In the wake of the recent Trevor Cahill trade, fans are often left scratching their heads. They're confused as to why the A's are trading away their studs for unproven minor leaguers, and why the A's seem to do it so often. In this post, I'm going to attempt to clarify just why a rebuild is necessary, and hope to put things in context for this particular rebuild.
Let's start out by laying out what a team needs to be competitive.
- Good players. It sounds simple, but this is the underlying motivation behind all rebuilding/all in attempts. In order to get wins, you need to have good players to score runs/prevent runs. If you have a 70 win team, you're not going to ever reach the playoffs, and you are forced to try and acquire talent. The simple base of your 70 win, barely above replacement level WAR team can only outperform so much. Imagine a team of Mark Ellis's. Mark Ellis is a fine player, but a whole team of Mark Ellis's will probably not be good enough. So how does a team acquire talent?
- Free Agency. This is the most straightforward way of getting talent. If you need a third baseman, you go out and buy the best available third baseman without a team. You can do this either through the MLB free agency, or occasionally through off beat means like a Japanese Posted player, or a Cuban defect, etc. The upside of this is that it costs you no talent, only money. The money restriction is more serious for some teams than others, depending on how rich the team is/how frugal the owner is. I also put the waiver wire in this category.
- Trade. You can trade some of your players to acquire players from other teams. A lot of the A's' success in the mid 2000's can be attributed to this, and particularly an imbalance of talent exchanged. Ideally you want to trade from your team's strength to acquire a weakness. So if you have two very strong Designated Hitters on your team, but you need a 2nd baseman, it's best to find a team that needs a DH that can spare a 2nd baseman. The hope with trades is to acquire more talent than you give up, but if you do this too often, you may get a reputation as a bit of a swindler, and thus spoil future attempts at trading with a team as they'll be extra careful with you.
- The Draft. You can take the young, unproven players from High School, College, or occasionally the independent leagues. Every team starts with the same baseline of draft picks, but these picks sometimes get traded or sold to other teams (occasionally this comes in the form of the cryptic "Player To Be Named Later" due to the MLB's rules about trading freshly drafted players.) Teams can also acquire draft picks via the Type A/Type B system (though this has been changed with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.) The short version of this is that teams occasionally get extra draft picks that either get added into the draft or taken from another team to compensate them from losing valuable players to Free Agency. This is another way of purely acquiring talent while giving up nothing, but this is a much more risky option than Free Agency, as the prospects may not pan out, or you may not see them in the MLB for many years to come.
- The Rule 5 Draft. This is a seldom used option for any real impact players, due to the relatively low talent in the pool. In a nutshell, this is a draft designed to give players who are buried in the minors a shot. If you are a first baseman for the Angels right now, you're buried. The 1st base/DH slot for Slegna is occupied right now by Pujols, Morales, Trumbo, Abreu, etc. Teams can take a chance on you, but you have to be carried on the major league (25 man) roster all year or else you are returned to your original team. There are examples of this working out very well (Johan Santana, Josh Hamilton, etc.), but players here are, for the most part, career minor leaguers.
A steady source of income. If you have a dynamite young team which are all under team control, that's awesome. Those guys will get expensive soon. When they reach their arbitration years, they soon will begin demanding more money from you. If they reach Free Agency, even if they want to play for you, they want to be paid competitively for their services. If you don't have fans in the stands, buying jerseys, or watching the game on TV in a good deal for you, you will not be able to pay your players. Occasionally you hear stories of the owner paying out of pocket for players, which means that they're taking a loss financially because they want to win, this is generally not the norm. These guys want to make a profit. In order to keep the money flowing, you need a few things:
A product on the field. For the most part, if you have a good team on the field, the fans will come. This is especially true for a team like the Yankees, who are competing for the playoffs every single year. Every year that your team competes, you build a reputation as a winning (read: fun) team to watch, and you'll begin gaining more fans. You need both the diehard and the casual fan in order to get you money.
A stadium. You need a stadium to play games in; the better stadium, the more fans you get. If you have a snazzy stadium, fans will come even if they aren't that into baseball, because it's fun anyway. If your stadium is a dump, you'll only draw in the diehard fans, because people who aren't big fans of baseball have trouble being bored for 3 hours with no relief.
