It's kind of like looking at one of those maps where the red X says "You Are Here," but as you look east there's a cliff, south there's a dead end, west there's a large swamp, and north there's a road that only leads east. 4-5 years into what was billed as a rebuild, the A's are sitting with a worse record than they started with, a lower rated farm system, an infield you couldn't give away and an OF that is poised to leave as one big free agent.
There are only so many directions you can go, from "blowing it up" to "becoming buyers for right now" to a few gradations in between. This post attempts to explain why some choices may not be the right ones, hoping that by the end perhaps a good course will reveal itself -- ideally one that does not require the ability to survive the fall off a cliff or the ability to thrive in the middle of endless swampland. (Seriously, that time share is not a scam you'll get me to go for twice, no sirree Bob. Hey, the name Bob! Isn't that the name of every manager we've ever had, from Bob Melvin to Bob Geren to Bob Macha to Bob Howe and all the way back to good old Bobbie Mack? But I undress...)
"Blow It Up"
When readers casually throw the phrase "blow it up, Billy!" around, they may or may not realize what they're actually advocating. "Blow it up" does not mean "foist the players you hate onto unsuspecting teams," it means trade the players who are essential to you now because other teams actually want them and will give you multiple good young players in return. Those players for the Oakland A's clearly begin with Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill.
Personally, I would not advocate dealing those two guys and my reasoning is that in order to come out ahead you would need to replace them not only with the middle of the order hitters you are so desperately lacking, but you would also need to replace them with two healthy, "front of the rotation" level starting pitchers.
Dealing Gio and/or Cahill would make the team truly terrible, which has its advantages in the draft. Your 2012 and 2013 picks might be very high picks -- which means you can draft guys who might be ready to help you around 2015 or 2016. That's 4-5 years from now, and only if you hit on them.
Meanwhile, you might get multiple starting pitching prospects along with what you hope is at least a couple potentially good solutions for your lineup. Those pitching prospects are likely to wind up being a Brett Anderson type ("man he's good if he could only stay healthy"), a Luke Hochevar type ("Well he was supposed to be better but I guess he's ok"), and a Tyson Ross type ("He could be as good as Cahill and Gio, or he could be disappointing, or he could be totally injured -- good luck!")
In Cahill and Gonzalez, you have pitchers who are already pitching 200 excellent innings and have no history of injury. Dealing them is banking on replacing them -- which is hard enough to do in and of itself -- in the hopes that you can hit on the draft, as well as on the other players you acquire in trade, in order to be good not next year, nor the year after, nor the year after that, but perhaps by 2015-16.
Basically if there's any way to build around Cahill and Gio (and hopefully Anderson if he bounces back -- though he's the one I would have traded due to the combination of his terrific ability and his not-so-terrific health), rather than dealing the best thing the A's have going, and really the one thing that teams really envy for good reason, that's my vote.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!! That is all.
Yes, a team can make up 7-8 games in the standings in half a season, but not when they're a .444 team whose lineup reminds you daily as to why. Some rosters have ".700 ball for 6 weeks" written all over them and this isn't one of them.
And herein lies the problem. The A's have few "trade chips" that other teams want enough for them to rebuild without blowing the team up fully. Yet the current crew of position players, which looks like a nice-but-not-inspiring 3Bman, a "less annoying than Crosby but not that much more productive" SS, 1Bmen whose power ranges from zero HRs to one, a catcher who is hitting pop-ups and throwing grounders, and an OF of guys who "should be slightly above average, but they came to the A's so naturally they're underperforming," doesn't offer a myriad of good options.
What To Do?
So what to do, what to do? Who to keep and who to deal? Who to try to keep around and who to let walk?
Josh Willingham...It is tempting to try to keep Willingham, who represents something the A's so desperately lack: A power hitter who is also a good hitter in general. Here's the problem. Willingham, already a below-average defensive player, is 32 and coming off knee surgery, now slowed by a bad achilles, and the writing on the wall is clear: In the coming years, Willingham figures either to be a LFer who gives up too much of his offensive value in the field, or he figures to become a DH. And the one position where the A's should be ok the next few years, if they play their cards right, is DH.
Deal Willingham in July if a team is willing offer a potential "impact prospect" for him, and if not let him walk and take the draft picks (assuming they still exist with the new CBA), let Matsui go, and tell Chris Carter that he's the DH from 2012-2017, period. If the A's will just let Carter develop as a full-time DH, he may give the A's one less hitter to worry about and on this team that's not to be taken lightly.
David DeJesus...Sign DeJesus to an extension if he's open to staying. DeJesus is a much better player than how he has performed this season, and even so he has been quite decent against RHP (.251/.347/.411) with a career record that does not in any way suggest a repeat of his absurdly bad 2011 line against LHP (.123/.167/.123).
