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DFA's Between a Rock and a Hard Place Part 1

EMPEROR EDIT: Happy Monday to all!  I was going to compose a 10,000 word screed calling for Bob "Starin'" Geren to be placed in Stocks of Humiliation in Jack London Square for the duration of the All-Star Break -- and how this would statistically provide the A's with at least +1.7 WAR by doing so -- but we won the last two games and actually played like a team worthy of the name "Athletics" so I refrained, choosing instead to promote this ridiculously insightful and well-articulated post (does he ever come up with one that ain't?) by my friend DFA. This is his reward for listening to me rant on the phone about the hidden history of Oakland the other afternoon to a point where he may have wanted to turn his lunch break into a Festival of Bourbon and Darvocet from my legendary hot-air aggrandizements.  Enjoy the post (I'm imagining there is a Part 2 of this coming at some point this week) and the break, and say a "Huzzah!" for 67MARQUEZ (aka The Don of Dons), who is alleged to be interviewing a certain Reginald Martinez Jackson today for a post coming your way this Thursday, yeah!

 

One of my main frustrations with the A's recently is the poor personnel moves that they have made and how they have repeatedly left the A's in lose lose propositions.   It has gotten to the point that I think that a change in the GM's office may be necessary to right the ship.  This is the first in a series of post will take a more theoretical than practical look at the way the A's have made acquisitions, extensions, and decisions surrounding trades and how that affects the position the A's are in right now: hurt, lacking in talent, and unable to trade anyone for quality prospects at the same time  failing to pilot the team towards a playoff birth or having the necessary prospects on the farm to present either a bright future or provide the ability to trade for one.  Part 1 is about reclamation projects.

After 2006 the A's fell apart. Literally. It became clear that the A's weren't going to be able to sustain the pace that 1999 though 2006 had made a custom for A's fans.   Lets talk about the disaster.  Before the season the A's embarked on the Brian Sabean like approach of signing a mediocre free agent and giving up a first round draft pick for Esteban Loaiza.  Loaiza had come off a year where his FIP was outfucking standing thought his xFIP was right around his high 3 ERA. He was around league average over the previous five years with a fantastic 7.2 WAR 2003 with the White Sox before imploding with the Yankees in 2004.

Loaiza was brought in to add to a top four of Barry Zito, Rich Harden, Dan Haren, and Joe Blanton.  Harden was not not know to have the significant injury issues that plagued him at the time of the Loaiza signing as he had only had an oblique strain up to that point.  Furthermore there were plenty of options for the fifth spot before Loaiza signed, Kirk Sarloos was a perfectly adequate 5th starter in 2005,  Joe Kennedy had had previous success as a starter before being moved to the bullpen, Juan Cruz had expressed a desire to start before being traded in ST, Chad Gaudin was acquired shortly thereafter and had been a starter in the minors. So Loaiza's signing wasn't a necessity and while it represented an upgrade but probably didn't represent a hugely significant one unless he performed at his elevated levels of 2003 or 2005 rather than 2002 or 2004.

Luckily Beane did not over pay for Loaiza at $4m a WAR  with a 2 WAR projection Loaiza was to be adequately compensated for his value with a $21m/3 year deal.  However, Beane did make what I think was a terrible mistake, refusing to wait until Washington made a decision on whether to offer Loaiza arbitration.  It is a decision that cost us our 1rst round pick and one I think is pretty inexcusable.  The Nationals were offering well below market for Loaiza at $8m/2y at to try to retain their FA, it is possible that a 1 year arbitration award in the $6 or $7m dollar range would have been too risky seeing as they spent very little on free agents that year.  While there was only probably a less than 50% chance of Washington failing to offer arbitration I really don't see how "Hey Esteban, we'll shell out more than anyone else giving you $21m/3y plus a fourth year option, you mind if we wait 10 days for you to sign it so we can possibly get to keep our 1rst round pick that might help the team while you're still here?" would be an issue. There were also other free agent options like Paul Byrd who was a type B FA and while didn't have years as good as Loaiza had put together some very good years in 05 and 02 and signed a 2y/$14m deal. Especially, when the team had a horrific farm system losing that pick was hard.

