The Oakland A's made several stunning, high-risk, blockbuster trades last winter, and now they are off to a 13-26 start that ranks them as the worst team in baseball. It's easy to look at those two statements and assume they are related, that the trades must have played a large role in the team's poor showing. However, there just isn't much to back up that assertion.
The first thing to do is identify what has gone so wrong for the A's, and the causes are not hard to see: league-worst relief pitching, and league-worst defense, specifically in the infield. The next thing is to determine which of the trades may have helped tank those areas of the team, and whether the team might be playing significantly better without having made any individual deals.
Let's start with the deal that sent Moss to Cleveland for minor league second baseman Joey Wendle. To replace Moss at first base, the A's added Ike Davis -- Ike gets some days off against lefties, just as Moss sometimes did. However, Moss is playing right field for Cleveland; the A's have Josh Reddick over there, so figure that Moss may have seen reps in left as well. Conveniently, Mark Canha gets his playing time at first base and left field, so let's include him in this comparison as well.
Brandon Moss, 131 PAs: .229/.282/.424, 5 HR, 9 BB, 36 Ks, 96 OPS+
Ike Davis, 115 PAs: .284/.348/.427, 2 HR, 11 BB, 16 Ks, 116 OPS+
Mark Canha, 116 PAs: .226/.293/.396, 5 HR, 9 BB, 27 Ks, 91 OPS+
Ike just went on the DL, but we're looking at how the A's got to their current 13-26 record rather than how they'll get out of it. He'd been playing well all year up until he pulled a muscle last week. And what's more, he'd been hitting quite a bit better than Moss so far, with less power but far better discipline and on-base skills. Canha is still getting his feet wet in his debut season, but he's replaced Moss' power with fewer strikeouts. On defense, Ike is a better first baseman than Moss will ever be and Canha is serviceable at both spots.
The bottom line is that the A's have lost nothing on offense and nothing on defense by switching from Moss to Ike and/or Canha. They are not losing due to a lack of offense, and even if they were, Moss would not have been the answer with his .706 OPS. I'm not suggesting he can't or won't heat up later in the year, but I am saying that the A's would not be any better through their first 39 games if they still had him. They have plenty of other corner players, and the lineup isn't lacking in home run power. And in the meantime, now they have a second baseman who is showing a fair amount of extra-base power in Triple-A.
Verdict: Not a factor because player was replaced
Note: Of course, lately Coco Crisp has been starting in left. His 2-for-40 start has been a huge drag on the lineup, though at least he's already racking up the highlight reel catches to partially make up for his dormant bat. But really, Coco was going to be starting every day whether Moss was here or not. Ike and Canha and Max Muncy are the guys who are filling Moss' spot in the lineup.
Although Norris was a popular player in Oakland, A's fans also weren't that bummed to see him traded. It sounds weird, but both of those things are true. We loved his bat, we loved his beard, and we loved his big clutch pinch-hit homers. However, it was also hard to watch his defense, especially when it was playing a big part in losing the Wild Card game. He was a major goat in that loss, and that made it a lot easier to see him go as part of the offseason overhaul.
Derek Norris, 141 PAs: .289/.319/.474, 3 HR, 5 BB, 27 Ks, 122 OPS+
Stephen Vogt, 129 PAs: .327/.426/.645, 9 HR, 19 BB, 19 Ks, 195 OPS+
Norris is plugging right along, with a solid batting line despite the fact that his walk-to-strikeout ratio has fallen off a cliff. Vogt has been a top-10 player in all of baseball. It's tough to feel even one ounce of regret over this one; even when Vogt cools off a bit, he still could hit as well as Norris (if not better). And while Norris has somehow managed to throw out 33% of basestealers, Vogt has still managed to top him at 35%. I can't imagine a single argument that the A's have been worse off with Vogt catching rather than Norris.
Oh, and Oakland got its No. 4 starter out of the deal too. Jesse Hahn has already held his own with decent results and has also shown flashes of his huge upside, so the Norris deal cleared space for Vogt while also helping the rotation. R.J. Alvarez has been awful in the pen, but he hasn't been one of the biggest relief culprits. His one blown save came when he entered in the sixth inning with no outs, runners on 2nd and 3rd, and a one-run lead. He also surrendered a walk-off hit in another game when he entered in the 10th with the bases loaded and no outs. Both of those were nearly impossible situations, and quite frankly if he hadn't blown them then someone else would have. The rest of his earned runs (and there have been lots of them) were relatively meaningless to wins and losses.
So, this deal allowed the A's to upgrade at catcher and upgrade their rotation with a pitcher whose floor is "adequate" and whose ceiling is "No. 2 starter." Sure, if Hahn went deeper into games then the bullpen wouldn't have to pitch as much, but it's not like Barry Zito or Arnold Leon would be doing better right now. And if you're looking for relievers to blame, Alvarez isn't really your man.
