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For better or for worse? Judging Oakland's moves

In the span of two days, Billy Beane replaced several outgoing players. Did the team get better or worse with each move?

Rule #35: Only buy Beane jerseys.
Rule #35: Only buy Beane jerseys.

The events of the last two days can best be summed up by this comment, which was written on Facebook by a friend and long-time AN lurker:

Billy Beane seems to be in some sort of deal-making fugue state. He may not remember any of this when he comes to.

Beane was just sitting quietly in his house, enjoying a glass of wine, when he lost consciousness. When he woke up, he had four new major league players, three new cars in his driveway, a time-share in Tahoe, an expensive painting on his wall, several new kitchen gadgets from various infomercials, and the complete series of the show Lost on DVD. (Lost isn't even that good, but it was cheaper than The Wire and he didn't want to sink too much of his budget into one TV show.) He was also wearing his underwear on his head and socks on his hands, but that angle of the story wasn't widely reported and we don't need to get into it here. Let's stick with the four baseball players for now.

As we discussed yesterday in our recap of the week's dealings, the A's are losing three key free agents this winter and thus had three major holes to address: a quality starting pitcher to replace Bartolo Colon, a closer to replace Grant Balfour, and a fourth outfielder (preferably a right-handed hitter) to replace Chris Young. Colon and Balfour were both really, really good last season, while Young was a total flop; regardless of their past performances, though, those roles had to be filled, and they now have been with Scott Kazmir, Jim Johnson, and Craig Gentry, respectively. Now that we know the names, though, it's time to move on to the next obvious question: how good are these players? Or, put another way, has the team gotten better or worse as a result of these deals?

Scott Kazmir vs Bartolo Colon

Before we begin this comparison, there is a very important premise. It's not an easy premise to wrap your head around, but it is a simple reality: The 2013 performance of Bartolo Colon is in the past and is unlikely to be repeated. It is pointless to compare any future projection of Kazmir to the things that Colon did last year. Is Kazmir going to go 18-6 with a 2.65 ERA and three shutouts? No, he probably won't, but neither will Colon himself.

Big Bart posted an absurdly low home-run rate last season, one which stands out as a clear aberration from his career norm and which doesn't even make sense given his profile as a strike-throwing, contact-inducing, fly-ball pitcher. He's going to give up more homers next year. His preternatural ability to avoid walks evened out to merely league-leading by the end of the year, too, and that skill is only going to degrade as he gets deeper into his 40's. He's probably going to issue more walks next year. He also exceeded 165 innings for the first time since 2005 and hit the DL only once, and his health is only going to decline as he gets older. Maybe he hangs on for another fantastic season or two, but even the best-case scenario for next year is probably a notch below the perfect storm of success that he experienced in 2013. The worst-case scenario involves a lot of missed time, a much higher ERA in a less-favorable ballpark, and a strained small intestine. So, when judging Kazmir and the wisdom of signing him rather than Bartolo, we need to look at him next to a reasonable projection for 2014 Colon.

If you step back, the parallels between these two players are amazing. Colon was a fantastic pitcher, then fell apart due to injuries, was out of the league for a full year (2010), returned to throw about 160 innings with improved control (with the Yankees), and then signed with the A's. Kazmir was a fantastic pitcher, then fell apart due to injuries, was out of the league for a full year (2012), returned to throw about 160 innings with improved control (with the Indians), and then signed with the A's. The differences are that Kazmir is 10 years younger than Colon, he's left-handed, and he has maintained the ability to strike out a batter per inning. Sure, Kazmir's 2013 season was not world-beating, but neither was Colon's 2011; in fact, they were strikingly similar bounce-back years. That doesn't mean that Kazmir will emerge as the staff ace like Colon did, but it does provide hope that he can build on his successful comeback and become something more in 2014.

It's impossible to know how well Kazmir will pitch next year, or even how much he will pitch. So, let's not get too precise in our analysis. If you average the two versions of WAR for each pitcher last season, then Colon was about a 4.5-win player and Kazmir was about a 1.8-win player. If you assume some decline from Colon, then maybe he's a 3.5-win player in 2014; if you likewise assume that Kazmir can build on his bounce-back season like Colon did in 2012, then he could be a 2.5-win player next year. So, in 2014, the switch from Colon to Kazmir might represent a downgrade of about one win, whereas the change represents a two-win decline from last year's rotation.

