"Moneyball" told the story of an Oakland A's team that won 102 games in 2001, then lost star Jason Giambi ... and went on to win 103 games in 2002. The A's did it, in part, by replacing a surprising amount of Giambi's production in ways not fully appreciated in baseball circles: Scott Hatteberg, formerly a third-string catcher, became a 1Bman whose superior defense, and strong on base skills, combined to approximate Giambi's overall value far closer than anyone would have thought. Oakland also had their "big three" intact and rode three aces to more 100+ win glory in 2002.
This off-season I was going to advocate for trading Yoenis Cespedes on the premise that the A's could essentially do a poor-man's Moneyball redux -- a "poor man's" because Cespedes isn't nearly the player Giambi was. I was going to point out how Oakland could replace Cespedes' offensive production, and then some, with a platoon of Stephen Vogt and, yes, Jonny Gomes, or Kyle Blanks.
You see the duo of Vogt and Gomes, or Vogt and Blanks, may not be sexy, may not have star power, but it is likely to produce a slash line a lot better than the .256/.303/.464 Cespedes has managed so far this season, or the .262/.318/.470 he has put up so far in his MLB career. In fact a Vogt/Gomes platoon will probably outproduce that enough to offset the loss of defensive excellence, some of which can be mitigated through late inning defensive replacements.
However, my argument was going to be that the A's could deal Cespedes and be just as "World Series contention" good in 2015, and use the flashy trade chip that is Cespedes in order to reload a bit for 2016 and beyond. And that's where my thinking, and Billy Beane's, parted ways for at least the time being.
Cespedes was not dealt for the next Dan Haren-Gio Gonzalez-Jarrod Parker that the A's tend to use their trade chips to acquire. Nor was he dealt for a prospect who might blossom and help the team's middle infield, or outfield, in 2-3 years. In fact he was traded for players only designed to help the A's in 2014.
To me -- and I know fans' views on this differ a ton -- the mark of the best General Managing is the ability to keep the organization potentially strong now and strong later, to be able to take the short and wide view concurrently. So the question then becomes, is this a trade just to push the chips as far to the center of the table as possible for a World Series in 2014, future be damned, or are there still avenues left for Oakland to regroup for 2015 and beyond? Here's my take...
I firmly believe that this move made the A's better -- a lot better -- for 2014's division and post-season push. First of all, a rotation of Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, Sonny Gray, and Scott Kazmir is pretty spectacular and has a chance to win any 5 or 7 games series against any team, bar none. Especially considering that Oakland has a strong bullpen and still has an excellent offense and defense without Cespedes.
Remember that Cespedes was, quite literally, the 6th best hitter in the A's lineup. That's right, he was. John Jaso is a better offensive player than Cespedes. So are Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Coco Crisp, Stephen Vogt and Derek Norris. Heck, Jed Lowrie probably is too in a typical season.
Make no mistake about it: The A's just got better in 2014. If that's your end goal Oakland has accomplished it.
Here's where I am also sanguine about the trade. I believe that in true "Moneyball" fashion the A's will be able to replicate the value Cespedes brings to the team. Not the throws, not the panache, not the occasional absolute brilliance, but the overall value.
I hope the A's, now dealing with agents who supposedly will check in with their client, will re-sign Gomes beyond 2014 to form a platoon of Gomes and Vogt. Is it unrealistic to think this duo could hit a composite, say, .270/.370/.470? Gomes alone vs. LHP is batting .302/.400/.431 this season and .279/.379/.495 for his career. Vogt is harder to predict, but if you believe in Stephen Vogt then you have to think this duo can pretty much kick tushie over what Cespedes has done at the plate.
The 2015 team should also, once again in "Moneyball" fashion, be fine because it will have a legitimate big 3 of Samardzija, Gray, Kazmir to build its rotation around. Presumably Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz will be in the mix, along with perhaps a low-key "middle of the rotation" free agent signing, and A.J. Griffin due back in July. (I do not count Jarrod Parker in the SP depth chart because the most successful SP ever to recover from a second Tommy John surgery is Chris Capuano.)
The A's need to figure out SS, either with an extension for Jed Lowrie or a move, but I see no reason, with the resources the A's have, why Oakland cannot set itself up to be strong contenders in 2015. Remember that they have freed up money by trading Cespedes and that money can be used to shore up needs in 2015.
2016 and beyond
This is where the Cespedes-Lester-Gomes trade concerns me. I saw Cespedes as a golden trade chip for restocking the pitching staff, restocking the upper minors where the A's are truly barren. Cespedes is the type of flashy player who, with a year left on his contract, might bring back that "major league ready starting pitcher" who could replace Kazmir by 2016. Yes, Cespedes was used to get us Lester now, but he was not used to get us a Danny Haren or Gio Gonzalez later, and given the current state of the A's farm system this is a huge issue.
Maybe you're fine with punting on 2017 for a shot at the World Series in 2014 and 2015. I'm not. So with the perfect "2016 and beyond reload" trade chip gone to bolster the present club, how can Billy Beane finish this round of moves in a way that keeps the team strong past 2015?
The key is always starting pitching. If you have "3 aces" and a decent offense/defense, you're in contention. Is it possible that the A's could get serious about keeping one of their new aces long term? They have freed up some money with the Cespedes trade, but more importantly they will also get an influx of revenue if they can get deep into the post-season.
If the A's get to the World Series -- and make no mistake about it, they haven't even won the AL West yet -- you're looking at maybe 7-10 additional sold out home games, plus TV revenues, plus a swell in advance season ticket sales for the following season...The point being that success now does give you some direct resources for setting up success later.
That being said, I don't see the A's making a run at signing Jon Lester beyond 2014. Oakland has built its success around not making deals that commit insane amounts of money to players in their 30s. It would be kind of sweet, frankly, if Beane turned around and inked Lester for 4-5 years (which means around $100M) but I just don't see that happening. As good as Lester is, he is 30 and he has thrown a lot of pitches in his life and you just don't know how many more he has in him.
But what I could see happening is an extension for Jeff Samardzija. Yes Samardzija is only one year younger (29), but he also has fewer miles in his arm because he didn't throw as much, as young, while he was busy catching touchdown passes as a legitimate NFL prospect. Catching TD passes puts little wear and tear on your pitching arm, just as playing 1B put little stress on Sean Doolittle's pitching arm.
Perhaps the A's, who signed Doolittle to a long-term extension this winter, are emphasizing the factor of "tread" in picking out tires to commit to, and might see if they can make Samardzija a centerpiece for the rotation beyond 2015. An extension for Samardzija -- not a cheap proposition, but also not a $100M+ one -- is one way I could see Oakland setting itself up for success beyond 2015 without having dealt Cespedes for an exciting young pitcher or two.
Another avenue would be a splashy International Free Agent signing, as Cespedes was, and which the A's might feel they have the revenue to pursue. Find the next Cespedes willing to sign a 4-year deal, or the next Jose Abreu, and suddenly you're sitting a lot prettier for 2016-17 than you were.
In other words, there are ways to "rebuild before you have to rebuild," and the A's have two years to plan for it. Maybe you don't care if the team loses 95 games in 2017 so long as they get the World Series now. As someone who cares both about the now and the later, my feelings about the "Lespedes" trade are mixed, for now. I thought Cespedes was the perfect, and perhaps only, chip for reloading an already barren farm system left yet more decimated by Russell's departure. Show me the new plan for 2016-17 and then I can fully evaluate this trade. If that plan is "lose a lot" then I don't love it. But I know that Beane is both competitive and creative, so ... ?