One last review of the A's 2008-2009 offseason moves

 

Well, you can’t say the offseason was boring this time around.

 

Good, bad or otherwise Billy Beane worked the winter of 2008-2009 differently from any other year he’s been the A’s GM. I mean, the guy actually went out and signed multiple free agents (Giambi, Garciaparra, Cabrera and Springer) while striking out on name players like Rafael Furcal and Randy Johnson! Oh yeah, Beane also went out and traded for one of the best hitters in baseball in Matt Holliday. Change may be the only constant in Oakland but this last winter was a storm of a different magnitude. There has been a lot of discussion on AN as to whether the moves Beane made were wise; in deed, some have argued that the acquisition of Matt Holliday was and is in direct opposition to the long term strength of the franchise.

 

Now that the offseason is all but over I wanted to look at where this team is and how we got here. I think a lot of the confusion over the direction Beane is taking the A’s stems from the fact that out beloved/embattled GM is working on (at best) Plan C. It’s really hard to have continuity when you have so many changes forced upon you. Sometimes no matter how good you are you end up having to muddle through.

 

 

Plan A was a doozy. Beane realized he had a unique opportunity presenting itself in 2009. The minor league system was brimming with talent that would (barring disaster) be ready to add significant talent to the Oakland roster no later than Opening Day, 2010. He had pared his 2009 payroll down to just over $40 million and ownership had said they’d be willing to kick in a sizeable boost to that figure. The Rockies were shopping Matt Holiday in the final year of his contract and there were several free agents-to-be who could be expected to look for short term deals that would help the A’s win in 2009 without blocking any of the upcoming talent in 2010.

 

Things were looking good early. The Rockies’ asking price for Holliday (Smith, Street and C. Gonzalez) was one Beane could afford to part with. The A’s preferred Ryan Sweeney in CF, Devine and Ziegler had already taken over the Closer’s job from Street and SP pitching was the strength of the Oakland farm system. Plus, while many baseball observers continued to predict that Randy Johnson was going to re-sign with the D’backs before free agency began I’m going to give Beane credit for being a baseball insider, I’m guessing he thought there was good chance that Arizona would have trouble finding the cash to keep the eventual HOF pitcher and the Big Unit would be looking for one last stop to reach 300 wins before retirement. Russ Springer, a bullpen arm the A’s have said they’ve liked for a few years now, was also planning on spending one last year in the sun. He could be signed to fill the middle relief slot that Street’s departure would create. Even better, the prodigal son himself, Jason Giambi, was almost certain to have his option year bought out by the Yankees and a reunion seemed highly possible.

 

The great thing about Plan A was the bulk of the cost would be limited to one year, 2009. The only targeted player that was certain to get a multi-year deal was Rafael Furcal. If the A’s were going to get Furcal to be their new SS they were going to have to give him a minimum 3 year guarantee. (Keep in mind; I’m still talking about pre-FA planning at this point.) That wouldn’t be much of a problem for the A’s (assuming his medical reports checked out… if they didn’t then Oakland wouldn’t have made an offer!) because they didn’t have a SS in the pipeline that was expected to be big league ready for another 2-3 years. Yes, the A’s would still be on the hook for Crosby’s $5.25 million 2009 salary but Beane had managed to trade both Jason Kendall and Mark Kotsay, plus oodles of cash, and gotten a couple decent bullpen arms in return. Surely he could manage another such trick with Crosby.

 

Beware of calling any man Shirley.

 

Plan A was centered on a trade for Holliday and pursuing Randy Johnson, Russ Springer, Jason Giambi and Rafael Furcal via free agency. Johnson and Springer would replace (and likely improve the quality of) the innings pitched by Smith and Street in 2008. Holliday, Giambi and Furcal would represent a massive upgrade over the wretched pile of poo that was the 2008 line-up for the Oakland A’s. Why do I think this course of action was Beane’s original vision? For one thing, it makes a lot of sense! For another, the total cost for such a roster make-over would have been approximately $75 million. That’s $4 million less than the A’s paid in big league salary in 2007. Thus there is precedent for an anxious ownership to spend the required cost in an attempt to win now.

 

No plan survives contact with the enemy, or in this case, the start of free agency. The economy went downhill fast and the free agent market went wonky as well. The superstars like Sabs and Tex were going to get their money, the question was would Furcal be treated the same? He was the premier free agent SS on the market but his 2007 back injury cast a large cloud of doubt. How much money would his injury history cost Furcal? This is where Beane misjudged the market. The Dodgers offered Furcal more money annually over 3 years (vs. the A’s eventual 4 year offer) with an option year that would push the total potential payout $4 million higher than anything the A’s offered. I’m not interested in re-hashing the old arguments as to whether or not Beane was right when he offered what he did to Furcal, just pointing out that the team that Furcal never wanted to leave made him an offer that could potentially pay him more money than he’d have made signing with the A’s.

 

After Furcal signed with the Dodgers, Randy Johnson decided he didn’t want to leave the NL and signed with the Giants. Would the A’s have had a better chance at convincing Johnson to come back and finish his career in the AL if they had managed to sign Furcal? Maybe, his addition certainly wouldn’t have hurt to sales pitch to Johnson. Holliday’s already in the fold and talks are progressing with Giambi but it’s fairly obvious that Plan A is well and truly frakked.

