Not what will happen. That is unknown and if 2012 or 2013 are any indication, September holds many twists and turns that could end with Oakland cruising to the AL West title, winning it on the last day, or fading farther into obscurity. I don't profess to know what the future holds and I don't even profess to know exactly why the last 2 months have gone the way they have. But I'm willing to take my best guess.
Be warned, this is theory. The only time you will see the term WAR is in this sentence. I watch the games and the players closely, take in the action and the pulse as best I can, think and feel, and out come opinions that may or may not be accurate. Here's how it looks to me...
On the surface, the trade of Addison Russell and more for Jeff Samardzija and more, was a clear upgrade for a 2014 team that already had baseball's best record. Thing is, the 2014 A's of April-June had a special quality that can best be summarized as, "We may have no business being this good, but we are this good and we know it."
Fans knew it too: The A's could get down a few runs early and you figured that likely as not Oakland would figure out a way to end the game ahead, or at least scratch and claw right down to the final pitch. There wasn't swagger so much as there was laughter and a quiet confidence. It's fun to be overachievers, especially when you feel like you actually are this good. And the 2014 A's were relaxed and they knew they were good.
How did the Russell trade change this? How could it, considering that Russell's big league contributions are unlikely to be felt much next year, let alone this season? Well I think it did. The message was strong and clear: We're going for it now. We have to be good now. We had better win now.
Laughter turned to seriousness in a way that would be great for some teams, but not for the A's. This team does not thrive on that kind of pressure. It thrives on pie, dugout tunnels, irreverent tweets, and a devil-may-care attitude towards how good they are supposed to be.
Bottom line: The A's clearly improved the 2014 roster when they acquired Samardzija, but they also changed the tenor of the season when they mortgaged Russell.
Having gone "all in" once, the A's decided to double-down, dealing Yoenis Cespedes in order to get a true ace, a "big 4" in an all out push for 2014. I don't know exactly what effect losing Cespedes had in the clubhouse, but as it turns out a lot of the negative impact of that trade has been more tangible: an ill-timed series of injuries has made Cespedes less expendable than ever from the lineup.
The 2014 A's were all about depth, but when they dealt Cespedes they added starting pitching depth at the expense of depth in the lineup. So when Coco Crisp's neck rendered him unavailable or useless, when Derek Norris' back started balking, when John Jaso took one too many foul tips to the mask, when Craig Gentry and Jed Lowrie were suddenly only able to count to 9, suddenly a once robust lineup could ill afford the loss of an impact hitter. And Cespedes, while not putting up especially impressive stats overall, is an impact hitter.
Though one could have predicted Crisp's injury because it had already happened, no one could have predicted the Gentry, Lowrie, Jaso and Doolittle injuries. Yet in a way you could because unpredictable injuries, and ill-timed series of injuries, happen all the time -- it's precisely why the A's built their 2014 team around depth in the first place, before dismantling some of that depth for the stretch drive.
Maybe it was bad luck that key position players, and not a key starting pitcher, went down after the A's deepened their rotation at the expense of their lineup. It's hard to say because obviously you want and need depth in both places. Perhaps the Cespedes trade was a double-whammy: A loss of lineup depth unable to withstand other losses, coupled with tightening the noose on players saying, "It really is all on 2014, guys. This team has to win." And that's just not when the A's relax, laugh, scrape, claw, and win.
It's just a bad strategy. Financial advisors know this: You diversify your funds so that if one investment crashes another one might be thriving or at least holding steady. Mentally it means increasing pressure. Actually, it means increasing risk.
You know the expression "Don't put all your eggs in one basket"? Hit a speed bump, topple the basket, and now you have a whole lot of broken eggs. When the A's went "all in" the first time, they significantly weakened their 2016-17 core. When they went "all in" the second time, they weakened their 2015 core. All in the name of "going for it" in 2014. But when you do that, you can't know if later in 2014 all your catchers, your SS, and both CFers, will battle injuries that derail you no matter what you do.
I liked Beane's earlier strategy of trying to build very good teams year after year, where at the trade deadline each season you could add a little or punt a little as the situation warranted. The emphasis was always on being good now and also replenishing the future talent pool to be good later. Good teams can get to the World Series, especially if you give them enough chances. Great teams get bounced all the time, in short series or when injuries just mount up too high to overcome. Diversify your opportunities and you mitigate unnecessary risk.
I think what has happened recently is the confluence of two factors, one tangible and one intangible. You are watching a team that is paying for the lack of depth on the field and you are watching a group of guys for whom success is now a solemn task instead of a wacky given.
The good news? Things change fast in this game and September is still ahead. I won't be shocked if the A's pull it together, surge at just the right time, embrace their new-found underdog status, gel, win the division and ride the "Big 4" to the World Series. I won't be shocked if the A's finish 6 games out and wind up in a dog-fight just for the wild card. I truly have no idea what to expect going forward. I just have a sense of how and why we got here.