There's been a lot of grumbling about the A's so far this year which in many ways is justified. They often look listless on the field and in the camera shots of the dugout. Or maybe we just got spoiled by seeing Milton Bradley and Nick Swisher doing their patented, choreographed celebrations after long balls. I don't blame A's fans for feeling discouraged by this team and not feeling like it will ever pay off in a better product on the field.
Billy Beane made a calculated risk in 2009 and it appears to have failed given the team we're watching on a daily basis. But my question is this? Did Beane really make a calculated risk? Or was much of what he did in 2009 predicated on trying to at least get a competitive team on the field to gain some interest in the area rather than really "going for it"?
I would say that it was the latter. I mentioned this a while ago when Nico wrote his Dear Billy Beane post. I don't think that anything Beane did in preparation in 2009 was stunting what he originally set out to do starting last year and that was to build towards a real winner in 2010 or 2011 that would be a winner for a long time to come.
Beane went out and signed Orlando Cabrera to a low-cost, one-year deal in which that player had all the incentive in the world to perform well to get his value back to what it used to be. Beane gave up a closer that he thought he could replace fairly easily in Joey Devine. Well, that went awry, but he had a backup in Brad Ziegler and then Andrew Bailey. He gave up Carlos Gonzalez who is hitting very well in Triple-A, but he's still in Triple-A and who knows if he'll make that jump adequately this next time or it will take him several years until he possibly turns into a Carlos Pena after three more stops. He got a hitter whose contract is expiring at the end of the year and there have already been plenty of rumblings from around the majors about who might be interested in acquiring Matt Holliday.
The Jason Giambi signing could theoretically be over after this year if the A's feel like Sean Doolittle is ready to become an every day player by the end of the year.
The biggest question mark going into the year was adding Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson to the rotation. And I think that adding them has been good for these young pitchers. In my spring training interview with him, Beane mentioned how rare it was for even the most talented pitchers to come in and be an effective major league starter. Mark Mulder had an especially rough first adjustment to the majors. But I personally think that this experience has been really good for both Cahill and Anderson, who have to make the mental jump to believing that they belong 60 feet, 6 inches away from major league hitters. Anderson may be having the harder time making that adjustment because his splits from April to May are trending a little worse whereas Cahill had a much better May than he did in April, correcting much of the BB/K ratio issue (17 strikeouts to 9 walks) and his ERA for the month of May was 3.89. I think it takes time for those kids to make that adjustment. Vince Mazzaro will also get that chance to see if he's mentally ready for that jump as well.
But in order for the A's to compete in 09, things would've had to have broken perfectly. Even Beane seemed hesitant to call his team a contender during that same interview. His emphasis though was on the young pitching, whereas I believe the biggest problem with this team continues to be the offense. He gambled that Nomar Garciaparra would be able to add some consistent depth and Nomar's continuing health problems have hampered things. Giambi has improved of late, but he's definitely not the Giambi who wore green and gold eight years ago. If anything, the only player who has probably performed better than expected offensively is Jack Cust and that's because he's really worked on cutting down the strikeouts while becoming a better "hitter". He really has turned into almost the ideal Moneyball prototype.
Regardless, I think this sums up best where this team is right now, and again, it's taken from Beane's interview with me back in March:
Blez: Is that where you see this team right now?
Beane: It's hard to say. I think what we want to do is be better than last year and from a macro standpoint people will see that this will ultimately be an organic team and one that came from our minor league system that has some legs to it as far as its performance. But we also wanted to take advantage of some opportunities out there to sort of speed up the development of it. We want to be patient with the young guys but we also have a major league sports team and we want to win games because we do want people to be interest in it and not just go into hibernation until the young guys are good. You can have a five year plan but don't go around announcing it. Do your best, in the interim, to have that five-year plan in the background and go ahead and execute that, but do what you can to keep us interested.
The key to that statement is the end. "You can have a five year plan but don't go around announcing it. Do your best, in the interim, to have that five-year plan in the background and go ahead and execute that, but do what you can to keep us interested." If Beane has failed to do anything this year it's to make this team interesting enough this year with some of the moves he made because they were bargain shopping for those great deals and so many of them haven't worked out.
That being said, all hope is not lost. The young pitchers are getting some great experience that should ultimately help them down the road. And they don't look completely out of place. Well, Anderson does at times, but Cahill and Outman have not. The jury is out on Mazzaro. Dallas Braden has proven that he will be a really nice number four guy given that he has a true competitive streak to him. It's a cliche, but his guts and determination probably outpace his talent. But that's also the truth with Justin Duchscherer too. And he's proven that he can be a really effective major league starter. The A's aren't handcuffed by anything they did to make this team more interesting in 2009. And they're in a position with Holliday to move him for glaring holes at third base and shortstop. And I think that's going to be a big factor in judging whether or not this process has ultimately been worth it or not. It's just too bad that this team in 2009 isn't nearly as interesting as most people, including myself and many other people, thought it would be.
Still I find the most interesting thing about this team is watching the young pitching. The Cahill, Anderson, Mazzaro, Outman, Baileys of this team. Funny because it was one of the aspects of the 2009 team that I feared the most if they were going to compete for the West. Since they aren't competing right now, I can just enjoy watching these guys grow and mature and see a brighter future for the green and gold. Isn't that something we all want?