Billy Beane works in mysterious ways, and that has never been more true than it was on Monday when the Oakland Athletics traded All-Star slugger Brandon Moss to the Cleveland Indians for minor league second baseman Joe Wendle.
On the surface, the deal seems absolutely insane. Moss hit 76 homers for the A's over the last three years, and power is supposed to be a rare, premium skill in the current MLB landscape. Wendle is unlikely to help much in Oakland next year and isn't a big-time prospect for the future either; his ceiling appears to be a solid all-around player who does everything alright but excels at nothing, and who probably won't be a factor in the everyday lineup until 2016. Even if you love Wendle as a prospect, it just feels like the A's could and should have gotten more for Moss.
Here's the thing, though. If there's one thing I've learned from watching Billy operate over the last two decades, it's that you can't judge his deals the second they happen. I can't say with a straight face that I love this trade, or that I'm even happy with it, but one thing I will never do is assume that Billy is crazy and/or wrong just because I can't immediately figure out what he's up to. We just watched the A's earn three straight playoff berths, mostly on the strength of total nobodies and failed prospects and risky free agent signings. We haven't seen a 90-loss team since the 1990s. Surely that must mean something, even though it doesn't mean our GM never makes mistakes.
So, rather than just knee-jerk our way into assuming that Billy is wrong and that he's lost his touch, let's once again look for the underlying logic behind this move.
1. Moss is not as good as we think he is
Hold on, bear with me here. I love Moss. Moss is boss. He is also Mossome. He's a classic Misfit Toy, a busted prospect who got another chance with the A's and rode it all the way to the 2014 All-Star Game. Not only does he hit majestic dingers, but he was one of our guys, who we watched develop from nothing into something right in front of our eyes. And also, dingers. But what is Moss, really? That requires a two-part answer: what he was, and what he will be in the future.
Moss' defining skill is his power. His 76 homers in 376 games as an Athletic work out to around 33 in a 162-game season. He also doesn't shy away from "clutch" situations, as his numbers stay steady in higher-leverage opportunities. His walk rate is above the league average. He is an adequate defender in the corner outfield positions.
On the other hand, there are things that Moss does not do well:
- He strikes out a ton -- 26.4% of his plate appearances ended with Ks last year, good for 13th in all of MLB. If he'd whiffed just three more times in his 580 PAs, he'd have been in the top 10.
- Because he makes so little contact, he gets fewer chances to record hits than other players do; he hit only .254 in his Oakland career, and he bottomed out at .234 last year.
- For all of his power, he doesn't really hit many doubles, and therefore not as many total extra-base hits as you might expect.
- His power disappears against lefties, making him best utilized as a platoon player. Even in 2014, when he finally held his own against lefties, he needed to luck into a .373 BABIP to get there; that won't happen again.
- He's not a good defender at first base, with his defensive metrics consistently coming in at different levels of negative.
- He's not particularly fast, so he's not a positive factor on the bases.
Add it all up, and you have bWAR totals of 2.1, 2.2, and 2.6 from 2012-14. If you prefer fWAR, it's 0.9, 2.2, and 2.4. You may not be a fan of WAR, and it's not a be-all end-all, but it does a good job of giving us a ballpark idea of a player's value. Moss was simply not a star producer, but rather a solid regular who did one thing particularly well. And while that one thing is awfully important, and now seems to be lacking from the roster in general, the fact that he was an All-Star last year does not automatically make him a great player next year. He's good, and I loved watching him, and you loved watching him, but his production is replaceable.
That's what Moss was. We also must consider what he will become in the coming seasons. He's 31 years old now. Like Donaldson before him, Moss is unlikely to get better. His home run rate, that one great skill he possesses, has gone consistently and significantly down the last three years -- once every 14 PAs in 2012, to once every 17, to once every 23. Defense never gets better in a player's 30s. As a best-case scenario, the Indians can reasonably hope that he maintains his current level as a 2-3 win player who hits some homers and plays a decent right field.
Except, there's one more thing to factor into his future ...
2. Moss' health is a serious issue
You are no doubt aware of the fact that Moss was hurt in 2014. After earning his All-Star berth in the first half, he fell apart and hit only .173/.310/.274 with four homers in the second half. The culprit turned out to be an injury to the labrum in his hip, which was surgically repaired over the offseason.
To paraphrase Mr. Brewer's analysis (and I hope I'm doing it justice): Moss succeeds because his lower body function is good, and he is just flat out strong. Moss didn't hit dingers because he had a great swing designed to launch the ball, but rather because he was able to use his lower body to launch the ball over the fence.
With this in mind I think it is possible Moss suffers more than most when it comes to hip surgery.
But wait, didn't Moss hit two homers in the Wild Card game before his offseason surgery to fix his hip?
Yes, indeed he did ... with the help of a cortisone shot. That is the classic short-term fix in sports, masking the pain on the short-term to allow a player to gut through an injury in a key game. But that's not a permanent fix, and it's not something that can be done over the course of an entire season. If that was a realistic option, players would miss a lot less time to injury.
Now that we know what happened in the past, what are the future ramifications? Let's start with this quote from Moss, courtesy of Susan Slusser:
"I probably won't be as ready to go as I usually would for spring training, but I won't be too far behind," (Moss) said.
How would you feel about that statement if we were penciling Moss into our 2015 lineup? It's a bit ominous, isn't it? The injury cost him his entire second half, and he still might not even be ready for spring training? Cerpy went even further in that FanPost, searching for precedents among other star hitters with similar labral hip injuries. In the best cases (Chase Utley), the player's career continued but his power was never the same. In the worst cases (Carlos Delgado), the player's career was essentially over when that initial surgery didn't fix the problem.
