This is an odd time to be a baseball fan. We learn about player signings mere hours after the contract is inked. On trade deadline day, it might be just minutes after teams shake hands that the internet is notified of the deal. As fans, we of course want to read critical analysis of the ramifications of these baseball dealings. Sometimes instant analysis can be correct (ex. Player X was injured and the team signed Player Y as a replacement). But some moves require deeper analysis. One must take step back to look at the bigger picture.
For the Athletics this offseason, it is imperative that we zoom out from the day-to-day moves of the team and look at the larger scenario. Look at the offseason as a whole. Step back further and look at the plan for the next few years. Then step back again and look at where this franchise has come from and where it wants to go. By doing so we can find reasonable answers to some of the questions surrounding this team.
The first thing to do is go back over the recent history of the A's and gain some needed context. Please don't fall asleep during the history lesson. Learning about the past will teach you about the future.
The first critical event in the collapse of the Big Three A's dynasty occurred in the 2004 off-season, when Billy Beane shocked the world and traded away 2/3 of said Big Three. Now for most teams this would immediately signal the beginning of a full-scale rebuild, but not the A's.
Rather than commit to a fire-sale, the A's kept some talent around. Ellis, Chavez, and Zito formed the core of a decent team. Combined with the emergence of Dan Haren (a key piece of the Mark Mulder trade) and Nick Swisher this A's squad won 88 games, only three fewer than 2004's Big Three powered 91 win team.
Here's something to remember. In what would be our best playoff year one of our best pitchers, Zito, would not be traded before leaving for free agency. Beane actually kept a guy around for a title run. This was also a weirdly lucky year. We won 93 games, but the Pythagorean record was only 85-77. Frank Thomas was an amazing acquisition. But we maybe forget just how bad some chunks of that lineup were. Kotsay and Crosby severely declined compared to '05, but the play of Jay Payton and Marco Scutaro filled in those lineup holes admirably (acceptable, not great numbers). The pitching was all Haren and Zito, as at the back end Blanton, Loaiza, and Saarloos were all atrocious.
The year of the walking wounded. The year started with promise. Then Chavez went down. And Harden. And Kotsay. And Piazza (aging veteran #2). The payroll spiked to an all-time high of just under $80 million and we couldn't afford any notable free agents other than Piazza. The season ended in disaster.
Beane called for a true rebuild. Swisher, Haren, Kotsay, and Scutaro were all traded. Payroll was slashed down to $50 million.
In an odd turn of events, the A's caught fire to start the season. On July 8th we were just 5 games out of first place and 5 games out of the Wild Card. Huge debate on whether to contend or sell. We sold, shipping out Harden, Blanton, and Gaudin at the deadline. We went on to have the league-worst offense and tanked the second half. Lots of what-if scenarios surrounding this squad, but mostly just a bad team.
The "contending rebuild" experiment year. Beane shocks the world and trades for Matt Holiday. Also brought in are veterans Orlando Cabrera, Adam Kennedy, Nomar Garciaparra, and Jason Giambi (oldest overall roster in years). The new Big Three make their debuts (Anderson, Cahill, Gonzalez). We like to remember the A's as all pitch/no hit, but that wasn't quite the case. A's hitters generated 18 WAR, bad but not atrocious. It was the young starting pitching that equally doomed the season. Only Anderson and Braden were effective, the other starters all struggled. Holiday is the only big deadline trade.
Now we're in true era of all pitch/no hit. The young starters keep developing and the A's lead in the American League in ERA. They carry the team to a .500 finish. Hitting is awful (team HR leader: Kouzmanoff with 16). Free agent hitters aren't signing in Oakland, so Beane takes a flyer on Ben Sheets (fail).
The Chavez contract expires! Beane actually pursues a top free agent hitter (Beltre) but fails. Winds up bringing in some low risk guys: Matsui, Willingham, DeJesus and blows the rest of the piggy bank on relief pitching.
