"Boring" is certainly not the adjective one would use to describe the A's offseason. From signing Manny Ramirez yesterday, to trading away Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Andrew Bailey, and then signing Yoenis Cespedes, the A's have not failed to make waves in the baseball world. As dwishinsky pointed out in his post on Sunday, however, it's easy to lose sight of a real plan through the forest of moves made. Today, I submit my view of The Plan.
First, let's assume that the A's do indeed add a reliever (Koji Uehara? Mike Gonzalez?) and the signing of Cespedes goes off without a hitch. Also, let's not look at the roster coming out of Spring Training, but at the 40-man roster as it would be around May 30th, when Manny is due to have served his 50-game suspension. The 1B/OF/DH situation will look something like this
Ramirez - DH
Gomes - DH/OF
Carter - DH
Reddick - OF
Crisp - OF
Cespdes - OF
Smith - OF
Allen - OF/1B
Barton - 1B/??
Taylor - OF
Cowgill - OF
Mitchell - OF
Ka'aihue - 1B/DH
The distribution of the names isn't necessarily important so much as the overall number of bodies. That's 13 names for 6 (3 OF, 1DH/backup IF-OF, 1 backup OF, 1 1B) spots in Oakland, all of whom need truly need playing time to be valuable assets.
The bullpen is also going to be interesting. Let's break that down, too:
De Los Santos
[loser of 5th starter job: Ross/Godfrey]
It is not as pronounced here, but again -- the A's have more than enough bodies to fill the roster spots available. What's more, of this bullpen group, Balfour, Fuentes, and Uehara/Gonzalez have enough of a track record to make them tradable assets.
As Rany Jazayreli noted back in December, trading away prospects is a new market inefficiency. This forces Beane to be more creative in how he acquires cheap assets. With Gonzalez, Cahill, and Bailey now gone before their arbitration years began, and frankly, no other young stars that another team would want, Beane has turned towards acquiring cheap free agents to a) fill out his roster and b) become tradable assets that can be used to acquire younger talent. Indeed, I would submit that Beane is no longer viewing his roster as a way to construct a baseball team, but as an indirect holding zone for future, riskier minor league talent.
As Jazayreli also noted, as teams have decided to horde top prospects, the return for established stars has been diminishing. With Beane having no ability to move the market himself, one way to increase the potential "hits" in baseball prospecting is to simply increase the number of minor leaguers he acquires. The best way to do that, then, is to buy relatively undervalued current MLB players, then trade them for more numbers of (but lower-graded) MiLB prospects. Consider the following acquisitions this offseason:
Gomes - 1 year/$1M
Ramirez - 1 year/$500K non-guaranteed
Ka'aihue - ~ League min (trade after DFA)
Colon - 1 year/$2M
Crisp - 2 years/$14M*
*Some people may argue that Crisp will not be worth his contract; I would argue that his surplus value is simply not likely to be as high as the others. There are also unsubstantiated whispers about this being a move to placate union cries of team frugality.
For an investment of ~$18M (about 3.6 WAR or so of current market value), the A's are seeking to find a group of prospects (or, ideally, one star) who can produce more than 3.6 WAR of value over his A's career. Given that low bar for success in coming out ahead, this seems like an ideal under-the-radar strategy. In essence, Beane is indirectly buying risky minor league talent (rather than risky major-league talent)
What's more, if those MLB players happen to produce better than expected, this can only increase their potential return.
Do I think this strategy is likely to work? In the short-term, since the likelihood of all 5 players above plus Balfour and Fuentes (who I did not use above) being busts is low, I would say it has a reasonable chance of being successful in being able to acquire some risky prospects. In the long-term, however, the combination of trading away young stars pre-arbitration and attempting to partially make-up for that lost talent by buying tradable MLB players is a vicious cycle of baseball mediocrity. It is unreasonable to expect to build a blueprint for success when the most promising players are traded away before their peak years. What the A's have now, and what Beane is attempting to build, is a blueprint of a blueprint.