A good TV deal. If you have either your own TV station, or a favorable contract with a local TV station, this is big for you. This helps your team gain out of market fans, money from advertisements, and establishes you as a hip commodity for the general populace. The Yankees, the Red Sox, the Cubs, and a few other teams are very good with this.
Revenue Sharing. I feel the need to mention this, if only in an explanatory fashion. In the MLB, the higher end teams share their revenues with the lower end teams. This is done because the MLB wants to maintain a national (plus Canada) presence, and keep the game relevant all over. Not every market, though, will be a New York, or a San Francisco, or a Boston. Instead of keeping the game only in the biggest markets, the more profitable teams give some money to the less profitable teams (note: almost every team is profitable, as it's really hard to lose money on baseball.)
So with it established that the A's need good players and good financials, let's examine what steps they have taken to get the team to win.
- First, let's tackle the money situation. Do the A's have the money coming in to get/keep the players they want?
- A product on the field. The A's have made some efforts to keep the MLB team competitive. They acquired Matt Holliday, despite the fact that the surrounding team looked sketchy. They traded for Josh Willingham and David DeJesus, etc. For the most part, though, this team hasn't been all that great since 2006. There are fun players, but they haven't really been winning, so they've been losing fans. The bigger issue here is that the A's have proven to be the exception to the rule here. Even in years when the A's do particularly well, the fans don't show up. The prime example of this is 2007. In 2006, the A's made a big run and made the ALCS; it was awesome. If this rule follows, then more people would be showing up to the park in 2007, but this didn't happen. Season ticket sales actually went down. This can be attributed in some sense to the recession or the stadium, but the fact of the matter is that this team does not draw more fans when they are good.
- A stadium. I'm not going to get too much into this due to the brevity of information already available, but needless to say, the A's don't have a good situation with the stadium. The coliseum is old, cavernous, and not fun for the casual fan, especially if the team is losing. While the stadium might be suitable for a perennial 110 win team, the A's are not that. The A's need a new stadium somewhere in order to draw back the casual fan and generate some money.
- A good TV deal. The A's don't have their own stadium, and they've only had Comcast Sports Net California since...2009? 2008? Even now CSN-CA doesn't show all the games, due to various issues with profitability. As the A's draw in more fans, the prospect of having a great TV deal becomes more of a reality, but for now what Oakland has is merely serviceable.
- Revenue Sharing. Yup, they have that. In fact, they have a special clause in the new CBA that lets the A's continue to receive revenue sharing in the long term if they don't have a new stadium by 2016, despite the fact that they're located in a large market.
So they're struggling here. The product has been blech, the stadium situation is a mess, they don't have a good TV deal, and they're grasping with revenue sharing. How has this impacted their efforts to get good players?
Good Players. Have the A's tried to make the team on the field the best they can?
Free Agency. It's no secret that the A's have trouble here. Due to their sketchy financial situation, the A's have trouble acquiring free agents. While it is possible to acquire that shiny free agent, it takes a lot of effort. The A's can not simply go out and buy whomever they want, as one bad contract can cripple the team (read: Eric Chavez.) The A's have tried to fill their gaps with Free Agents (Adrian Beltre, Rafael Furcal, Hisashi Iwakuma, etc.) but they have not been successful. The player gets paid by a team willing to go over the top with money/years; an option which the A's do not have. Instead, the A's opt for players like Coco Crisp, Shannon Stewart, and Andy LaRoche. They go for the bargain players who have some problem (injuries, age, undeveloped tools) which could still be awesome if they ever put it all together. Free Agency isn't the most viable option for the A's. The're not always going to get the guy they need, because teams like the Rangers have the money to get him in order to deprive us of him
Trades. The A's have been very active in the trade market. The A's have acquired guys like Sizemore, Willingham, DeJesus, and Jackson via the trade. They've also shipped away Ziegler and others. There's a bigger pool here, so let's go over a few key guys acquired via the trade, and analyze how well they've done. Rather then go over each specific players, I'm going to list off the relevant players who have and haven't worked out since 2007.