Secondly the A's really didn't have a full starting caliber OF at that point.  Eric Byrnes was traded midway through 2005 (loved that guy) and Jay Payton, Bobby Keilty, and Charles Thomas do not make a starting OFer on a contending team.  There were FA OFers who probably would have been a better use of the funds at the time and kept the A's from needing to give up their number 2 prospect deal for Bradley (a trade which I whole heartily support and supported).  A long time Beane target, Brian Giles (though a San Deigo native and liked playing for the Padres) signed a 3y/$30m deal, which wouldn't have broken the bank and would have slotted him into RF along side Kotsay and Swisher.  One of my all time favorite non A's was also availible, Kenny Lofton signed a 1 year deal for less than $4m.  Signing Lofton would have let the A's keep a ton of dough and their first round pick as well hold the position warm for Eithier and Buck.  Essentially there were better options than Loaiza and it cost us a first round pick that should be breaking into the majors right about now for your Oakland A's.

2006 also started the time that in earnest A's began extending the David Justice how fast do older players decline (see Moneyball for more info) and have went about signing injured or declining former star players.  Frank Thomas came to the A's on a $500K deal in 2006.  Mike Piazza was signed to an $8.5m one year deal where the A's were essentially bidding against themselves as the only team that would need a DH and fit Piazza's west coast desires.  Furthermore, in the prior year Piazza had only made $1.5m with the Padres and it was the first of Piazza's previous three years where he had been more than league average.  Mike Sweeney was brought on with a $500k contract. Emil Brown was a $1.4m disaster.

The problem with this philosophy is that it did not adequately address the strength of the organization or the best ways to leverage rebuilding projects.  First, I should acknowledge that the Frank Thomas case was an unmitigated success and goes mostly against the philosophy of which I am about to outline. I think the fact that Thomas was both the best hitter of my generation (nonroids category) and not really declining but rather just was hurt had something to do with why this is the exception.  The other players represent hitters in decline who had absolutely no upside.  So what if Mike Piazza hits like gangbusters the team wans't really built to contend in 07 (the OF suffered more injuries than the US at the battle of Normandie) and wasn't tradable anyway because contending teams just don't need DH's.  When was the last time that a contending team acquired a DH midway through the season for their playoff run?  It happens very very rarely.  Sweeney's case is even worse since the A's already had Jack Cust and the 08 team certainly wasn't a contender.  Emil Brown was a huge waste of $1.4m especially since the A's didn't need an OFer and could have better spent the money.

I think the A's have also failed to use the rebuilding project philosophy to their advantage.  The players that A's have tried to rebuild have primarily been hitters.  Guess what, the Coliseum is a shitty place to hit.  There really is no way of getting around that.  The numbers that rebuilding hitters put up are going to be depressed as will their potential trade market.  Furthermore, if the team insists on rebuild projects with hitters, it really should focus on players that can play positions other than DH because the need for DHs is limited to 14 teams and generally speaking there really aren't a lot of teams that are still contending with black holes that don't have massive contracts at the DH spot.  

The A's should be focusing on pitchers and to that regard Ben Sheets represents the first real attempt to rehab a pitcher who use to have a lot of value with a look to trading him.  When Sheets signed, I was dissapointed with the price but the principal was exactly right.  Pitchers will look better in the Coli than hitters and as a former elite starter, Sheets has name recognition that GMs often seek when making a trade because while half their job is fielding a good team the other half is convincing their fan-base that they're fielding a good team.  There were plenty of other examples of this in cheaper and available pitchers such as Brad Penny. But the A's have also failed to sign reclamation project relievers build their value and trade them appropriately.  The A's haven't successfully jumped on the Bemeil's or Villone's of the relief market relievers that are reliably in demand for low minors lottery tickets that often turn out to be good prospects.

The reclamation project model works best in non contention years, like 2009 when it should have been clear that the A's were not going to be contenders.  That way you use reclamations to delay service time clocks from starting and you use reclamation projects to teach the youngins how to be big leaguers. The rest of the FA model that has failed is the mid level players like Piazza who could have only reasonably been expected to be a league average player.  The elite end of the FA market has performed.  What has not performed is the above average talent on the FA market that often gets over paid, like Loaiza and Barry Zito.  In order to make sure that their limited payroll is used effectively I think the A's should only sign elite player or reclamation prospects in the starting rotation and the pen.

In part two I will look at the A's decisions to extend players and how that is impacted by this theory and why with the A's modus aperendi of extending undervalued players makes this two pronged approach to FA critical.

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