The 2015 Oakland A's had a bad season. They went 68-94, earning their first 90-loss campaign since 1997 -- the year before Billy Beane took over as general manager. And, in an interesting piece of symmetry, this 90-loss season will also be marked by a GM change, as Beane has moved up the ladder and David Forst has taken over the job.
Despite their last-place finish, though, the A's weren't completely inept over the last year. Here is a look at five things they did right in 2015, with 2015 being defined as "since the end of the 2014 postseason."
1. Shark Trade 2 made up for the original Shark Trade
Oakland made four big trades last winter that sent away four of their All-Star players. One of them (Donaldson) is listed in the "5 Mistakes" companion post, while two more (Moss, Norris) can't be accurately judged until we know two things: whether the A's were right about Joey Wendle, and whether Jesse Hahn can stay healthy.
No, the true winner was Sharknado 2, the sequel to the original Sharknado trade. The first one sent Addison Russell to the Cubs in return for Jeff Samardzija*, and I still believe Oakland would not have made the playoffs in 2014 without making that deal. But it's understandable that the trade would be a lightning rod for criticism after sending away the team's can't-miss shortstop prospect in return for a win-now player in a year they won zero postseason games. Then Russell more or less skipped Triple-A, made the Cubs the very next April, and turned in a solid 3-WAR performance, and the lightning rod was relocated into a giant lake so that it could attract even more criticism lightning.
Enter Sharknado 2. The A's flipped their win-now pitcher to the White Sox, and while they didn't get back another Russell-type uber-prospect they did get a haul that could more than make up for his loss. Start with Marcus Semien, and when you're done snarking about his poor first-half fielding, stop to realize that he came within spitting distance of Russell's value (2.7 bWAR, 1.7 fWAR) while showing such drastic improvement on defense over the course of the season that even the most untrained eyeball scout could see a difference. He earned that value because he was the sixth-best hitter among all MLB shortstops. Sure, Addison is three years younger and is still expected to be the superior player in the future, but Semien was only 24 himself last season and remains a further breakout candidate in his own right, at the same position vacated by Russell.
Then there are the other guys. Chris Bassitt flashed brilliance in the rotation. Josh Phegley was probably the best backup catcher in baseball, and he could be a starter if needed. Rangel Ravelo, now healthy after a lost 2015, is the talk of the town in the Venezuelan Winter League and should get his chance in Oakland this year. All four of these guys are on the minimum salary, and none will hit arbitration for at least two more years. Sure, there was a downgrade at shortstop. But just as Russell could become a superstar, Semien could easily be worth 4 WAR on his own next year and could still be the best Oakland shortstop since Miguel Tejada, so it's not like a huge gap was left in the lineup. Add in a quality SP and solid catcher without adding any payroll, and it's easy to argue that the A's came out ahead in the two Shark trades.
* Note: The A's also sent two other players to the Cubs. Billy McKinney's MiLB numbers just scream "Ryan Sweeney" to me, and Dan Straily has moved from struggling to irrelevant as a starting pitcher. Oakland also received pitcher Jason Hammel as a win-now two-month rental, but he left as a free agent after the season. Until further notice, Sharknado 1 was simply Russell-for-Shark in the long-term sense.
2. Freed Vogt & Burns
Regardless of whether Jesse Hahn can stay healthy long-term, it will be nearly impossible for the Norris trade to go down as a mistake. That's because it opened the door for someone even better: Stephen Vogt made the All-Star team and led all AL catchers in bWAR, and he bested Norris in nearly every offensive category while further entrenching himself as a team leader and fan favorite. If Norris hadn't been shipped to the Padres then he would surely have gotten the bulk of the starts behind the plate with Vogt as the backup, and instead Oakland doubled-down on a guy who'd had a mini-breakout in 2014. By clearing space to Free Vogt, the A's added young pitching without really costing themselves anything, and the byproduct is probably one of your favorite players on the team.
Part of the design of trading Norris was likely that Vogt was ready to step up in his place, but the freeing of Billy Burns was a different kind of right call. Although Coco Crisp was never the plan in center field, the position was supposed to be the property of Craig Gentry and Sam Fuld. But Gentry appeared to be declawed at the plate and chasing his own tail in the field, and Fuld is best cast as a backup plan in CF than a go-to option. So, with Burns off to a good start in Triple-A after another strong Cactus League performance, the A's elected to give the youngster a shot. It was the right call, as he proved to be one of the team's best players and was certainly their top rookie. They could have gone the safe route with Fuld in center, or kept searching the waiver wire for more Cody Ross veteran retreads, but instead they took a gamble on someone new and were rewarded.