The offense has a historically bad year, generating just 11 total WAR. Almost everyone has career-worst years in the lineup. Pitching is a tad worse than 2010 and we have the worst season since 1998.
It's Hudson/Mulder 2.0 as Gonzalez and Cahill are both moved for prospects. Also shipped out is prized reliever Bailey. However, it's again not a total fire sale. The A's sign a slew of veteran outfield talent and bring back breakout star Brandon McCarthy.
Okay, enough painful recollection for you? With these past seasons in mind, let's try and answer some pressing questions about this team:
#1) WHY AREN'T WE ALREADY A GOOD TEAM AGAIN?
A fact you should all keep firmly mind is that the upcoming season will be just the 5th year since the first true dismantling of the fantastic 2000's teams. We've only been rebuilding for four years. It's been five losing seasons (well, it was an 81-81 record in 2010, technically not a losing season) thanks to the collapse in 2007, but the rebuild didn't start until the '07-'08 offseason. On very little payroll. Leaving aside teams who can buy their way back to contention (cough Yankees cough) it's very rare that a team can go from contending to rebuild to contending in less than five years. So regardless of anything else, 2012 would be the absolute earliest this team would be expected to compete.
#2) WHY CAN'T WE DEVELOP ANY HITTING TALENT?
This is a primary complaint among A's fans. The team that used to boast multiple MVPs suddenly can't find a 20 HR hitter. There are a couple factors that have led to the power outage in Oakland. First, in the middle of the 2000s we started trading away some top hitting talent. We gave up Mark Teahen at the 2004 trade deadline for closer Octavio Dotel and Andre Ethier for Milton Bradley in '05-'06 offseason. Then of course Nick Swisher was traded as part of the big '07-'08 offseason rebuild. People also sometimes forget to count Carlos Gonzalez as an A's-developed product, though he was in fact a trade acquisition and also awful in is limited time in green and gold. So we've had a few good hitters and traded them away. Delving deeper, let's look at the three possible ways to acquire new talent and see how the A's have fared of late:
A) Draft Picks
Why don't we have more homegrown talent? Lack of top draft picks. Here's the thing about going on an eight year run of 87+ wins per year (1999-2006). The lack of high draft picks really depletes the farm system. There have been all sorts of studies on where top talent is drafted from. Without getting into specific draft slots, one truth is that the top half or so of the first round is where you find a large proportion of MLB All-Stars.
There's this perception that the A's can only develop pitchers, not hitters. That's partially true, but doesn't tell the whole story. In terms of drafted talent, since our last high first round pick in 1999, I count four average or better starting pitchers drafted. Blanton and Cahill were both drafted late first/early second round. Dallas Braden was a neat return on a 24th round pick. Rich Harden was an amazing find, a 17th round pick in 2000 turned injury prone stud. But during that same timeframe, the A's were also busy drafting and developing the hitting crop of Swisher, Ethier, Suzuki, and Pennington. The A's found some decent major leaguers on both sides of the ball during this time. But without top 15 1st round picks, they weren't finding All-Stars.
Speaking of top picks, starting in 2008 Oakland started drafting in the #10-#20 overall range. So far, lots of position players and no busts:
2008 (12): Jermile Weeks: average or better MLB 2B?
2009 (13): Grant Green: Somewhere around #100 best prospect in baseball
2010 (10): Michael Choice: Often ranked in top 50 best prospects in baseball
2011 (18): Sonny Gray: Ranked somewhere between top 50 and top 100 best prospect in baseball
It's been hitter, hitter, hitter, pitcher. Lineup help is on the way!
B) Free Agents
We're a small market team. That's a narrative that has become so magnified it's about the only national identity the A's have. Moneyball the book and movie had something to do with that. Stepping away from national fluff pieces and best-selling novels, there's some interesting twists in Oakland's free agent tale that don't fit the narrative.
