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Internal conflict

I see fan people!
I see fan people!

I watched all of yesterday's game, witnessing the A's bullpen implode after 5 unexpectedly strong spot-start innings from Travis Blackley. I saw Jordan Norberto and Ryan Cook, previously reliable relievers and under-the-radar pickups in last year's trades, forget how to throw strikes. I also saw Josh Willingham in a Twins uniform, and the obligatory reaction of A's Twitterati, something to the effect of:


While there was some remote chance of the A's re-signing him at the conclusion of the 2011 season, on 12/15/11, the news came down that the Twins had signed him for 3 years/$21M. It was relative steal at the time, and it looked downright cheap for the offensive production he provided last year, defense notwithstanding. Nevertheless, I told myself, this was good, as the new CBA provided that the A's would pick 34th and 62nd as compensation for losing a 2 WAR player. Given that the A's gave up nothing of any real value to get Willingham himself (sorry WaddellCanseco, but Henry Rodriguez and Corey Brown don't count as real value), turning those two guys into those 2 picks seems like a steal.

Then, the A's made a flurry of moves to bolster the outfield, making them one of the busiest teams of the hot stove season. To review the players acquired:

Jonny Gomes
Seth Smith
Coco Crisp (re-signed)
Yoenis Cespedes
Josh Reddick
Collin Cowgill

Now, let's say for a second, that the A's had not traded for Smith, not re-signed Coco, and not signed Gomes. Instead of all those moves, they re-signed Josh Willingham for around the same contract he received from the Twins.

So, the A's Opening Day outfield alignment would have looked something like this:

LF Willingham
CF Cespedes
RF Reddick
4th OF: Cowgill
5th OF/utility: Rosales

Now, certainly there were timing issues in the way the current set of outfielders were acquired. It is almost certainly true that the A's did not know when they re-signed Crisp that Cespedes would be available and willing to sign with the A's, and obviating the need for Crisp. But, I have to wonder if that bevy of moves truly made the A's a better team. Consider:

  • The A's gave up starting depth in Outman and Moscoso to get Smith, who has been relegated to a platoon role with Gomes.
  • Cowgill is considered to be an above-average CFer, and could have been a starter had Cespedes not signed
  • The money difference between Crisp + Gomes + Smith and Willingham is somewhere around $2.5M, not counting any money that will be used to pay Smith + Gomes (or their replacements) from 2013-4.
  • Whether or not the A's had signed Manny Ramirez, there would have been a spot for Chris Carter in the DH role, at least initially.

Certainly, defense would have suffered with Willingham playing LF. But, offensively, here is the putative starting lineup

Weeks 2B
Barton 1B
Willingham LF
Cespedes CF
Reddick RF
Carter DH
Donaldson/Rosales/Inge 3B
Suzuki C
Pennington SS

I'll leave it to you to compare it to the current lineup.

I have to wonder, if, in the quest for the surplus value of the two draft picks (which is not to be ignored), the team passed up an opportunity to at least be competitive. What's more, is acquiring players opportunistically (The Rockies really want two flyball pitchers, really? And will give us Seth Smith? Done! And Jonny Gomes only wants $1M per? Sweet!) hampering the development of players the A's already know about, in Chris Carter and Michael Taylor.

Indeed, Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus came on the TarpTalk podcast and made a similar case: that the A's will only "go for it" when the division appears winnable, prospects' developmental progress is not substantially altered, and the right free agent can be acquired for the right price. In other words, the stars have aligned in the A's favor, and now is their time. Give the vagaries of baseball, it is worth asking if such a strategy is truly beneficial. Look at the Royals, who not too long ago had a putative 2014+ World Series contender brewing. Today, their devastating injuries and underachievement have put a serious dent in their "Our Time" slogan this year and their future success as an organization is in question. The Twins are unspeakably bad, the Astros have a +7 run differential, and Brewers are 9 games under .500. Am I saying the Astros are likely to win the NL Central? Of course not. But, they are in the game, for now.

What worries me most about (non-)moves like with Willingham and just being bad in general is the A's falling into obsolescence. While losing 90-plus games for a long time is a sure way to build up a bevy of high draft picks and a highly-ranked farm system, it is also a sure way to never win. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs fame is fond of saying "even division championship flags fly forever", which is a restatement of the Moneyball principle of "playoffs are a crapshoot." This should interest you regardless of what side of stadium debate you fall on: if you want the A's to stay in Oakland, more winning might cause more fans to attend games, and might make an Oakland stadium more attractive. If you want San Jose, winning might cause Commissioner Selig to pay more attention to a team that is consistently good and force his hand.

I don't claim to have all the answers. I'm not saying that I don't believe in advanced statistics. I'm just talking baseball philosophy, here. Feel free to discuss below.

Join me tonight at 5PM PST as the A's try to break the losing streak. Jarrod Parker had an outstanding outing on Wednesday, likely his best in the big leagues. Please, Hammer, don't hurt him!