3. Acquired Canha & Valencia basically for free
The A's have made an extraordinary number of significant deals over the last year, between trading out four All-Stars, bringing in three different former All-Stars, and then trading three former All-Stars once again at the deadline. But, as is not uncommon for Billy Beane's A's, one of their best moves was an under-the-radar steal.
For the price of a nominal prospect, Oakland picked up Mark Canha in the aftermath of the Rule 5 draft. By the end of the year, he had emerged as an above-average hitter and solid defender whose impressive second-half performance has the makings of an even bigger breakout in 2016. It's tough to say if the Marlins would have been better off keeping him instead of Justin Bour, as Bour knocked 23 homers but was so bad in the field that he was barely replacement-level. Either way, Oakland scored a good player with a skill (power) that the team otherwise lacks, basically for free.
Meanwhile, the pickup of Danny Valencia couldn't have gone better. Coincidentally, he had been displaced in Toronto by Josh Donaldson, and despite a borderline career year at the plate he was squeezed off the roster by the other eleventy mashers on the Blue Jays. Valencia was easily the best player on the club for the rest of the year, swatting 11 homers in 47 games and carrying the lineup at times. And even if you don't want to give credit for good play in meaningless games, his presence allowed Brett Lawrie to get time at second base. I now believe Lawrie could be a viable option at the keystone -- I didn't think that entering the season, but it was definitely worth finding out. We don't know if Valencia will be around next year, but at least he made the end of 2015 watchable and let the team gather info on Lawrie's versatility, all for the price of a waiver claim.
4. Nailed the trade deadline
In the July, the A's were still floating around 10 games under .500, and it was clear that they needed to sell. That was an easy call, but when it came down to it they also did a really good job of selling.
First, they traded the right guys. There were three big impending free agents (Zobrist, Kazmir, Clippard), and Beane found a home for each of them. However, he held onto longer-term guys (Chavez, Reddick, Sonny), knowing that just because he was giving up on 2015 didn't mean he had to punt on 2016 too. He cashed in on anything that couldn't help him in the future, but he didn't get swept up and start selling the furniture and the TV and the tires off the car.
And in return for those three veterans, he got quite a haul. The prize was left-handed starter Sean Manaea, who recently showed his stuff in the Fall Stars Game, but three of the newcomers are already within Oakalnd's top 11 prospects according to MLB.com (Nos. 3, 8, and 11, plus No. 25). Read more about the acquisitions here.
5.Started the rebuild early
The A's could have gone for it in 2015. They could have fielded a lineup with Donaldson, Moss, Coco, Norris, and Reddick, and even still gone and gotten Ben Zobrist. The rotation could have started Sonny/Shark/Kaz, with Chavez and Pomeranz filling it out. And boy, am I glad they didn't.
We know that Moss and Shark flamed out. We know that Coco missed the year and looks like a shell of his former self, and I don't think that gets enough credit as a leading factor in the downfall of the 2014 club. We know that Doo missed the year, that Zobrist got hurt in the first half and Chavez in the second half, and that Kazmir had another poor stretch run. They would have had another year of Sogarrino at shortstop, since there would have been zero money with which to upgrade. And that's before factoring in the bullpen, which was historically bad at holding leads despite being full of pitchers who had recently been excellent. If the A's had gone all-in one last time in 2015, it would have been a catastrophic failure and it would have set them back years. Basically, it would have looked like the 2015 Padres.
Instead, Billy hit reset. It sucked losing Donaldson, but that was the cost of business. Cashing in early meant that the A's now have a pretty good farm system once more -- there are several hitters who will debut in Triple-A next year and are just one step away from MLB, and there's now another top-tier SP prospect in Manaea who could arrive in 2016. There are young breakout candidates at several positions, like Semien and Lawrie and Canha.
The 2012-14 team had three chances to win, and it didn't even come close. That roster had passed its peak and entered the downhill phase, with no more capital (money or prospects) with which to patch holes, and Beane chose to bail out instead of letting it drag down the franchise. It's not easy to see after a 94-loss, AL-worst season, but the tradeoff was one bad year in 2015 instead of a full Astros rebuild in 2016 and beyond. The A's aren't guaranteed to compete next year, but the only reason they even have a prayer is that they started their rebuild a year too early instead of a year too late.