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 $4MM 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 $9.5MM 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 $85MM, per Jason Martinez of Roster Resource. Their opening day number has only been above $90MM 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. (Hat tip to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.) Hypothetically speaking, if they want to get that number down around $65MM, which was their opening day figure in 2018, a contract around $10MM 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 385 games, hitting 74 home runs and slashing .257/.341/.500. His strikeout rate of 23.9% was a tad higher than league average, but so was his 10.1% walk rate. All that amounted to a wRC+ of 127 that, combined with his elite defense, added up to 15.6 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.
For the Oakland front office, that puts them at a crossroads. One path is to hold onto him 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 $8.8MM and $12MM. 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 just stay 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.