Verdict: Not a factor because player was replaced
The A's sent away Jaso and a pair of prospects, including their No. 1 prospect, and they ended up with Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard. Jaso made one plate appearance before injuring his wrist and going on the 60-day DL. Granted, he wouldn't necessarily have suffered that exact injury in Oakland, but did anyone foresee a full season for him in 2015?
So, Jaso hasn't played, and neither of the prospects are close to the Majors. The A's basically lost nothing in this pair of deals in terms of 2015, and they gained Zobrist and Clippard. The former also hasn't played much due to injury, but the latter has been the lone bright spot in the bullpen. If anything, these trades helped alleviate the team's biggest problem while causing precisely zero harm. If you have any criticism in this section, then your concerns probably relate exclusively to 2016 and beyond.
Verdict: Not a factor because deal was pure gain for 2015
Shark is off to a rough start in Chicago, even though I fully expect him to improve as the year goes on. After beating the A's on Sunday, he has a 4.58 ERA (86 ERA+) -- that would be the highest mark in the current rotation, as would his 4.09 FIP. Another way of looking at it is that, in eight starts, he's been good four times and bad-to-disastrous four times. The A's rotation has been one of the best in the AL without Shark, so it's tough to argue that his presence would have made anything better up to this point. It's worth noting that he would probably throw an extra inning per start over someone like Hahn or Pomeranz, but he wouldn't be throwing complete games and the bullpen only needs a few batters to work its tragic magic.
Now, you might argue that the Shark deal hurt the A's because it landed Marcus Semien and his iron hands at shortstop. I would respond that Semien has been the third-best hitter on the club, and that his bat has been worth far more than his glove has hurt -- to the tune of 1.5 bWAR and 1.2 fWAR. Even if you think those WAR totals don't fully capture the harm his glove has done, the worst you could possibly argue is that he's been neutral in value and hasn't helped or hurt. And if Semien wasn't here then Andy Parrino would probably be starting at short, and to put that into perspective, remember that Parrino doesn't have a spot on the A's right now because Eric Sogard is so much better at baseball.
Key Semien stat: Even if you remove his 13 errors, the rest of the A's have still committed 29, which would rank 4th among all other MLB teams. It's not just Semien. The poor defense is a team-wide effort, and just replacing his shaky glove would not fix the problem. Remove Semien and Lawrie (19 total), and the rest of the team still middle-of-the-pack in errors.
Verdict: Not a factor because the player was replaced, and the key acquisition has provided positive value
I can say with a high degree of confidence that the A's slow start has nothing to do with the losses of Moss, Norris, Jaso or Shark. If anything, those deals are helping things from being even worse -- they opened the door for Vogt and Ike, they put overall positive value at shortstop, and they helped mold one of the top rotations in the game.
I cannot say the same thing about the Donaldson trade.
Josh Donaldson, 170 PAs: .307/.379/.527, 8 HR, 16 BB, 29 Ks, 151 OPS+
Brett Lawrie, 156 PAs: .255/.292/.338, 2 HR, 6 BB, 43 Ks, 77 OPS+
Donaldson is still the same superstar he was the last two years, although his defensive metrics aren't off to a good start. Lawrie, on the other hand, has been an utter disaster. He's not hitting at all, especially with two strikes, and I've been thoroughly unimpressed with his defense. He has decent range, but there are often balls that appear to be within his reach but don't turn into outs. His arm is no more reliable than Donaldson's, but it's also not as strong. He arrived with a defensive reputation that rivaled Donaldson's, but I just haven't seen it yet. He's known as a streaky player and so this doesn't mean we have to close the book on him, but the downgrade from Donaldson to Lawrie has undeniably played a role in the slow start, even though team's offense hasn't been the problem. Perhaps Donaldson would have earned an extra win or two with a walk-off homer or a couple extra well-timed RBI hits. Their bWAR values also suggest a difference of two wins, and I think that's a fair estimate.
Of course, this wasn't a straight-up trade between the two third basemen. The A's also got three other players, and one of them has already appeared in Oakland -- starter Kendall Graveman. We're all pretty excited about Graveman, and he just had an excellent start in Triple-A on Sunday. The bad news is that he was awful in his four MLB starts in April, but the good news is that the A's won two of those games anyway. In one of the losses they were utterly shut down by a red-hot Nick Martinez, and in the other they didn't score off of Scott Feldman until the seventh. So, as bad as Graveman was, he didn't cost the team any actual wins, and if Jesse Chavez had been in the Opening Day rotation then the A's would likely have the same record. Well, maybe one game worse, because Chavez earned one of the team's five saves himself with a long relief outing.
