The 2015 Oakland A's had a bad season. You don't arrive at 68-94 without making some mistakes, no matter how much bad luck you encounter along the way.
One one hand, it's important to keep looking forward and not dwell on the past, but every mistake you make is also an opportunity to learn a lesson for next time. Here are five things the A's messed up in 2015 as well as what to learn from each one, with 2015 defined as "since the end of the 2014 postseason."
1. Traded Donaldson too early
I've written a lot about the Josh Donaldson trade, and I think I'd sum up my overall feelings like this. I would not have traded him last winter, but rather kept him through 2015 and then traded him. I also would have preferred to center the deal around a high-upside prospect, rather than an enigmatic young MLB veteran. However, looking back in hindsight, I don't really care that Donaldson was dealt a year too early, because his 2015 season would have done nothing to help an A's team that couldn't hold a late-inning lead to save its life. I'm also much happier with the return package than I was before, because Franklin Barreto has become the top prospect I was hoping for (MLB.com has him No. 18 overall in the minors). So, although I'm including it in the list of mistakes, I would still make this trade again if I could go back in time.
The bottom line here is that this was an example of taking the "sell high" principle a bit too far. It makes sense to sell a year too early than a year too late, but in this case it seemed like the A's jumped the gun and sold one year before what would have been considered "a year too early." They had a 29-year-old MVP-level player with four years of team control, at least two of which were guaranteed to be inexpensive, and no specific reason to expect a decline yet. Perhaps that's a time to ride the wave a bit and keep the star player another year.
Again, Donaldson would not have saved this team on his own. He's going to win the MVP, but let's remember the favorable conditions he enjoyed: a friendly home park (OPS 200 points higher at home), a stacked lineup around him (two other 40-homer guys), and an AL East division full of bandbox stadiums (N.Y., Fenway, Camden) and short on quality pitching (best AL East starters: Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Wei-Yin Chen). It wouldn't necessarily have gone this perfectly if he had stayed for another year in Oakland.
Lesson learned: Find balance in the "sell a year too early" strategy. It's important not to let value slip away if you can cash in on it, but at some point you also need good players on your team in order to win. The A's got lucky, in a way, because they got a mulligan on this one -- if they'd missed the playoffs by just a few games then it would be easier to point to the loss of Donaldson as the cause of a failed season, but so much else went wrong that this avenue of hindsight is closed off. On the bright side, so far it looks like the A's did learn that lesson, as the current word is that they won't trade Sonny Gray this winter even though a lot of teams will be offering a lot of tempting packages.
2. Signed the wrong DH for too long
The A's grabbed Billy Butler last winter on a three-year deal worth $30 million. It was an odd signing at the time and few A's fans really wanted to pick him up, but if you squinted you could see how he might fill a niche in the lineup. Instead, he was one of the worst players in baseball, providing subpar offense, zero defense, and the second-most GIDPs in the league, all while showing little hope for future improvement.
The problem wasn't really that Butler flopped at the plate. Not every free agent works out as planned. The problem is that he was handed a three-year contract with an eight-figure annual salary. He was a one-dimensional player coming off a bad year and hoping for a bounce-back, but he got paid as if he was a safe, reliable option. One of the most critical aspects of building a roster in a small market is maintaining flexibility, which is why Oakland doesn't re-sign its stars to long-term contracts that would bog down the payroll. Giving three years to Butler meant zagging too far in the other direction, when zigging had generally proven to be a good strategy. It created a situation in which they couldn't afford to have him flop.
Meanwhile, the Royals found the real buy-low DH, signing 32-year-old Kendrys Morales for two years and $17 million. Morales had a lost season in 2014 after a qualifying offer eliminated his free agent value, but he bounced back this year and hit like he had in his prime. He slugged four homers in the postseason and the Royals wouldn't have won the title without him. Dangit.
Lesson learned: Be more careful with multi-year contracts. The mistake wasn't signing Butler. He was worth a shot as a buy-low candidate, but only if Oakland had actually, you know, bought low. The mistake was giving him three years instead of a shorter show-me deal. Jim Johnson sucked, but it wasn't that bad because he and his salary were gone the next year. Pricy dice rolls on Ben Sheets and Mike Piazza and Hideki Matsui made sense in the past because failure wouldn't hurt the following year's team. But the A's found the guy they would usually give a one-year flyer, and instead gave him three years. Perhaps that third year was what it took to get him, in which case Beane should have excused himself from the bidding and let someone else make the long-term gamble.
3. Relied too hard on Coco in LF
In 2014, Coco Crisp suffered a serious neck injury that left him with what were described as "chronic, degenerative changes" in his neck. He'd always been considered prone to injury, and now he was entering his age 35 season with a problem whose solution (spinal fusion) would be career-ending. He had struggled to play through the injury in 2014, and it was never going to heal until he retired.
