If there's one problem with having a very deep farm system, it's the difficult 40-man roster decisions that eventually have to be made. All around the diamond, the A's have a very good "internal replacement level," - the combined dropoff between their ML starters at each position and their AAA counterparts is smaller than perhaps any other team.
That mass of mediocrity has value. You hate Jack Hannahan, but he was significantly better last year than Andy Marte, Mike Lamb, and a few other guys who got 200+ at bats at the hot corner last year. And he wasn't the team's top choice. It's depressing that Gregorio Petit and Cliff Pennington aren't good enough to supplant Bobby Crosby...and yet all three are better than Tony Pena or Luis Rivas, who each wasted 200+ at-bats last year for their teams. All three A's shortstops could be any team's backup MIF.
That type of depth and high internal replacement level is the reason I never worry about the current incarnation of the A's ever being a 90-loss team, which is something to be proud of on a relatively small budget in the AL. But ultimately, the team probably needs a 4- or 5-win player or two if they want more to boast about more than just AAA championships.
The Matt Holliday trade has provided tthe team with one, and it also freed up two 40-man roster spots, which prevented the team from having to give away a player for free.
However, there is a strong chance that Holliday will be gone in a year, perhaps to fill the left field void for the Yankees at the cool price of $140M+, and once again the team will be without a 4-5 win player.
And next year, the 40-man roster crunch will be much greater, as Lansford, Italiano, Mazzaro, Andrew Bailey, Jason Fernandez, and chris carter are all Rule 5 Draft eligible for the first time. And although Cahill, Simmons, and Anderson won't be Rule 5 eligible yet, there's a chance that any or all of those three might've had their contract purchased by the end of the '09.
That's nine players - 22.5% of the 40-man roster!
The point is this: acquiring the very best AAAA players (Hannahan, Rajai Davis, Joe Dillon, Chen, etc.) and prospect depth for the future is great. It really is. But at some point, that depth needs to be consolidated into a more valuable asset, like Holliday, for two reasons: 1. Other than homegrowing a truly elite player, it's the only way for the A's to acquire one, and 2. It avoids the team being forced to give up on 40-man roster guys they still have hopes for.
So, although many AN readers hate the Holliday trade - can't stand it, don't understand it, or both - for the sake of the fanpost, please consider for a moment the idea that it could be considered again next offseason - when the 40-man roster talent crunch is worse than ever, and the team's lone 5-win player (Holliday) is likely gone.
Which player could be next offseason's one-year rental?
Brewers shortstop J.J. Hardy, who will be due to make $6-7 million in his final year of arbitration in '10, makes sense on a variety of levels.
- His eventual replacement, Alcides Escobar, just turned 22 and completed an impressive season in AA. The Brewers were publicly unwilling to put Hardy on the trade block this offseason, but if Escobar demonstrates his readiness at the AAA level in '09, it'll be much easier for Milwaukee to hand over the reigns to him for the '10 season.
- Clearing $6-7 million in payroll will be attractive to the Brewers, who were unable to re-sign Sabathia and Ben Sheets this offseason in part because of a hard payroll set at $80-85M. Next season will require even more creative juggling for Milwaukee, which has $35.9M committed to just four players in 2010: Jeff Suppan, Bill Hall, Prince Fielder, and David Riske. Tack on the raises for Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks in their final year of arbitraton, and that's $45 million - roughly 55% of the payroll - devoted to six players. And that's with gaping holes in center field, starting pitcher, and closer/bullpen, all of which can't be filled internally for the Brewers by 2010.
- The A's need to upgrade at shortstop goes without saying, and Crosby's $5.25M will be off the books as a bonus. Plus, a one-year rental of Hardy will give the A's an opportunity to evaluate how he responds to the AL before committing to a lucrative free agent deal. Born and raised in Arizona, I'm going to make a leap and hope that Hardy is a "West Coast guy" and would consider re-signing in Oakland after the season. Hardy's also not a Scott Boras client, which makes signing him to an extension more realistic.
- With so much payroll committed to mediocrity like Suppan and Hall, the Brewers will have to fill a few of those leaky holes (CF, bullpen) with league-average, cost-controlled players which currently don't exist in their farm system. Which is where the A's come in:
I think a J.J. Hardy/Oakland A's swap after the '09 season starts with either Ryan Sweeney, Travis Buck, or Aaron Cunningham - keep in mind, you have to take whatever you think Hardy is "worth" right now, and subtract one year of value, since he's being traded only a year prior to free agency in this hypothetical. If the A's can provide the Brewers with several cost-controlled years of league-average production in CF (or perhaps right field in Buck's case, with Hart pushed to center), that's the starting point that puts J.J. Hardy into conversation.
Here's where it gets hazy, but I also think there needs to be a productive major league reliever in this package - Casilla or Brown, perhaps - and a B or B- prospect or two. Assuming they build value in the coming season rather than lose it, let's say Henry Rodriguez and Javi Herrera.
This gives the A's an elite 4-5 win player, shores up their greatest hole, and helps the team clear 2-3 more spots on the 40-man roster for the pending roster crunch in '10.
I'm sure the Brewers would love to have a starting pitcher in that package, but they're not getting anyone better than Greg Smith if they're getting anyone. That rules out Gallagher/Eveland/Gio/Braden/Outman, which is my prediction for the Opening Day '10 rotation (with some more talented pitchers knocking at the door, obviously).
Thanks to the team's terrific depth in the outfield right now, the '10 outfield still looks ok even after that trade and Holliday's potential exodus. Let's say Hardy was acquired in exchange for Sweeney, Brown, H-Rod and Herrera. The '10 outfield might be Cunningham/Buck/Cust, with some combo of Rajai Davis/Denorfia/Murton/Copeland providing defense/platoon options off the bench and Giambi DHing most of the time in the final year of his contract.
What do you think, AN? Would you want to acquire J.J. Hardy a year from now, and if so, what package would it take to get him? Do you think that the Holliday trade is not a crazy abberration, but instead a tactic that Beane might try to use again in the future to take advantage of the organization's depth?