However, the puzzle doesn't end there. Kazmir got two years at $11 million each on his new deal. It's starting to look like Colon could get a third year on his next contract, and that his annual salary could exceed $15 million, given the market trends. I'm less interested in the $4 million annual savings then I am in the extra year of commitment. These are both high-risk players, and I'm not willing to pay eight figures to a 43-year-old Colon in 2016 if there is a comparable replacement available in 2014.

Final verdict: Slight downgrade on the field, with the benefits of lower cost and future payroll flexibility

Jim Johnson vs Grant Balfour

Balfour and Johnson are two pitchers with completely different styles who achieve surprisingly similar results. Balfour is a three-true-outcomes pitcher who racks up strikeouts while issuing walks and watching his mistakes go for home runs. Johnson is a pitch-to-contact ground-ball specialist who is stingy with free passes and dingers, but who doesn't blow away hitters for strikeouts. Here is a comparison of some key stats over the last three seasons combined:

Balfour: 2.53 ERA, 2.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio
Johnson: 2.70 ERA, 2.87 strikeout-to-walk ratio

After adjusting for ballparks, Johnson's relative ERA is actually slightly better than Balfour's rather than slightly worse, but they're essentially the same. They're both a bit overrated due to their save totals, and neither is an elite reliever, but they each belong in their late-inning roles. Sure, I'd prefer my closer to be a dominant flamethrower who can blow away opposing hitters and remove all drama, but I also like a closer who doesn't get himself in trouble by giving away free baserunners and serving up back-breaking homers. Here are a few more stats from the last three seasons combined:

Balfour: 9.2 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9
Johnson: 6.1 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9

Each pitcher has his strengths and weaknesses, but, when taken together as a whole, their results come out about identical. Again, the key differences here aren't listed on the stat sheet: Johnson is five years younger than Balfour, and the team's commitment to him is two or three years shorter than what Balfour will get on the open market this winter. The A's may be overpaying a bit for Johnson this year, but they won't be paying Balfour in 2016 when he's 38 years old. Also, as user OmahaHi pointed out in a recent comment thread, the presence of Johnson delays the promotion of Sean Doolittle to the role of closer; as a result, Doolittle will be significantly cheaper through his arbitration years than he would have been had he started racking up big save totals in 2014.

Finally, for those who are still worried about Johnson's bloated price tag, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs has two pearls of wisdom for you:

But to me, this comes down to two things. One is the principle that there's no such thing as a bad one-year contract. And the other is that...(w)hen people complain about an overpayment, it's because they think there were better ways to allocate the salary. I'm not going to pretend like the A's roster is perfect, but when you look at it, it's hard to find places where they could attempt an uncomplicated upgrade...All that wasn't there was a clear closer candidate.

Final verdict: Complete wash on the field, with the benefits of future savings and future payroll flexibility

Craig Gentry vs Chris Young

Young was a replacement-level player in 2013. He's more talented than he showed in that performance, but it's not unreasonable to suggest that he needs to play every day in order to restore his former level of production in 2014. Gentry, meanwhile, is what you would get if you bought a 3D-printer and ordered it to spit out an ideal fourth outfielder. He's an elite defender, a fantastic baserunner, and an average hitter who can make contact and get on base. His splits favor match-ups against left-handed pitchers, which means that he'll step in and take the exact platoon role that Young had last year. He doesn't need to start every day, and his stats as a pinch-hitter are virtually identical to his career batting line. Despite playing only half-time in each of the last two seasons, he was approximately a 3-win player in both 2012 and 2013.

This one is easy. Gentry is a way better fit for this role than was Young. In fact, the boost from Young to Gentry should be bigger than the downgrade from Colon to Kazmir. Furthermore, Gentry is significantly cheaper than Young, and is under team control for three total seasons. If Coco Crisp gets hurt or leaves as a free agent after this year, then the A's already have his replacement on the roster.

