never thrown more than 100 innings before 2021.
Durability is an even greater concern for Manaea, a talented 6-foot-5 left-hander who no-hit the Red Sox in 2018 before undergoing shoulder surgery and missing most of 2019. Manaea went 11-10 with a 3.91 ERA last year.
His secondary numbers are wholly unimpressive -- he ranks near the bottom of baseball in spin rate on his fastball and curveball, and he surrenders some of the hardest exit velocities in the game. He projects to earn $10.2 million in arbitration and is the least-appealing of the three.
That leaves Bassitt. The 32-year-old looked like a Cy Young candidate until a line drive shattered his face in August. He returned barely a month later to throw three shutout innings in a must-win game vs. the Mariners, exhibiting the toughness that teammates love.
The sinker-baller may not throw particularly hard or produce a ton of swing-and-miss relative to other starters, but he's fun to watch, varying arm angles and throwing a looping 12-to-6 curveball that barely breaks 70 mph. He's entering his final year of arbitration and projects to earn $8.9 million. He turns 33 in February, but doesn't boast a lot of mileage, thanks to Tommy John surgery that cost him most of 2016 and all of 2017.
Any one of these three would upgrade the Red Sox rotation for short money, and they're a good place to start as Bloom embarks on the offseason with the money and prospects to make a deal.