I get it. I had the same gut reaction. I hated the trade. I was mystified. I talked to multiple fans who follow the team closely. No one understood it. The main reactions I received from friends were "Is Billy trying to completely destroy the fanbase?" and "that's all we got?" Totally understandable.
Regarding the value given and received, I really don't see how Brett Lawrie can be better than Josh Donaldson. If everything breaks right, he will be somewhere in the neighborhood of JD. Of course if everything breaks right then technically you have two pitchers, a highly ranked SS prospect, plus a great 3B, in exchange for a great 3B. But gambling based on the best possible outcome seems to be ignoring the odds. A more likely outcome is you'll have an average MLB starting pitcher, one that flops, one above average 3B/2B, and one complete lottery ticket about 2-4 years away from the majors, if he makes it at all.
However, maybe the value crowd (myself included) is looking at the wrong thing. It's becoming somewhat clear that the A's front office does not really care about WAR. Beane is not looking at how a player is in a vacuum, all things equal -- it seems that he is looking at the value for this particular team now and in the future; and yes, that includes affordability. I think it's a perfectly legit beef to have with the value given and received, but I also think it's safe to say that Beane clearly views those values differently. In addition, each franchise has their own proprietary system to measure runs created and prevented; even if the building blocks are the same (10 runs = 1 win, etc.) it's possible that the internal WAR numbers vary greatly from Fangraphs and Baseball Reference. Hell even those two sites often markedly disagree on a player's value.
Basically, we translate every piece of available information into runs. We have data from scouts, doctors, trainers, quantitative analysts, specialists in pitching mechanics - they all provide an expert opinion on a player. We bake all those opinions together and apply discount rates to enable us to compare players apple to apples in today's dollars. We basically end up with a present value for every player on our board.
While Kantrovitz was speaking about amateur players, it's safe to say that these same principles and others (i.e. salary and age) could be applied at the MLB level, given different weights and discount rates, and would yield a completely different overall value on a player than Fangraphs WAR. I'm still happy to debate the value, but I'm starting to realize it's kind of a half-cocked assessment anyways.
The overall philosophy of the trade bothers me as well. When you have a significant amount of production from one player, I hate spreading that out over multiple players, because those league-average players are somewhat easily replaced. Trying to cobble that production over multiple players, platoons and the like also makes winning much harder to pull off. Of course, having all your eggs in one basket can be devastating if that player gets injured. It seems that Beane and co. value depth and versatility over the boom-and-bust vacillation of concentrated talent (see the 2014 Texas Rangers), but perhaps that is really an effect of the structure that the front office has to work within rather than an actual philosophical decision.
If you want to take issue with the fact that the A's never keep any of their good players, well, that is an ownership thing. It was an ownership thing with Charlie Finley, it was an ownership thing with Steve Schott and Ken Hoffmann, and it's an ownership thing with Lew Wolff and John Fisher. Billy Beane wants to win as much as possible, and I think his worst nightmare is to have funds tied up in long term contracts that are hard to trade, having a good-but-not great team, and ownership not allowing him the flexibility to spend more to get the team to the next level.
The other side of that coin is that attendance and TV ratings might be higher if the players stuck around a bit more, generating more revenues and creating a virtuous cycle. The problem is that while Beane is a gambler, Wolff and Fisher are not. The certainty of huge revenue sharing checks and year over year profits is their comfort zone. They are not comfortable with trying to invest and grow their franchise, because they will lose money if it backfires. The years since their takeover in 2005 bear this out. Wolff reiterated this point in a recent interview with Forbes:
Talking about the A's:
"But our business is run like any other business. We have very strict budgeting. The budget emanates from major League salary. That's our major expense and we try to keep it at or below 50 per cent of our projected revenue. Everything else flows from that."
And talking about other owners:
"They all have their own success stories but the common goal is how to win on the field and many of the owners are not in it for the internal rate of return. They're in it for their community or their family or generation; all kind of motives."
Clearly that is a pretty hard line, the 50% of revenue. Other GMs either have far more revenue to work with so that is not a problem, or they have one of those owners who isn't so concerned about the internal rate of return, as Wolff put it. Beane's situation is what it is. To his credit he has survived and thrived under these constraints. These constraints are not going to change.
And yes it sucks. The true cost to all of us fans is an emotional one. The feeling of seeing one of our own starting the All-Star game, on highlight reels, getting recognized with MVP votes and other accolades...it sucks to lose that. It sucks to lose that again and again. It will suck even more when the news breaks (and it will happen) that Donaldson signed an extension with the Blue Jays that locks him up there long term. That is gonna be a rough one.
But that is the reality we are in. So long as the A's have a limited budget, and one that is set far lower than 90% of the league, we are going to deal with this year after year. We as A's fans have lived this so many times. So spend your day venting. Hell spend your week venting.
But sometime after that venting remind yourself that THIS IS NOT GOING TO CHANGE. If you're in this, you're in this.
And hey, we still have it better than most baseball fans. The A's actually win, and they win quite often. Most teams don't win that much. The A's always give you something to talk about. They are always trying to be in the mix, and they are always working to improve the team. Many other teams pretty much twiddle their thumbs for most of the offseason, then do something boring like have a player sign an extension, or sign a free agent like Kyle Lohse or Omar Infante.
At this point we can fire Beane and replace him with a brilliant baseball mind. There are probably others who could run this franchise well. We're no longer in the days where GMs don't know the importance of on base percentage. But any GM is going to be working under that same hard line of 50% of revenues. At least this GM has proven that he can be successful under these circumstances, and has given us some amazing moments along the way. If you're on the "Fire Beane" train, just know that you can never fire the owners, the owners set the budget, and everything emanates from that.
This is life as an A's fan, and always will be unless there's a new stadium or new ownership. If you became a fan in the past 14 years or so...this is what you signed up for. If you were a fan before and stayed a fan through now...you've lost your favorite players about 50 times at this point. The A's traded Rickey freaking Henderson in his prime! It never broke you before, and it's not going to break you now. This kind of repeated beating is what generates the die-hard passionate fans in the Coliseum. This is part of the shared experience that makes us who we are. We are the guys that don't buy jerseys with a name on the back unless it's a throwback or if we have money to burn. This is the reality of being a fan of the Oakland A's, and firing Beane ain't gonna change a damn thing.
Somewhere in there, you have to admit that there's at least a part of you that is crazily intrigued at how the rest of this offseason and 2015 is going to play out...and you're already getting sucked back in.