Moreover, DeJesus is healthy, is still only 31, is a very solid defensive player, and should, thanks to his poor 2011 showing, be pretty affordable. He's not the star the A's need to find to build around, but he is an excellent complementary piece. Given that the 2012 free agent class is putrid, meaning DeJesus will be more appealing on this year's open market, I'd try to extend him mid-season. I know he hasn't been anything like we had hoped. But he should be a very good player in 2012-14 and he's the OFer I'd try to keep.
Coco Crisp...Same age as DeJesus, but with an extensive injury history, a noodle arm, and skills heavily reliant on being spry. Think Chone Figgins to appreciate the risks of keeping a guy like Crisp around into his 30s. Much as I think he's one of the A's better players, and love the guy, I wouldn't commit to him. I'd trade him mid-season if there's a suitor and let him walk if there isn't. Ryan Sweeney, ideally platooning with a RH Peter Bourjos/Carlos Gomez type, becomes your CFer until you can upgrade.
Kurt Suzuki...Down year or not, I suspect Suzuki has some trade value due to his position, his age, his reputation, and his reasonable multi-year contract. I think you have to bite the bullet and trade Suzuki if a team is prepared to give you a potentially good young hitter or two in return. Sure it would be great if Josh Donaldson were better than you think, but currently he is stalling like someone who might only be as medium as you feared, and it would be uber-ducky if Anthony Recker proves to be more than a AAAA hitter with an ass that gets 83,300 hits on a google search.
However, the drop-off from the current Suzuki to those guys may not be so cavernous, and Suzuki fits that middle position of possibly being enough in demand to bring back value in trade but also not "Cahill and Gio" essential to the foundation of the team.
Daric Barton...I think Barton has no real trade value. He's a 1Bman with zero HRs who has sandwiched a terrific season with a couple absolute stinkers. He may be better than many fans feel he is, but his trade value, probably "too low" when he was performing well, is at a nadir, and not the Ralph kind. I also don't believe he's part of the A's future, as this team is simply going to need to get more power/slugging from the corners of the diamond than Barton can ever hope to provide. What Barton's "true OBP" is, I don't know, but it's probably neither .393 nor .325. It may be around .360, which is very good. But not good enough for a low-slugging 1Bman on a team that can't easily afford sluggers around the diamond. Like Adrian Cardenas, Barton may become a nice additional piece in a multi-player trade. As good as he was in 2010, I think that's pretty much what Barton will be at this point, as opposed to being the A's 1Bman of the future or being a key piece in any deal. Just my opinion.
Andrew Bailey, Tyson Ross, and Michael Wuertz...These are three other players whom the A's can probably replace in relative stride and who might bring back value in return. I value an excellent closer more than some do, but Bailey's injury history is enough to make me willing to move him, while Ross' "time bomb" mechanics, his appealing upside as a trade chip, and the A's skill at finding solid back-of-the-rotation starting pitchers, make me comfortable moving Ross if it can bring back good young hitting talent. Wuertz could go, and even sans Bailey the A's would be left with Balfour and Devine, De Los Santos on the way -- honestly a team with this many holes on the diamond needs to use its relief pitching depth to win tomorrow's players, not today's game.
So what might the A's be able to get in the way of talent, from the draft picks you can squeeze out of letting Willingham and Crisp walk, and trading 3-4 of Suzuki, Bailey, Ross, and Wuertz? Can you possibly get from that, say, the team's next 1Bman and next LFer, one of whom is a special player and one of whom is good?
Here I'm talking about a raw talent on par with a BJ Upton/Matt Kemp level prospect but who is still totally unproven, and another well regarded prospect widely expected to be quite good. The kind of prospects who come to mind include Yonder Alonso (1B, Reds), Jaff Decker (OF, Padres), Freddie Freeman (1B, Braves), Brett Jackson (OF, Cubs), Jerry Sands (1B-OF, Dodgers), and Jonathan Singleton (1B-OF, Phillies). If you can score two guys like that, and bolster your drafts with the picks from losing Willingham and Crisp, your not-so-distant future looks like two (hopefully legitimately) good young position players joining what currently includes:
DH - Carter
C - Donaldson/Recker
2B - Weeks
SS - Pennington hopefully giving way to Green
3B - Sizemore, maybe Parker if he progresses
CF - Sweeney platoon
RF - DeJesus
a rotation still anchored by Cahill, Gonzalez, hopefully Anderson, and then you might have Outman, McCarthy, maybe even Braden, or their heirs apparent, in the mix, and a farm system bolstered by the free agent losses and trades, aiming to move up Michael Taylor, Michael Choice, Yordy Cabrera et al as they're ready.
As for who to pursue and which teams might be good trade partners, that's for another day and probably another writer. Is this a great plan? No, absolutely not. Is it better than building around what you have, or dealing Cahill and Gio in a full out "ok we wasted 5 years, and now we don't even have any starting pitching" blow up? Possibly.
THANK YOU, MARK ELLIS