During the early 2000s run the A's used their money to go after hitting talent just as aggressively as pitching. We were very, very close to inking Jason Giambi to a long-term contract before the Yankees stole him away (a painful moment in A's fandom). Then Beane finally bit the bullet and committed to a homegrown star, and it was indeed a slugger: Eric Chavez. And from 2004-2006 it was great. Yeah, his bat faded some, but Chavez was our productive free agent gold glove stud. Then the injuries hit L.
Chavez was the last major free agent acquisition the A's made. Team policy was to never again dole out a long term, $10 million or more per year contract that could potentially hamstring the franchise. So the cream of the crop free agent talent was forevermore off-limits.
The other option was players looking for shorter-term contracts. Some were trying to rebuild their value. The Coliseum, being a pitcher's park, was not the place to pad stats. So those players almost never signed with us (cough Adrian Beltre cough). More approachable were veterans looking for one more shot in the Bigs. They usually commanded $5 - $10 million a year or even less, and usually on just a one year contract. These free agents the A's liked. More affordable, no commitments. We've actually spent far more money in recent years on free agent hitters than free agent pitching. It's just not been very good hitting for the most part.
Now we get to the real action for Oakland. Blockbuster trades are a hallmark of the Billy Beane Athletics. And Beane doesn't trade for A-prospect hitters. Almost every major deal since the Big Three breakup has centered on a pitching prospect. Below are some of the biggest trades since the '04-'05 offseason. Of the players received, the names in bold were the key (most promising prospect) acquisition from the trade at the time.
- Traded Mark Mulder to the St. Louis Cardinals. Received Daric Barton, Kiko Calero and Dan Haren.
- Traded Tim Hudson to the Atlanta Braves. Received Juan Cruz, Dan Meyer and Charles Thomas.
- Traded Dan Haren and Connor Robertson to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Received Brett Anderson, Chris Carter, Aaron Cunningham, Dana Eveland, Carlos Gonzalez and Greg Smith.
- Traded Nick Swisher to the Chicago White Sox. Received Fautino De Los Santos, Gio Gonzalez and Ryan Sweeney.
2008 trade deadline
- Traded Chad Gaudin and Rich Harden to the Chicago Cubs. Received Josh Donaldson, Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton and Eric Patterson.
- Traded Joe Blanton to the Philadelphia Phillies. Received Adrian Cardenas, Matt Spencer, and Josh Outman.
- Traded Carlos Gonzalez, Greg Smith and Huston Street to the Colorado Rockies. Received Matt Holliday.
2009 trade deadline
- Traded Matt Holliday to the St. Louis Cardinals. Received Shane Peterson, Clayton Mortensen and Brett Wallace.
- Traded Brett Wallace to the Toronto Blue Jays. Received Michael Taylor.
- Traded Craig Breslow, Trevor Cahill and cash to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Received Ryan Cook, Collin Cowgill and Jarrod Parker.
- Traded Robert Gilliam and Gio Gonzalez to the Washington Nationals. Received A.J. Cole, Derek Norris, Tom Milone and Brad Peacock.
Of the major deals, it terms of top prospects we received:
Dan Haren, Dan Meyer, Brett Anderson, Fautino De Los Santos, Gio Gonzalez, Sean Gallagher, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Cole
Position Players (3):
Carlos Gonzalez, Adrian Cardenas, Brett Wallace/Michael Taylor (Wallace traded straight up for Taylor, so I'm counting that as one prospect overall)
That right there explains exactly how we came to have the league's best ERA in 2010. A singular focus on acquiring pitching prospects.
#3: ARE WE RE-BUILDING?
Yes we are rebuilding, but it's not the usual MLB style of destroy everything and start from scratch. We've actually been through three rebuilds in the recent past. We partially rebuilt in the 2004-2005 offseason and were competitive in '05, '06, and '07. We partially rebuilt in the '07-'08 offseason. In 2008 we stayed dormant and tried to compete (without fully committing to competing) in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Now we're rebuilding again by rebuilding this offseason. We're also again trying a partial competing strategy without going full-bore competitive for 2012.