So, Moss had an injury that specifically tanked his one excellent skill, he won't be fully recovered from it by the spring, and that exact injury has historically robbed power away from the sluggers who suffer it. If Moss' power goes from great to good (say, 15 homers instead of 25), is he still an All-Star? Is he still an everyday starter? Is he still worth $7 million next year, and up to $9 million in 2016?
Now, there are no guarantees here. He could be totally fine and hit 30 homers next year. But the risk is substantial, and the downside of that risk is seeing Moss struggle in 2015 and then have zero trade value at all. At that point, he'd be a non-tender candidate, and that's a whole lot worse than getting Joe Wendle. If you thought this trade was bad, imagine getting nothing out of Moss in 2015 and then nothing in return for him next winter. That was a very real possibility that Beane didn't want any part of. The A's couldn't afford to lose that gamble.
When we look at Brandon Moss, we see an All-Star who hits lots of homers. When Beane sees Moss, he sees an aging hitter with a limited skillset coming off a crucial injury, one who will more than likely never be the same as he has been the last three years. It's not exactly selling at peak value, but it's selling high before the real chance of significant decline.
3. Team control is the theme of the offseason
One problem with the roster as it stood at the beginning of November was a lack of long-term team control. Several key players became free agents, and some more were only a couple years away from that prize. Billy aimed to change that, because the only other option was taking one last low-percentage, all-in shot in 2015, with about 80% of a team that won 88 games last year and little payroll room to add more pieces, and then going full Astros after that.
But wait, didn't they ship out Donaldson for a third baseman with less team control?
Yes and no. It's true that Brett Lawrie can be a free agent sooner than Donaldson, but that's not all the A's got in that deal. They also got potentially 12 years of starting pitching in Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin, and potentially six years of Franklin Barreto. In the Jeff Samardzija trade, they got four players who have more than 20 years of combined control left between them in exchange for one year of Shark. And in this one, he shipped two years of Moss for six years of Wendle. Well, two years of Moss at best. If he misses any time to start 2015, it'll be even less than that.
But won't Billy just trade those guys for the next wave of nobodies before those six years are up?
Well, yeah. That's the point. Now he can get a few years out of the new guys and still have some years of team control left to pawn off on the trade market for the next wave of youngsters, and so on. This is how Beane keeps the A's competitive year after year. This is what you signed up for by being a fan of the A's in the 21st century. Show me the small-market team that has succeeded for 15 years, with playoff berths in over half those years and no 90-loss seasons in between, without doing this somewhat consistently. If you enjoy the good times, like 2012-14, then this is the price of business.
4. Joe Wendle is probably a better prospect than we are giving him credit for
Billy Beane has proven himself to be adept at picking under-the-radar players and prospects who turn out to be quality contributors. There is literally a Hollywood movie about it. If Billy says that Wendle could be good, there's at least a chance that he's right. His track record doesn't make him immune from error, but it makes him more likely to be right than we are. But he's not the only one who likes this guy:
An American League scout I spoke to last night told me that Wendle "has more power than you might think" and is likely to grow into his body; he's got a "Jacoby Ellsbury"-build, the scout told me. "He's a good all-around player," the scout said. "He put up some good numbers when healthy."
Another scout who is very familiar with Wendle gave me this report: "Solid bat, efficient swing, sneaky power, steady glove. Controls zone. Strong makeup."
"He's a professional hitter at a young age," one Indians official told me, and another Indians official said, "He's a prototypical A's player."
When we look at Wendle, we see a non-prospect who was 24 years old in Double-A last year and who Baseball America is not stoked on. When Billy looks at him, he sees a second baseman who got a late start to his professional career but has the chops to make it as a solid hitter at a premium position. The middle infield is a wasteland in MLB right now, and all it takes to be a two-win player there is an average bat and a solid glove, or even a sub-par bat and a great glove. The bar is extremely low; Eric Sogard cleared it in a platoon role in 2013, according to Baseball-Reference. If Wendle can reach that point, then he'll be worth exactly as much as Moss was the last few years.
Sure, Wendle was only in Double-A at age 24, but he didn't turn pro until he was 22. He was excellent in Single-A, and the injury that ended his 2014 season is a non-factor; when you break the hamate bone in your hand, they simply remove it so that you can never injure it again. Pablo Sandoval just tore through the postseason with zero hamate bones in either hand. Wendle's OPS was .848 in the month before the injury, so it's possible that he may have figured out Double-A already and be ready for Triple-A.
Don't get me wrong. I hadn't heard of Wendle before we got him, and I am as shocked as you are that he's all we got for Moss. But that doesn't mean he's automatically a bad return, and indeed the Indians seemed quite high on him. Billy has turned so many nobodies into quality players that I just can't get myself to give up on one of his prizes before I've even seen him play.
This one is tough to swallow, but in this case the problem is more likely with our perception of the situation than with Billy's judgment as a GM. Moss simply doesn't have the value that we think he does, as an aging, potentially broken one-dimensional slugger who may or may not still be able to slug like he used to. Wendle is not just a bag of baseballs and a pack of stale gum, and his value is magnified by the utter lack of acceptable options in the middle infield in our own organization, on the free agent market, and among available trade targets.
It sucks to see yet another fan favorite go, and it sucks to feel underwhelmed by the return, but let's give Billy the benefit of the doubt before we assume he's absolutely lost it. There's a better chance than you might realize that this trade turns out to be a good one, and it wouldn't be the first time Billy proved the world wrong.
Lots of #Athletics fans today saying they won't renew season tickets. But remember: Last time A's traded 3 All-Stars, they won division.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) December 8, 2014
Remember the important lessons: Always be improving rather than declining, always sell a year too early rather than a year too late, and, even when things look dark, always keep the fAith.