The tea leaves in Oakland aren’t painting a pretty picture of what is to come.
A few weeks ago, they let manager Bob Melvin depart and join the Padres, seemingly just to save themselves a few million in salary. Then they declined a $4M option on Jake Diekman, a fair enough price for a solid lefty reliever. Then there were the recent comments of general manager David Forst, who said that they are willing to listen to trade offers for any of their players. “This is the cycle for the A’s. We have to listen and be open to whatever comes out of this. This is our lot in Oakland until it’s not.” Everything seems to be pointing towards a big sell-off in Oakland, with their arbitration-eligible players likely to be exchanged for younger and cheaper alternatives.
As the front office is doing all of that listening, they are likely to hear a lot about Matt Chapman. The third baseman, who turns 29 in April, can be controlled for two more seasons via arbitration. The arbitration projections of MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz point to Chapman’s 2022 salary being in the $9.5M range, with him then being due another raise for 2023, before being eligible for free agency.
That’s not prohibitively expensive for a lot of teams, but for the Athletics, that’s a decent chunk of their budget. They’re currently projected for a 2022 payroll over $85M, per Jason Martinez of Roster Resource. Their opening day number has only been above $90M once, which was 2019, before the pandemic wiped out almost two thirds of a season and left teams playing in front of empty stadiums for the remainder, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Hypothetically, if they want to get that number down around $65M, which was their opening day figure in 2018, a contract around $10M would represent about 15% of the total outlay.
The timing of trading Chapman puts the Oakland brass in a difficult position, as he’s coming off a down year relative to his own lofty standards. From his debut in June of 2017 until the end of the 2019 season he played 573 games, hitting 111 home runs and slashing .243/.330/.478. His strikeout rate of 26.9% was a tad higher than league average, but so was his 10.5% walk rate. All that amounted to a wRC+ of 120 that, combined with his elite defense, added up to 20.2 fWAR.
However, 2020 saw him fall from those incredible heights. His batting average dropped, his strikeout rate increased, his walk rate decreased and then his season was ended prematurely by hip surgery.
In 2021, the good news was that he was healthy enough after the surgery to play 151 games and provide excellent defense, winning his third Gold Glove award. But the offense didn’t fully come back. His walk rate shot up to 12.9%, but his strikeout rate was a whopping 32.5%. He did hit 27 homers, but his overall line of .210/.314/.403 was well below his previous level, and amounted to a wRC+ of 101, just a hair above league average. It seems absurd to refer to 3.4 fWAR as a “down year”, but it is for Chapman, as that’s barely half of the 6.7 and 6.1 he was worth in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
That puts the Oakland front office at a crossroads. One path is to hold onto Chapman and hope for a return to his prior form and increase in his trade value. They could accomplish their salary-shedding goals by trading other players, such as Matt Olson, Sean Manaea and Chris Bassitt, who are all projected to earn between $8.8M and $12M.
Olson’s is coming off his best season, while Manaea and Bassitt are both free agents after 2022. However, holding Chapman comes with the risk that he could be injured again or repeat his 2021 level and see his trade value reduced as he gets closer to free agency. The way to avoid that risk would be to just make a move now, even if his trade value isn’t at its peak.
If they do decide to part with Chapman, or any other player, they seem likely to target MLB-ready pieces. As noted by Steve Adams, from the piece linked in the first paragraph, the club’s various resets usually don’t last very long because this has been their method. The team has only had a losing record eight times in the 24 seasons of the Billy Beane era, and never more than three in a row. With that in mind, let’s consider some potential trading partners.
Mariners: There’s a third base vacancy in Seattle for the first time a long time, as Kyle Seager is now a free agent. Abraham Toro is penciled in for now, but he’s also capable of moving to second base and bumping Dylan Moore into a bench/utility role, making Chapman an easy fit. The club is expected to be aggressive this offseason as they look to build on a strong 2021 campaign.
