Amongst A's first round draft picks of late, Sonny Gray is an aberration. You see he actually came up to contribute to the Oakland A's. A noticeable trend has emerged, in which Oakland has traded its highest picks -- the A's have dealt no fewer than 6 former first round picks in just the past 2.5 years.
In looking for a pattern, or a "rhyme and reason," as to why the A's top picks have become trade chips rather than Athletics, does a pedagogy emerge? Or just a somewhat unremarkable coincidence borne out of circumstance?
On the face of it, I'm surprised because for a small payroll team like the A's there are few ways to furnish your big league team with high-production players at low salaries. One way, which Oakland perfected in 2012, is to discover hidden treasures like Brandon Moss and Jesse Chavez from the abandoned scrap heap. Another is to draft and develop a top player who can star for you before he hits arbitration, before he hits free agency.
One reason I was surprised the A's moved Addison Russell is that he represented the rare opportunity to have a budding star -- if he continues to become one -- at a premium position, under contract control for about his age 21-26 years. The potential discrepancy between Russell's value and his salary, over his first six seasons, has a chance to be huge and the A's rarely have the chance to enjoy that, especially with a position player.
As you look at some of Oakland's other top picks, though, you can see part of why the A's have so freely moved their #1 picks in order to improve their current big league team. Many are players who, certainly in hindsight, should not have been #1 picks.
Grant Green is simply not solid on both sides of the ball, as you would want in a #1 pick, meaning he will have to hit a ton just to provide value, let alone a lot of value. Jemile Weeks is a mediocre defensive player with no power, meaning he pretty much has to hit .300 in order to be especially useful. Michael Choice had the pedigree of a "CFer who might stick in CF but who might wind up being a strong COFer". Evidently scouts did not foresee that Choice is, or at least sure has been so far, a surprisingly poor COFer. (The fact that he has yet to hit either doesn't help, but I would say it's too early to write him off as a hitter.) What I saw of Billy McKinney sure underwhelmed me and a few other "eyeball scouts" I know, and I'm not convinced he was a smart #1 pick either.
So perhaps one main reason the A's have turned so many #1 picks into trade chips is that they whiffed by picking guys #1 whose skill-set really translated to picks a few rounds lower. However, another entirely different blueprint could explain Russell and his once-and-future-DP-mate Daniel Robertson (who was a supplemental 1st round pick).
As Green, Weeks, Choice, McKinney, and countless others demonstrate, there is tremendous uncertainty around prospects. Perhaps there is less surrounding Russell and Robertson, but there is certainly some. What Oakland has shown a willingness to do is to swap out both potential excellence, and the related uncertainty, for a "sure boost now" to the big league club.
Will Russell be really good? Perhaps, but Jeff Samardzija is really good. Will Robertson be really good? Perhaps, but Ben Zobrist is really good. In each case, the honeymoon is shorter, six years to one, but the risk factor is gone by way of a known need being addressed with a known star.
So then overall, what patterns hold together across all drafts and trades and non-trades? I'd say the A's strongly value a good young pitching prospect from whom they can extract top value for low dollar -- like Sonny Gray, and like the constant stream of newly acquired young pitchers (Nolin, Graveman, Bassitt, Milone, Parker) reflect -- but that they tend to avoid the uncertainty of talented but unproven position players, preferring instead to use them as trade chips to fill a currently pressing short-term need. Essentially, the A's are using their best prospects to "win now" -- seems like you can always count on the A's to buck the odds by thinking backwards. And as far as the first round picks who stall? Get what you can, when you can, because the failure rate is already high enough for the good picks.
Now perhaps I'm just building a pointless narrative to explain a small sample. I may well be. I'm not espousing a theory here, though, just trying to get inside the thought-process of the A's brass -- a group that has traded, with vigor, so many of the guys they spent countless hours identifying and securing. And I'm sending a hint to my dear friends Matt Chapman and Franklin Barreto: Maybe rent, don't buy.