Listen, no one was expecting the A's to win this trade right away. Donaldson is a superstar at his peak, and Lawrie is a lump of twitchy talent hoping to congeal into a ballplayer. Obviously if you look at this one after two months it will appear bad, because when you trade a star for prospects it takes time to reap benefits. No, the gamble here was that Donaldson would not remain in his peak for much longer and would begin to decline -- maybe in July, maybe in 2017, but sometime before he reaches free agency at age 32. That extra year of superstarness in 2015 was sacrificed to improve the team in 2016 and beyond, with the hope that Lawrie could offset the loss in the current year.
Instead, Lawrie has been dreadful, and because of that I think this trade has accounted for around two extra losses in these first 39 games -- that might not sound like a lot, but it is massive for one position on the diamond. However, don't take this to mean that I'm giving up on Lawrie. Not even close. All I've seen so far is what I was told to expect -- the jumpiness and the sloppiness and the aggressiveness come as advertised, but with a disclaimer that they don't last forever and eventually give way to massive talent when he gets locked in. We've seen the bad part, and the bad part is never as bad when you know to expect it. The good part will come. Remember that Lawrie is only 25, and that at his age Donaldson had 34 MLB plate appearances to his name and an OPS+ of 32.
Verdict: Definitely a factor, valued at two wins (but at least he still hates the Angels!)
Figured I may as well tack this one on to the end, since plenty of people still unbelievably think that this team would be fine if only it still had Cespedes. Below you will find Yo's season stats, but remember that it has been made abundantly clear that if he hadn't been traded for Lester then he would have been dealt over the last offseason. In reality, he was traded by Boston for starter Rick Porcello (taking away further from the superstar myth, because why were they so eager to dump him?). While I have no idea what kind of return Billy Beane would have been looking for, he certainly hasn't shown an unwillingness to spend assets on one-year rentals over the last 12 months. Therefore, you can pick between either stat line below.
Yoenis Cespedes, 157 PAs: .282/.299/.483, 5 HR, 5 BB, 36 Ks, 112 OPS+
Rick Porcello, 8 starts: 4.26 ERA, 95 ERA+, 4.35 FIP, ~6 innings per start
Cespedes is still the same guy. Super exciting and talented, capable of almost literally anything, but can't get on base and doesn't hit as many homers as his reputation would have you believe. Josh Reddick has been far better, and three A's hitters have more homers despite playing in the worst AL park for homers. Would I take Cespedes in LF right now? Of course I would; Coco is 2-for-40 so far. But as usual the A's have three hitters playing significantly better than he is, and again, offense and LF defense are not the problems. Adding Cespedes to this team would not have made the last six weeks noticeably better.
Cespedes' line in 89 games since Oakland traded him, 370 plate appearances:
.274/.297/.449, 10 HR, 12 BB (3.2% of PAs), 84 Ks (23%), 5 SB
As for Porcello, I could basically repeat the section about Shark here. He's been below-average. He'll probably get better, but what he's done so far would not have helped the A's beyond what they got in reality.
Verdict: Not a factor no matter how much we all loved the player
The A's traded a ton of stars and then came out the other side with the worst record in baseball. But all those trades probably only cost the A's about two wins, completely attributable to the downgrade from Donaldson to Lawrie at third. That loss has been offset, though, by the upgrade from Norris to full-time Vogt and by the upgrade from Parrino to Semien (even despite Semien's errors), both made possible by the trades.
Meanwhile, Clippard has been the only person in the league-worst bullpen with the ability to close a game. They've only sealed 5 of the 18 vulnerable games with which they've been trusted, and four of those wins were finished by Clippard (but only two of the losses). In other words, Clippard is 4-for-6 in his vulnerable games, so the team's only hope of winning a close game is getting the ball to him in the final frame. Clippard is here as a result of the trades, and as a result of ownership choosing to spend money.
Want your culprits? Here is your list of names, in order of how much you should blame them:
- Ryan Cook
- Fernando Abad
- Eric O'Flaherty
- Dan Otero
- Fernando Rodriguez
- Evan Scribner
None of those guys came here in offseason trades, and none of them are replacing guys who were dealt over the winter. In fact, they were all on the A's in 2014. That group has combined to account for eight A's losses, just by failing to hold late leads or preserve ties. That is the difference between being a winning and a losing team right now. You can complain about whatever aspect of the roster you want, but the fact is that the A's would be 17-22 if their bullpen was only as bad as the worst bullpens in modern history and they would be .500 or better if their relievers were playing like the strength they were deservedly expected to be.
The A's aren't perfect, but without their bullpen blowing 70% of their close games and losing every one-run game we would all be talking about how impressive it was that they were playing well after all the trades. The only difference between those two realities is a half-dozen guys who were already on the team in 2014.