And yet, the A's still inked him into the starting lineup during the winter. To their credit, they at least shifted him from CF to the less-demanding position of LF early in the spring, but they still seemed to be counting on him to play regularly. And that's how the A's entered 2015 intentionally planning to give two-thirds of their outfield at-bats to Coco, Craig Gentry, and Sam Fuld.
Predictably, Coco got hurt. It wasn't his neck at first, but rather triceps soreness that turned out to be bone chips in his elbow. He returned in May, and then the problem became his neck again. He returned from that in August, at which point the season was already lost.
Lesson learned: If you're going to take a huge risk, then have a backup plan. Perhaps there wasn't much Oakland could do. From our armchairs it was easy to say that it was time for Coco to move to the bench, or at best part-time duty, but it may not have been so obvious of a call for the team's decision-makers given whatever extra info they had. Maybe Colby Rasmus (a popular offseason target) didn't want to sign here and that was never an option. But even with Billy Burns unexpectedly emerging as a viable everyday CF, that still left the A's with a whole lot of Fuld in LF.
I don't know exactly what Oakland could have done differently or what other free agents might have made sense, but I do know that their plan stunk from the start and then played out as stinky as expected -- much like the plan to let John Jaso keep catching in 2014 despite obvious injury roadblocks. There is a point at which "injury-prone" becomes "virtually guaranteed to get hurt."
Of course, there was one other option in LF ...
4. Took too long to free Canha
This is the part of the 2015 seaon that I don't get. I think Canha was supposed to be that backup plan, in case Coco got hurt or otherwise didn't perform well. He had to stay on the roster due to Rule 5, he was mostly blocked by Ike Davis at first base, and the whole reason Oakland got him was to try him out and see if he could play. And when Coco missed the first month, Canha did indeed pick up some of the at-bats, making about half the starts in LF and hitting fairly well.
And then, that was it. He got shoved into a platoon role that wasn't supported by any numbers, and I don't think it's a coincidence that he stopped hitting when he no longer got regular playing time. Even when Coco went down again, Canha barely played in June and July. It wasn't until Ike Davis finally succumbed to injury that Canha truly got an everyday chance, and he spent the final two months putting up a nifty .811 OPS. Note that Stephen Vogt ultimately led the A's this year with a .783 OPS, so more Canha would have been nice.
Lesson learned: Stick with the hot hand? Trust your scouting instincts? I don't know, this is kind of a specific case. It struck me as odd that the A's went well out of their way to get this player and talked up how excited they were about him, and then waited until August to really give him a shot -- especially given that he was hot out of the gate and the other options at his position were all weak. I'm a big butterfly effect guy, so I will admit the possibility that the August breakout required four months of on-the-job learning and he wouldn't have improved if he hadn't been brought along slowly. I also don't know how much his early-season stomach illness affected him or his playing time. But Canha's 2015 season will always look weird to me, and I really hope he gets his shot from day one in 2016.
5. Didn't adequately replace Doo
The A's knew in January that closer Sean Doolittle would miss the start of the season due to a tear in his rotator cuff. They had already acquired set-up man Tyler Clippard by that point, but the news meant that they were entering the year with Clippard as their closer and some combination of Ryan Cook, Dan Otero, Fernando Abad, and Eric O'Flaherty setting up. While everyone on that list was expected to be a good pitcher, the fact remained that they were all being bumped up one spot on the depth chart into roles that they may not be best suited for.
And that was before considering the randomness of bullpens. Ryan Cook turned out to be toast, Otero was awful, O'Flaherty never recovered his pre-TJS form, and Abad pitched like there was a worldwide dinger shortage and he was the only man who could save us all. The A's had two months to find a new impact reliever to shore up the pen, and instead they ended up with Evan Scribner pitching the 8th inning by mid-April. Meanwhile, their bullpen turned in one of the worst season in baseball history, in terms of holding the leads they were given.
Lesson learned: Nope. Bullpens are random and make no sense. Sure, I didn't have a lot of faith in Cook, but he was a former All-Star with a 149 ERA+ over three seasons. I think we all would have preferred Otero and Abad to stay in the lighter roles they'd thrived in, but how do you not roll with a pair of guys who had each given you sub-2.00 ERAs in the recent past? O'Flaherty was a fine gamble, and he was under expensive contract anyway so he wasn't going anywhere. And if they assumed that Doo wouldn't miss much time once the season started, then that's already six spots spoken for, with the normal bevy of out-of-options hurlers trying to grab the last spot in the pen. Bringing in another established arm would have forced out someone else who was a good bet, and there's no telling that their new acquisition wouldn't just be the next Johnsonian nightmare.
In hindsight, it's easy to criticize the inaction. But at some point, when you go into the season with a pen full of good pitchers with successful track records, you figure that things will at least go okay. Add in the recent poor track record in bringing in expensive relievers, and I can understand why they tried to build from within this time. Sometimes a good plan just goes bad.