 

Plan B was only a slight variation on Plan A. Giambi signs to a 1 year deal plus team option and when Andrew Brown gets hurt Beane quickly went out and traded two guys destined for careers in the minors for Michael Wuertz. Springer gets signed and Beane goes shopping for another DiNardo or Saaloos, finding Edgar Gonzalez willing to sign a minor league deal. Beane hopes that the continually plunging economy will drive down Orlando Cabrera’s asking price because Wolff has had to reduce the funds available to the payroll and Bobby Crosby still sucks. A rotation of Duke, Gallagher, Eveland, plus 2 of Outman, Gio Gonzalez, Edgar Gonzalez or Braden would still be solid. Well, solid enough. Beane still has some extra cash so he resolves to strengthen his bench and maybe add another LHRP.

 

Here’s where I get a little confused. Cabrera’s price tag drops to the point where the A’s can have them selves a new SS. This could be a continuation of Plan B; then again, getting a new starter could merit an official Plan C rating. Whatever you want to call it (and I admit it’s a semantical issue but ‘tis one that’s bugging me) the realization that Duke and Devine are having elbow problems and that Gallagher and Gio Gonzalez seem to be regressing is a huge blow to the organization and most certainly kicks off the next level of planning, be it Plan C or Plan D. Whatever you want to label it, we’re essentially talking about the addition of Anderson and Cahill to the rotation.

 

There have been some who have argued since the start of Spring Training that Anderson and/or Cahill should be considered for the A’s 2009 Opening Day roster. Before anyone pats themselves on the back I think we should all acknowledge that no one wanted to see Cahill and Anderson in Oakland’s rotation at the expense of Duke and Gallagher. This borders on disaster for the A’s. Look, it’s not a question of talent… even people who have a vested interest in not liking the A’s admit that Cahill and Anderson are talented pitching prospects… it’s about their readiness to take on big league hitters every 5 days. Because with Duke out for a couple months and Gallagher pitching his way into the bullpen the A’s need Anderson and Cahill to do more than survive in the Show, they need dominance. I’m not sure they’re ready (although Anderson’s polish has surely shown in his last 2 ST starts). It’s harsh to compare MAC to the Big 3, but if you’re an A’s fan under 40 years old what else are you going to do?

 

Mulder, Hudson and Zito all pitched for Division 1 college programs. Hudson’s IP totals were 146.2 in ’97 (his draft year, College IP included) 172.1 in ’98 and 2003.1 in ’99 (including 136.1 IP for Oakland). Hudson was a few days short of his 24th birthday and had logged a total of 152.2 IP in AA and another 49 IP in AAA before making his big league debut in route to throwing 203.1 IP in ’99. Zito pitched 182 innings the year he was drafted, including 22.0 IP in AA and another 6 IP in AAA. He threw another 101.1 IP in AAA during the 2000 season before making his big league debut, ending up with 194.1 IP for the year. Mulder pitched 100 innings his draft year (98) then 128.2 IP in AAA in ’99. He made 1 start at AAA in 2000 before making the Show and ended up throwing 162.1 IP for the year.

 

Cahill and Anderson aren’t as far along on the path as the Big 3 were. They just aren’t. Cahill pitched a total of 132.1 innings last year, 37 IP at AA and another 8 IP in the Olympics. Anderson actually pitched fewer innings than Cahill, logging 129.2 total. That includes 31 IP at AA, 12.2 at the Olympics and 12 during the AAA playoffs. Most teams don’t like to bump a pitcher’s workload by more than 20% a year, which sets the recommended ceiling for both pitchers at around 160 IP for the season. That coupled with their relative lack of experience above High-A sticks a big warning flag over their use. I’m not saying they’re doomed, just that the A’s have to be extra special careful with their use… up to and including shutting them down in the middle of a pennant race once they hit a pre-determined inning limit.

 

So what does all this mean? Well, for one thing it means the A’s are nowhere near the starting position they hoped to be when the offseason began. They have been forced to make compromise after compromise to get to the starting line, and I think it’s fair to ask (especially when you look at the pitching staff) if maybe the season itself has already been compromised. I hope that I’ve shown that while Holliday trade makes little if any sense when judged against the end product, when you consider it as part of the original Plan A it actually makes a lot of sense. The price to acquire Holliday would have only gone up if Beane hadn’t said yes when he did. It sucks that the A’s weren’t able to land Furcal and/or Johnson to complete Plan A but that’s the way things go sometimes. Certain events can’t be predicted with absolute clarity.

 

Which is why this piece is an offseason review and not a 2009 preview.

 

Personally I think there’s some cause for optimism but a lot of things have to break right for the A’s. I think Oakland has a puncher’s chance in the weakened AL West, but things have deteriorated so much for both California teams that Seattle and Texas have legit shots as well. Texas in particular has some young arms on the verge of reaching the big leagues, that coupled with a farm system at least (if not more so) as deep as Oakland’s could position them to make a move at the All-Star break and go for the pennant. Whoever gets the better breaks is going to win the AL West, and the A’s are already starting in the hole.

 

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