The A’s have a young and unproven roster, but there is plenty of upside around the diamond
Last season Sean Murphy led the A’s in WAR with 5.1 wins above replacement on FanGraphs. On the pitching side, Frankie Montas (1.9) and Cole Irvin (1.4) sat atop the mountain for the pitchers. All three of those players have since been traded. There are a number of new faces on the roster, and guys that could take a step forward in 2023, so who will lead the team in WAR?
Let’s take a look at some candidates.
The most obvious candidate has to be Seth Brown, who finished the season with 1.8 fWAR in 2022, and had a monstrous second half, finishing with a 147 wRC+, 47% above league average. With the new rules pertaining to the shift, Brown could have a huge season overall as a lefty bat.
A’s GM David Forst also said at the GM Meetings that teams have been asking about Seth Brown. If he is off to a big first half in 2023, there is a high likelihood that the front office looks for a trade partner for Brown, who is currently 30, and isn’t a free agent until after the 2026 season.
The same goes for Ramón Laureano, who has dealt with injuries and suspensions the past two seasons. If he’s clicking, he could also become available around the Trade Deadline.
With a potential trade of either, or both, of Brown and Laureano looming, there are three guys that I think could stake a claim for the WAR lead at season’s end.
With Sean Murphy in Atlanta, Langeliers is the A’s starting catcher heading into 2023. The 25-year-old hit pretty well in his first 40 games in the big leagues at the end of 2022, batting .218 with a .261 OBP while slugging six homers (which has earned him the nickname Bangeliers), and wrapping up with a 97 wRC+, or just below league average.
FanGraphs has him projected as the A’s WAR leader among both position players and pitchers, at 2.5 wins above replacement.
He’s an obvious pick. He will have some growing pains, but will probably be around league average at the dish in his first full season in the majors while providing solid defense behind the plate. The recipe is there for Langeliers to be one of the better players on the team, and that’s part of the reason why the front office felt that Murphy was expendable.
The other reason the A’s made the Murphy trade that they did is because they really like soon-to-be 24-year-old centerfielder Esteury Ruiz. He had eye-popping stats in the minor leagues in 2022, batting .332 with a .447 OBP, 16 home runs, and 85 steals. His walk rate nearly doubled from 7.9% in 2021 in Double-A, to 13.8% with the Padres Double-A affiliate last season, and climbed to 14.1% in Triple-A.
In a brief taste of the big leagues he hit just .171 with a .194 OBP in 36 plate appearances, seeing his walk rate fall all the way to 2.8% in very limited action.
The tools are all there, and as a member of the A’s, he’s going to get playing time to start the season. FanGraphs has him projected for 2.0 WAR using their ZIPS model, to go along with a .237 average, .315 on-base, 10 homers and 36 stolen bases.
There is a lot of room for growth in his bat over what he showed in his brief stint in the majors, which means he could even surpass the 102 wRC+ that goes along with that ZIPS projection. He’s also a work in progress defensively, but if he makes strides with the glove, there is room for him to tally some extra wins there, too.
If Ruiz leads the team in WAR in 2023, he’s taken some steps forward, and that should get A’s fans revved up for 2024.
Allen is projected for the same WAR total, 2.1, as Seth Brown, even while playing in 15 fewer projected games. For the A’s shortstop, his value comes from his glove, and even in just 100 total games last season, spanning 501.2 innings at shortstop, he still ranked 8th in Outs Above Average at the position with eight, according to Statcast. Over the course of a full season, he should easily rank in the top five, and could even be a top three defender in baseball at short.
With his gold glove caliber defense, his WAR floor is pretty high. The question for the 24-year-old will be how he adjusts to pitching at the highest level in his first full season.
In 2022, he hit .207 with a .256 OBP and a 61 wRC+, meaning he was 39% below league average with the bat. Not only would he need to increase on that level of production to lead the team in WAR, but he may have to show he can produce at the big league level in order to stick as the A’s plan at shortstop long-term.
He has shown that he can hit at every level to this point, and with some time under his belt from last season, he should be able to hit the ground running in 2023. FanGraphs has him projected to hit .229 with a .287 OBP and an 80 wRC+. That’s still 20% below league average, but a nice boost from his first go-around. If he provides a league average bat with gold glove defense, he’d be one of the best all-around shortstops in all of baseball. That’s how special his defense is.
Kevin Smith is a player that really intrigues me heading into Spring Training. He absolutely mashed in the final month of the Triple-A season, batting .365 with a .405 on-base, 11 home runs, six doubles, and two triples. That should be enough to get him a second look at an Opening Day roster spot heading into the season. He hit just .180 with a .216 OBP in 47 games for the A’s in his last big-league stint.
Even with those numbers in mind, he makes sense on the A’s roster for 2023. He played excellent defense at third base, finishing with 3 OAA in one-third of a season. If he’d kept that same level of play going on the defensive end over the rest of the year, he would have finished tied with Manny Machado for third at third in Outs Above Average.
He struggled overall in his 47 games with Oakland, but he still crushed left-handers, batting .260 with a .296 OBP and a 116 wRC+, 16% above league average. If he’s thrown into a platoon situation with Jace Peterson (and he should be), then he could be an impactful player on the A’s 26-man roster. It’s just a matter of if he gets enough playing time to challenge Langeliers, Ruiz, and Allen.
I have to throw one pitcher on this list, and while Ken Waldichuk and Kyle Muller are projected by ZIPS to lead the A’s pitching staff in WAR at 1.5 wins apiece, the rotation situation is a bit jumbled before camp starts. I’ve already given my initial take on the A’s Opening Day roster, and only one of them makes the cut.
So with that in mind, I think it could be a reliever that comes in and leads the way on the pitching side. The guy that I have my eye on is actually projected for -0.1 WAR, so this may look pretty bad in retrospect, but the A’s see something in Chad Smith, whom they acquired from the Colorado Rockies for prospect Jeff Criswell.
Smith is entering his age 28 season and just made his Major League debut in 2022, finishing with a 7.50 ERA, and a 4.83 FIP, while racking up 11.50 K/9 and 7.50 BB/9 in 18 innings pitched. Smith is a hard thrower, averaging 96 on his fastball, but it’s his slider and the 56% whiff rate that comes with it, that could lead to a breakout campaign.
He struggled in his second appearance with the Rockies, his first at Coors, allowing six earned on five hits and two walks in one inning. Outside of that one appearance, Smith was a league average reliever. Switching from the most hitter-friendly venue in baseball to one of the stingiest for hitters should help his stat line, but it’s that slider that should do a lot of the talking for Smith in Oakland.
There’s also a chance that he gets an opportunity to close games throughout the season, and could work himself into the closer role as the season progresses.
The A’s are still building up their roster for brighter days, and while this exercise of picking between a bunch of two-ish win players to see who will be the best doesn’t necessarily mean that the team is on the verge of contention, it does show that they’re headed in the right direction. Last season Sean Murphy was the only player to finish with above two WAR.
The A’s are going to surprise plenty of people in 2023 by not being as bad as they thought. This team isn’t likely to lose 100 games again. They could even push for 70+ wins, with ZIPS projecting them for 72, and currently giving them a 6.1% chance to make the playoffs. Having a bunch of two-ish win players helps win baseball games.