The Athletics are probably don’t want to send Chapman to a division rival, but they may also be interested in one of Seattle’s many young and cheap outfielders. The Mariners have Mitch Haniger in one spot, with the other two being open for Jarred Kelenic, Kyle Lewis, Jake Fraley, Taylor Trammell, Julio Rodriguez and Zach DeLoach. The Athletics have just seen Mark Canha and Starling Marte head into free agency and are unlikely to outbid other teams in order to bring them back. Ramon Laureano will still be serving his suspension for the first 27 games of the 2022 season, leaving Oakland with outfield options such as Stephen Piscotty, Seth Brown, Chad Pinder, Skye Bolt and Luis Barrera.
Marlins: Miami has a tremendous pitching surplus and is looking to use it to improve their offense, particularly at catcher and in the outfield. However, third base is a bit of a question mark for them as well.
Brian Anderson is penciled in there now, but only got into 67 games in 2021 due to various injuries. Even if he is healthy, he’s capable of playing the outfield, meaning that adding Chapman could indirectly be the outfield addition they seek. With the expected addition of the DH in the NL, it would also be easy to have them both in the lineup. The Athletics would presumably be interested in Miami’s arms that have yet to reach arbitration, such as Zach Thompson, Sixto Sanchez, Edward Cabrera, Max Meyer or maybe even getting Jesus Luzardo back.
Blue Jays: Much like the Marlins, the Jays also saw their third baseman miss a lot of time due to injury. Cavan Biggio was an awkward fit at third anyway, as he had primarily been a second baseman prior to this year and moved to accommodate the addition of Marcus Semien.
If Chapman were at third, Biggio could slide back to the keystone, with Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. filling out the rest of the infield. Chapman was recently rumored to be a target of the Jays. Toronto has a catching surplus, but that may not interest Oakland with Sean Murphy already on hand. But perhaps they would be interested in Nate Pearson, who has ace potential but has struggled with injuries recently, or infield prospect Jordan Groshans, who spent all of 2021 at Double-A and should be knocking on the door of the majors next year.
Yankees: The Yankee infield is a bit of musical chairs at the moment with the team seemingly giving up on Gleyber Torres as a shortstop. The infield right now, on paper, would be Torres at second with DJ LeMahieu at third, Gio Urshela at shortstop and Luke Voit at first. Voit doesn’t seem to have a job locked down, as the club has looked into
Anthony Rizzo and Matt Olson, but they could also acquire Chapman and move LeMahieu over to first.
The Yankees are also looking into top free agent shortstops, which could make prospects like Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza into trade chips that would interest the Athletics. Or perhaps Oakland would be interested in young and controllable arms, such as Michael King, Luis Gil, Clarke Schmidt, Deivi Garcia or Luis Medina.
Mets: J.D. Davis only played 73 games in 2021 due to a hand injury that sent him to the IL multiple times. When healthy, he provided his usual mix of strong offense coupled with poor defense. He was reportedly available at the trade deadline and even admitted himself that he has a “gut feeling” he won’t be with the team next year. If the Mets acquired Chapman, Davis would be a good fit at DH, should the NL implement it, given his profile. With Chapman in the fold, it could allow the Mets to part with third base prospects such as Brett Baty or Mark Vientos, both of whom are close to reaching the majors.
Phillies: A year ago, it seemed like the third base job in Philadelphia was locked down for years to come, as Alec Bohm had a breakout rookie campaign in 2020. He hit a tremendous .338/.400/.481 for a wRC+ of 138.
However, seemingly everything went wrong in 2021, as he dropped to .247/.305/.342 for a wRC+ of 75 and even got optioned to the minors for over a month. With the Athletics taking a step back, they could give Bohm some playing time and see if he can recapture that prior form. However, the Phillies have bigger priorities in the outfield and bullpen, which may mean that they hang on to Bohm for now.
Rockies: In the first season of the post-Nolan Arenado era, Ryan McMahon got most of the playing time at the hot corner, who paired average offense with excellent defense. But he’s also capable of playing second base, with Brendan Rodgers then moving to shortstop to replace Trevor Story, who is now a free agent. Chapman’s power bat moving to the high-altitude environment of Coors Field is tantalizing to imagine, and could potentially make infield prospects like Colton Welker and Elehuris Montero expendable.