Oakland A’s Roll The Dice On Eric O’Flaherty
Today a couple of vastly different pitchers signed with American League playoff contenders that are polar opposites. Even though I should be caught up in the headline-grabbing move it’s an under the radar acquisition that piques my interest the most.
Obviously, the big news is that the New York Yankees made a major splash by laying out a whopping $155 million for stud Japanese starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. It’s definitely a bold move for the big-market team with high expectations with pressure to make waves in the American League East after enduring the Alex Rodriguez fiasco while watching the rival Boston Red Sox win it all.
Maybe I should follow the masses and get all worked up about the Yankees landing Tanaka along with Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran this winter but I just don’t find a lot of entertainment value in the Yankees throwing boatloads of cash at premium free agents. In fact, I find it a little boring.
We’ve seen the Bronx Bombers do this kind of things far too often and it’s a tiresome act for anyone who doesn’t cheer for the boys in pinstripes. Is there anything particularly interesting or creative about a team crafting its roster through the sheer force of superior financial resources?
If I was a Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers fan I’d say yes. Since I’m an Oakland A’s fan I just shrug my shoulders and roll my eyes at how the big-market teams do business. It’s a whole different world and it’s probably a fun one to play in if you can afford to.
However, I’ve come to enjoy the way Oakland tries to creatively get the most out of their limited resources. If they ever start handing out $100 million contracts I certainly won’t complain. Since that won’t happen anytime soon I might as well get comfortable with how they do business until they have a new ballpark and the means to compete for at least some of the top-tier free agents.
There’s no doubt whatsoever that the Yankees are better now than they were at the beginning of the offseason. After spending all that money they should be. Are they a World Series contender after breaking open Hal Steinbrenner’s piggy bank? I’m not sold on that one just yet. Their infield doesn’t impress me and the pitching staff doesn’t seem particularly intimidating even with Tanaka in the fold. Overall, the Yankees look like an old team that’s as likely to break down physically on the way to a sub-.500 record as they are to stay in one piece and win more than 90 games.
Far on the other end of the financial spectrum are the small-budget A’s who made their own move today; signing left-handed reliever Eric O’Flaherty to a 2-year, $7 million contract despite the fact that he’s currently on the mend from Tommy John surgery. The signing is understandably going to be buried by all the Tanaka coverage, but I selfishly find it a lot more intriguing than the Yankees spending their way into contention.
Maybe I shouldn’t invest much time and effort into looking at a relatively minor player like O’Flaherty, but the A’s offseason has hit a lull. I’m the same guy who overthought the Phil Humber signing earlier this winter. Why break character now and pass on an opportunity to overthink general manager Billy Beane‘s latest move?
On the surface it may seem a little crazy for spendthrift Oakland to commit $7 million to a reliever working his way back from Tommy John surgery when the team’s bullpen is already loaded with talent. I’m not all that worried about the money involved or the rehab ahead of O’Flaherty. I’m more interested in the tremendous upside of this deal for the A’s. Any time the A’s can get their hands on a 28-year-old left-handed reliever with a 1.45 ERA, 124 strikeouts vs. just 45 walks and a .419 OPS against left-handed batters over the past 3 years I’m all for it.
O’Flaherty’s been one of the best left-handed setup men in the game over the past few seasons for the Atlanta Braves and if he was completely healthy there’s probably no way the A’s would be able to affordably acquire him. I’m assuming that once Oakland had most of their arbitration cases settled it was easy to assess how much money they had left to play with. O’Flaherty there for the taking was too tempting for Beane to pass up.
In this day and age about $3.5 million a season for a good reliever is perfectly reasonable; especially now that every team is reaping the lucrative benefits of a new national TV contract. Now even the small-budget A’s can afford to take a flier on someone for a few million bucks.
Since recovering from Tommy John surgery is arguably standard stuff nowadays I don’t see any reason to spend much time fretting about whether O’Flaherty can come back at full strength. If they A’s were willing to commit $7 million over 2 years to him I’m going to assume that the team’s medical staff was perfectly comfortable with the state of O’Flaherty’s arm and their ability to manage his health.
Signing someone with high ceiling talent and some health issues such as O’Flaherty follows right along with similar risks the A’s have taken over the past few years on guys like Coco Crisp, Bartolo Colon and Jed Lowrie. With a limited budget you have to take some affordable gambles on upside. The A’s have shown a recent knack for keeping those players on the field and reaping the rewards.
The fact that O’Flaherty probably won’t be ready to help the A’s until the middle of the season doesn’t seem like a major issue since the bullpen is already one of the best in the American League. The middle of the season is often right around the time that teams with playoff aspirations start looking to at least add an extra arm to the bullpen to make a playoff push. For the A’s, their second half addition for the stretch run is already in the fold now that O’Flaherty is under contract.
Adding him to the potentially lethal mix of Jim Johnson, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, Luke Gregerson, and Dan Otero will bring additional depth to a bullpen that should be able to effectively mix and match in the late innings against the best lineups in the league.
A fringe benefit of adding O’Flaherty to the staff in the second half of the 2014 season is that his experience handling high leverage situations will take some pressure off Oakland’s other setup men right when they could use a break the most. I seriously doubt we’re going to see Cook and Doolittle forced to pitch almost every single day during a pennant race the way they have the past couple of years.
On paper, this is shaping up to be a monster bullpen that’s a perfect complement to the starting pitching staff. Right now it doesn’t look like anyone in the A’s rotation has the stuff to consistently dominate a playoff caliber lineup into the eighth or ninth inning late in the season. The deep bullpen Beane has constructed is well-positioned to take the ball from around the sixth inning forward and shut down the opposition.
Beyond this season, the O’Flaherty deal gives the A’s the flexibility to let Johnson leave as a free agent and promote Sean Doolittle to closer in 2015. It’s a nifty little trick to be able to save $10 million when Johnson’s contract expires and not skip a beat by moving left-handed Doolittle into the ninth inning and filling the eighth-inning vacuum with fellow southpaw O’Flaherty.
It’s pretty much a win-win deal for the A’s and O’Flaherty. The A’s get a shot in the arm down the stretch in 2014 and the ability to easily fill the void left by Johnson’s departure in 2015. O’Flaherty gets the security of a two-year deal when most teams were probably offering a lot less this winter due to his recovery from Tommy John surgery. He can now showcase himself for a playoff team before hitting free agency again in a couple of years while he’s still relatively young.
The Yankees earned the big headlines today, but the A’s probably came away with the best bargain. It’ll be fun to check back in October to see which team ended up getting the most bang for their buck over this busy offseason.