Constructing a Major League Baseball roster is like playing a game of chess. You have to be calculating and plan your maneuvers a few steps in advance and there are horses and ... wait, no, that's not right. It's like a game of Monopoly, racking up assets and balancing money and property and pushing the little car around the board and ... no, that's not it either. A jigsaw puzzle! Yes, that's it. Constructing a roster is like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle of skill sets and salaries so that they create the image of a winning team.
When Billy Beane acquired Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar from the Tampa Bay Rays, it sure looked like he'd gotten the final pieces he needed to complete his own convoluted puzzle by filling both middle infield positions in one fell swoop. Heck, I was already halfway though writing my column declaring that very thing. However, it turns out that he wasn't done yet, as four days later he flipped Escobar to the Washington Nationals for set-up reliever Tyler Clippard. Beane wasn't done tinkering, and it's arguable as to whether he'll ever truly be done. The picture he's assembling is one of those Magic Eye things, and I could never figure those out, so the only way to know what the finished product looks like is to wait until Opening Day and see what 25 names are on the roster. To break from the puzzle analogy for a moment, the journey to that April 6 roster has felt an awful lot like this:
What is he painting there? He's just messing around, putting random lines together, right? Why did he add that thing right there? And then, when everything is in its proper place, BAM! You see what it was all building toward. Beane took a roster that was potentially great but was declining, and he turned it into one that was merely good but improving.
I'll admit that I'm having trouble understanding this latest deal. I've been on board with everything Beane has done so far this winter, though sometimes it's taken a day or two for the sting to wear off from certain moves. I grudgingly accepted the trades of our beloved All-Stars, and I even got the logic behind selling high on Brandon Moss and am willing to be optimistic about the unheralded prospect he fetched. I see the bargain potential in Billy Butler and Ike Davis, I see the upside in Brett Lawrie and Marcus Semien, I see the superstar in Zobrist, and I understand the general theme of getting younger and deeper while still competing for the 2015 postseason. The whirlwind of moves has been dizzying, but this was finally the one that threw me for a loop.
The thing that's tripping up my brain is probably the timing. If it had gone down as a simultaneous three-team deal, I would have been able to digest it properly. But having four days in between to mentally slot Escobar into the lineup was just enough to throw me off. That was just long enough to get comfortable with him, even though he's a guy who I generally have not wanted to acquire in the past for various reasons. Now I find myself unable or unwilling to get too attached to any permutation of the roster, or to make any meaningful predictions about future events. It seemed like the winter was winding down, but now I'm feeling jumpy again, nervous of when the next trade might be announced. "As things currently stand" are the magic words of the offseason.
And what about the move itself? Escobar seemed to make a lot of sense on the A's roster. He's a serviceable starting shortstop with actual MLB experience, and without him the A's don't have that. Marcus Semien might be fine defensively at short, or he might not. Zobrist and Eric Sogard can both fake it there, but not for too long at a time. Tyler Ladendorf might be able to handle some of the load, but he's yet to make his MLB debut and he's probably a platoon player. Andy Parrino is so enticing that zero teams wanted him for free.
The best-case scenario is that Semien, who has 40 MLB innings at short and played only two-thirds of his minor league innings there, settles in as a solid defender. And if he gets hurt or his glove simply can't cut it, then the team will be stuck with another 2014-level replacement -- someone like Sogard or Ladendorf or Parrino. So, while Escobar is most likely to post a 90 OPS+ and average-at-best defense and around 1 WAR, there seemed to be extra value in where that 1 WAR was coming from. The alternative might be 0 WAR, or worse, at a position that you can't upgrade as easily as the bullpen or the outfield or anywhere else. We had this same conversation last winter about second base and that didn't get fixed until Zobrist came over a week ago.
Clippard, on the other hand, is exactly what I didn't think the A's needed. He's a reliever in a crowded bullpen, and he's an expensive one just months after the utter train wrecks that were Jim Johnson (7.14 ERA) and Luke Gregerson (MLB leader in blown saves). I'm generally not a fan of high-priced relievers, especially when they're not even in closing roles, but after a deeper look I'm at least confident that Clippard is an upgrade and that he's unlikely to explode to the spectacular extents that last year's duo did. He'll probably be good, he could be great, and he almost certainly won't suck. He'll also keep Ryan Cook out of the eighth inning for the most part, and I hadn't considered how uncomfortable I would have been with Cook as the main set-up man.
I still don't know if Clippard was a necessary acquisition, or at least a better asset to have than a stable veteran shortstop, but if you don't fully trust Cook and are unwilling to hand the eighth to a rookie like R.J. Alvarez in a contending season, then I suppose a new arm was required and Billy found a great one on a one-year deal.
So, Escobar was the missing piece, unless he was just an aging malcontent with minimal upside. And Clippard is just the next Luke Gregerson at Jim Johnson's salary, unless he's Oakland's answer to Wade Davis. I just don't know what to think anymore, and I'm afraid to start drawing deep conclusions about anything in case Clippard gets flipped on Sunday for Beane's next bauble. For all the annoying jokes about how you shouldn't get used to this new player or that one because Beane will just trade them away next week, it actually happened. Now those hyperbolic jokes have entered the realm of legitimate advice.
There could be five more trades before the spring, or that could have been the last one. We can't get too attached to the current makeup of the roster lest another gust of trade winds blow everything out of place once more. For now, all we can do is enjoy the fact that we got the best player in both deals. Oakland's 2015 roster improved with the addition of two more All-Stars, one of them a real-live second baseman, at the cost of just one good DH, a couple prospects, and some money. Beyond that, any conclusions we try to draw are subject to change at a moment's notice. The only hope for respite is Opening Day -- for a couple of months thereafter, there isn't likely to be any other GM willing to play chess with Beane. Err, Monopoly. Wait, what was the analogy again?