Final verdict: Sizable upgrade on the field, with the benefits of lower cost and future team control at bargain prices

2014 Oakland DH's vs Seth Smith

Smith was the closest thing that the A's had to a regular designated hitter in 2013, although he played only 55 games in that role. Removing him from the roster opens up more at-bats for other left-handed hitters. The most likely beneficiary of this opportunity will be John Jaso, who will hopefully not do much (or any) catching next year due his recent head injury and the fact that he is a terrible defensive catcher. How do Smith and Jaso compare as hitters? Keeping in mind that they are both strict platoon players who only get significant at-bats against right-handed pitching, here are some key stats:

Smith vs RHP, 2012: 805 OPS, 115 OPS+, 121 wRC+
Smith vs RHP, 2013: 748 OPS, 103 OPS+, 109 wRC+

Jaso vs RHP, 2012: 927 OPS, 148 OPS+, 163 wRC+
Jaso vs RHP, 2013: 802 OPS, 120 OPS+, 133 wRC+

In each of the past two seasons, Jaso has massively outperformed Smith against right-handed pitching. It's not even close. Smith has a slight edge in power, but Jaso dominated him in every other facet of hitting. Furthermore, the innings that Smith played in left field will now be given to either Gentry (defensive upgrade) or Brandon Moss (defensive wash), the innings that Jaso would have played behind the plate can go to Stephen Vogt (defensive upgrade), and, when Moss plays in left, the leftover innings at first base might go to Daric Barton (defensive upgrade).

Smith is a solid player, and I appreciated his presence on the team over the last two years. However, he was no longer necessary to this roster, and the 2014 lineup is better without him.

Final verdict: Moderate upgrade on the field, with the benefit of shedding Smith's ~$4.3 million salary

Luke Gregerson vs Scrub Reliever #1

All of the holes in the roster have been filled before we even get to the final prize, reliever Luke Gregerson. The right-hander has played five full seasons for the San Diego Padres, and he's never had an ERA higher than 3.24 or an ERA+ lower than 114. He's good for a strikeout per inning, he keeps the walks down, and he tends to keep the ball in the park due to moderate ground-ball tendencies. He should slot in as another late-inning reliever, which serves two purposes.

First, it takes some of the load off of Cook, Doolittle, and Johnson. Sure, Cook and Doolittle are fantastic set-up men, but each one has worn down over the course of the last two long seasons in which they've been counted on to get too many big outs. In the 2012 ALDS, they each recorded a blown save in the pivotal Game 2 loss which is too often blamed on Coco Crisp's error; in 2013, Doolittle blew the pivotal Game 4 and Cook did his best to put the contest out of reach. Sure, those are purely anecdotal examples and they don't prove anything, but the point is that you can't always count on the same guy, or even the same two guys, over and over for seven months and expect things to go well. Gregerson gives Bob Melvin another option in late innings.

The second benefit is that it keeps a scrub reliever out of the back-end of the bullpen. Having a third set-up man means that Dan Otero or Jesse Chavez will be the last man in the pen rather than, say, Evan Scribner or Pedro Figueroa. It means that, when someone important goes down with an injury, there is a suitable eighth-inning replacement for him already on the roster. It means that you can ride the hot hand rather than just throwing Cook out there when he's slumping and hoping that he figures it out. Depth. Versatility. Options. These are the hallmarks of this A's team, and Gregerson's presence in the bullpen just adds to that dynamic.

Final verdict: Massive upgrade, albeit at a higher cost (~$4.9 million for Gregerson) and with no future benefit past 2014

So, what do we get when we put it all together? Once you square with the fact that Colon and Balfour weren't coming back and that change was an inevitability, it's hard not to be pleased with what Beane has done. He's filled all of the immediate holes in the roster, he's made the team slightly better and made the bullpen slightly deeper. The club has gotten younger, but without making long-term commitments to old or risky players. Sure, the 2014 payroll is up a bit, but what's more important is that the 2015 and 2016 payrolls aren't compromised in the interest of this one all-in, win-now season. Beane is playing for today while still keeping tomorrow open for other plans. And he's done all of this without sacrificing his best trade chip, starting pitcher Brett Anderson. If he can turn Anderson into an upgrade at second base or catcher, or into a new stable of pitching prospects for Sacramento, then this offseason will look even better.

By all means, mourn the losses of Colon and Balfour. They were fantastic Athletics, great clubhouse personalities, and personal favorites of mine. I'll miss them, and I'll always remember their contributions to these teams. Celebrate one last Hyundai Sunday in honor of ol' Theth Thmith. Sit and ponder why the Astros didn't sign Chris Young so that he could play a full season in Minute Maid Park and hit 80 home runs. But then wake up tomorrow and realize that the A's just improved on their 96-win roster. And it only took Beane about 30 hours to do it.