Worked out well: Brett Anderson, Josh Willingham, Gio Gonzalez, Guillermo Moscoso, Michael Wuertz, Adam Kennedy, Graham Godfrey, Greg Smith, Ryan Sweeney, Joey Devine, Josh Outman, Jack Cust, David DeJesus (saved by the fact that Mazzaro was awful in Kansas City)
Did not work out well: Jake Fox, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Conor Jackson, Matt Holliday, Scott Hairston, Clay Mortensen, Chris Carter, Dana Eveland, Aaron Cunningham, Sean Gallagher, Eric Patterson, Matt Murton, Chris Denorfia, Chris Snelling, Rob Bowens, Jerry Blevins.
That's a long list of guys. There's only so many of those who really have the potential to be impact guys. I'd say the following are as such: Willingham (Gone), DeJesus (Ehh and Gone), Anderson (Tommy John), Gonzalez (Good!), Cust (Good but gone), Taylor (awful 2010 derailed outlook), Kouzmanoff (bad and gone), Holliday (ok performance, but gone in bad return), Hairston (bad, and gone), Carter (see Taylor, Michael), FDLS (good as a reliever, expected to be starter though). The point here is that the guys who did work out, for the most part, aren't here anymore. The talent they gave up is gone, and the talent they acquired soured or is gone (with the exception of Gio.)
The Draft. Let's take a look at guys who have and haven't worked out, like we did with trades.
Not as good as hoped: Grant Green (no longer a shortstop, bat struggling), James Simmons (will likely never be an MLBer,) Landon Powell (nothing more than a backup,) Richie Robnett (will likely never be an MLBer, with the Cubs now, I think)
As you can gleam from any prospect list, for the most part, the A's farm system is not good. A lot of their moves have not worked out, though some have. Weeks and Cahill have become major leaguers that would do well on any team. James Simmons and Richie Robnett are nonfactors. They've done...ok in the draft, but not like in the early 2000's.
The Rule 5 draft. We've taken some guys, but they were nothing fancy. The only relevant ones are Casseveh, Goleski, and Marshall. The first two were returned, and Marshall was serviceable for one year, but meh after that. Nothing to see here.
So what's the point of all this, Pee Wee? Why did I bring you all here? What does any of this have to do with Billy Beane trading my beloved Trevor Cahill? It's simple. Due to the way things have worked out in recent years, the A's do not feel they have a strong enough nucleus to compete, and thus they must start over. The TLDR breakdown of this post is as follows:
The A's do not have a stable financial situation due to the stadium situation, and as such, can not acquire many players via free agency.
The A's recent trades for prospects have not worked out well (Taylor, Carter) for the most part, so the major league core is lacking in many ways.
The draft has had mixed results.
In the face of such opposition, the A's are choosing to roll the dice with a new set of youngsters, rather than plunge forward with the current set of guys. While Gio, Cahill, Anderson, Weeks, and Bailey are all good, the Oakland Athletics are a 75 win team. They have very little coming from the minor league system to help us this year (Gray, Choice, Green, etc. are all probably still a year out) and they have no guarantee that we'll have the money to pay these guys when they start demanding money.
If a team can not buy better players, and they can not bring up better players from within their own system, the only options are to sell it off and hope to get lucky with a new core, or trudge forward and hope that everyone who is underperforming stops doing so.
This is the core question you have to answer as a fan. Are you willing to put up with multiple losing seasons in order to see your favorite players do well, or do you want to roll the dice and hope for a sustainably awesome team? The A's, over their history, have chosen the latter. Billy Beane is not content with one lucky year of playoff contention sandwiched in the middle of 5 losing seasons. He wants a team which is the class of the division for 6-7+ years. In the face of a two time World Series team in Texas, and an Angels squad which now features Pujols and Wilson, the A's have elected to wait it out a bit. When I look at how many things have gone sour for the A's, I can't blame him.
I hope this clears things up for some, and I'm sorry for how long this became, but I want people to know why Beane trades off his players so often. He wants a winning team, not good players. This may sour some fans, but this is the route he has chosen.