Every year, we also almost always gain a few wins because Beane is the absolute master of the something for nothing trade. Eking out a 0.5 WAR edge in every small move. We do this regardless of whether we're competitive or not. These moves don't build playoff teams, but its part of what nudges us from a sub-70 win team to a 75-80 win squad every year.
Here are some of the smaller trades since 2007 we've made that improved the club while giving away almost nothing of value. Note that these moves almost always plug a hole in the bullpen or fill a much-needed fielding spot.
- Traded Jason Kendall and cash to the Chicago Cubs. Received Jerry Blevins and Rob Bowen.
- Traded Mark Kotsay to the Atlanta Braves. Received Jamie Richmond (minors) and Joey Devine.
- Traded Richie Robnett (minors) and Justin Sellers to the Chicago Cubs. Received Michael Wuertz.
- Traded a player to be named later to the Tampa Bay Rays. Received Adam Kennedy. The Oakland Athletics sent Joe Dillon (May 9, 2009) to the Tampa Bay Rays to complete the trade.
- Traded a player to be named later, Craig Italiano (minors) and Ryan Webb to the San Diego Padres. Received Scott Hairston. The Oakland Athletics sent Sean Gallagher (July 28, 2009) to the San Diego Padres to complete the trade.
- Traded Aaron Cunningham and Scott Hairston to the San Diego Padres. Received Kevin Kouzmanoff and Eric Sogard.
- Traded Aaron Miles and a player to be named to the Cincinnati Reds. Received Adam Rosales and Willy Taveras.
- Traded Sam Demel to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Received Conor Jackson and cash.
- Traded Justin Marks (minors) and Vin Mazzaro to the Kansas City Royals. Received David DeJesus.
- Traded Corey Brown and Henry Rodriguez to the Washington Nationals. Received Josh Willingham.
- Traded David Purcey to the Detroit Tigers. Received Scott Sizemore.
- Traded Brad Ziegler to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Received Brandon Allen and Jordan Norberto.
- Traded Ethan Hollingsworth (minors) to the Kansas City Royals. Received Kila Ka'aihue.
- Traded Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman to the Colorado Rockies. Received Seth Smith.
#4 JUST WHAT IS OUR CURRENT TEAM BUILDING STRATEGY?
After looking closely at the historical context, I find that while season-to-season moves are perplexing, there's been a very clear pattern since the 2004-2005 offseason. It's really not that complex. We've been doing the same thing for the last eight years:
Trade prime talent before they walk for free agency. Always trade top talent for the best young starting pitching you can find. Fill in the offense using any resource that doesn't touch the pitching pipeline. Draft mostly hitting prospects. Trade positional prospects for positional MLB talent (Ethier for Bradley, Gonzalez for Holiday). Never risk the big free agent contract (exception: Chavez). Sign aging veterans (Thomas, Piazza, Sweeney, Matsui, ect.). Trade spare parts for patchwork lineup fixes. See if enough cobbled together marginal hitting talent can support the nearly continuous pitching dominance. We've done it in the past; we're doing it again this year.
I'm guessing the hope is the young pitching contributes right away. I believe the plan, at least in part, is the hope that Jarrod Parker is the next coming of Dan Haren. Imagine Parker and Peacock both contributing, and even dominating this year. If that happened, you'd sure want at least a semblance of an offense to avoid a repeat of 2010, right? So Beane did what he always does, cobbled together an offense that approaches league average, at least on paper.
I predict Parker, Peacock and Cole are brought to the Show sooner rather than later. Along with Anderson, they will probably form yet another "Big Three". If one of the hitting prospects turns into the next coming of Swisher, we may well make a title run this year or next, a la 2006. Maybe the hitting prospects don't pan, and it's not until Green and Choice emerge that we finally turn around the hitting fortunes. At that point, Anderson has probably been flipped for yet another future pitching star and Milone has been traded to fill the gap at catcher. That is Beane's ultimate strategy. Endless top notch pitching prospects and the prayer that a low-risk hitting move pays a huge reward.