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Instead of Marcus Semien, here’s what the A’s got for $18 million in 2021

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Romentitland | Getty Images: Brace Hemmelgarn (Romo); Kelly Gavin Petit (Rosenthal); Thearon W. Henderson (Petit); Billie Weiss (Moreland)

Oakland let go of another favorite, but they did spend the money elsewhere

It was a bummer to see the Oakland A’s lose shortstop Marcus Semien in free agency, especially when he landed elsewhere on only a one-year contract. The A’s reportedly thought about offering a heavily deferred $12.5 million salary, but he ended up getting $18 million from the Toronto Blue Jays.

If Oakland had gone on to do little or nothing with the rest of their winter, spending no money while a contending core begged to be upgraded, then missing out on a surprisingly attainable Semien would have gone from disappointing to unacceptable. But they got busy in February, and effectively did an entire offseason in less than two weeks.

First they found a new shortstop (Elvis Andrus) via trade, and in such a way that it actually reduced their payroll — enough to also sign a veteran starter (Mike Fiers) for their rotation. The two moves netted out around even financially, and they also acquired a bunch of cash in the deal.

Then they went on a shopping spree on the free agent market. They signed two setup men in Yusmeiro Petit and Sergio Romo, then a lefty DH in Mitch Moreland, and capped it off with a star closer in Trevor Rosenthal.

Petit, Romo, and Moreland combined for $7 million in salary. Rosenthal’s payment is partially deferred, but overall he’ll get $11 million. That adds up to $18 million, the same as Semien will make, and all on one-year commitments. And technically the A’s will pay even less than that this summer, since Rosenthal will wait to get $3 million of his share in 2022 and $5 million in 2023.

***

When Oakland signed Rosenthal for eight figures, a common reaction among fans was to question why they didn’t spend that kind of money on Semien if they had it available. (Never mind whether the money even was available at the time, before cash was acquired in the Andrus trade.)

The first answer is that the Rosenthal contract looks similar to the “idea they floated” for Semien, which was $2.5 million now and $10 million later. That would have been laughed out of the room considering how much more he ended up getting. So, they did want to use Rosenthal-level money on Semien, but it wouldn’t have been close to enough.

That leads to the second answer, which is that Oakland did quite a lot with the full $18 million they didn’t spend on Semien. They built an entire late-inning bullpen crew featuring a star closer and two highly experienced top-notch setup men, and added a quality lefty DH to their lineup. None of those moves addressed shortstop, but they found another avenue to take care of that without increasing their immediate budget.

If Semien puts up another MVP-caliber season in Toronto, then hindsight will be cruel about not taking the chance to bring him back on a one-year deal. And if Andrus tanks in Oakland, then shortstop could become an obstacle in their contention hopes. But for now, the way things worked out is that instead of paying $18 million to keep one beloved star, they filled four other positions with good free agents including one new legit star.

Like it or not, that’s how you play Moneyball. The A’s never pay to keep their expensive free agent, but rather opt for more creative and efficient ways to build their entire roster for the same amount. They did it again this winter.

***

Will it work in 2021? You could look at it like a trade. Which side would you pick? (Let’s pretend Semien would have fictionally accepted a partially deferred version of his real-life Blue Jays salary, to stay in Oakland.)

  • SS Marcus Semien

— OR —

  • RHP Trevor Rosenthal
  • RHP Yusmeiro Petit
  • RHP Sergio Romo
  • DH Mitch Moreland

If you pick the Semien side, then the three bullpen spots go to, let’s say, Burch Smith, Jordan Weems, and a scrap-heap signing like Deolis Guerra (and J.B. Wendelken is pitching the 8th inning in front of closer Jake Diekman), with DH going to a prospect like Seth Brown. If you pick the Rosenthal side, then you still have Weems and the others, but they’re in Triple-A serving as depth.

I’m a fan of going cheap in the pen and at DH, and there are breakout candidates in-house for those roles. But there will still be opportunities for those candidates during the six-month marathon of MLB, and if you’re going to pay for relievers then at least I like the ones they chose. I’m also irrationally excited about Moreland, a personal favorite.

It’ll be tough seeing Semien in a different uniform, but that won’t be a new experience for us. The A’s did relieve at least a tiny amount of the emotional sting by bringing back Petit and Fiers, and if Jed Lowrie makes it then that’ll help too. And it’s not like we aren’t going to immediately fall in love with the playful Andrus and exuberant Romo, much less Rosenthal if he pitches like he did last year.

Part of being an A’s fan is moving on from longtime favorite players like Semien. There are all kinds of ways you can feel about that, and they’re all fair. But in this instance, like many times in the past, they still managed to fill the diamond with quality players who are going to be a blast to root for as they contend for a title.

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