When your modus operandi is to turn known quantities into younger, cheaper, and less established talent, it is especially incumbent upon you to be flawless -- ok, that's too strong a word ... maybe unflawful? -- in your choices. That's a lot of pressure, considering that nothing is more difficult to predict than the development of young baseball talent.
The A's don't rely especially on "hitting" with the draft, in that they have seldom kept their top picks. So essentially the A's turn their own young, cheap talent into established "win now" players and turn their established "win now" players into young, cheap talent.
Are they good at it these days?
The A's have certainly banked a lot on Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman, and both still have a great chance to exceed expectations. History suggests Franklin Barreto may never get an at bat in the green and gold, and if he does it won't be anytime soon, so we will see if he turns out to be a great get or, more likely, a good trade chip down the line.
There are plenty of "wait and see" components in the mix. Joey Wendle's day will come soon and we will find out how wise the A's were to place him higher on their depth chart than scouts were inclined to do. Rangel Ravelo is an intriguing sleeper who has been slowed by injury but will likely be in the mix for a spot on the 2016 roster. R.J. Alvarez stumbled in the big leagues in April but remains a solid arm in the future bullpen mix, while Chris Bassitt will also be back at some point in some capacity. Josh Phegley is a back-up catcher with some strengths and a bunch of weaknesses, whose success or failure is probably least likely to be impactful.
On the plus side of the ledger, I feel the A's really hit on Jesse Hahn. If Nolin and Graveman develop well, Oakland will continue its reputation of identifying pitching talent like no one else can. No matter how you feel about any of the trades, or the trades as a whole, you have to like having a core of Gray, Hahn, Graveman, Nolin, and Chavez in the rotation through 2016, with the first four under contract for several years to come.
Where the A's may have stumbled is on the left side of the infield, where they envisioned Brett Lawrie being a younger, cheaper, and surprisingly comparable, Josh Donaldson-lite and saw Marcus Semien as an adequate shortstop with a very good bat.
Oakland had reason to think Lawrie was a prime breakout candidate. The talent is undeniably there, as his first round pick pedigree, and sensational rookie season, can attest. Lawrie is also the perfect age to breakout, being only 25 but also not inexperienced, and he even has an injury history that helps to explain why his career might have stalled the past couple seasons.
Without question, Lawrie struggled in April (.229/.270/.325). Throughout May he has put up pretty good numbers (.296/.317/.418) that have been bolstered by a lot of infield hits, balls spanked to RF, a high BABIP -- maybe not the slam dunk you're looking for in a month that shows pretty good stats.
However, this week Lawrie has launched a couple of key homeruns, made a terrific play at 3B last night, and started to look more like the player Oakland hoped, nee hopes, it is getting. If we get a slugging, dangerous, slick fielding Lawrie for the next 2.5 years, the A's will be far more vindicated in their talent evaluation. If Lawrie struggles to OBP .300 and slug .400 (neither of which he is doing on the season as a whole), it's going to look like the A's miscalculated.
There is not a lot to say about Marcus Semien's defense that hasn't already been said, usually employing at least 5 of the 7 words unsuited to radio. The point isn't that Semien has struggled defensively -- and by "struggled" I mean he is on pace to make "only 60 errors" because Stephen Vogt now devotes every waking moment to saving Semien's errant throws -- so much as that the A's judged Semien to be capable of sticking at SS.
Watching Semien for two months it is difficult to see where the A's scouts saw him sticking at SS. Watching Hiro Nakajima in the Cactus League for exactly one infield practice and two at bats, I concluded he did not have the chops to hit, or play SS, at the big league level. With Semien, perhaps more physical ability is there (certainly a stronger arm) but the limitations show up fast and furious.
What the A's ultimately have, in all likelihood, is a very average 3Bman and an adequate LFer with a good bat. Of course that's not certain at this point, but it concerns me that the A's may simply have whiffed on a couple key analytical components.
Of course if the A's whiff on Lawrie breaking out and on Semien's defense, but hit on everything else, there are some good days ahead in Oakland. You're just not going to nail these things 100% of the time. The problem the A's face, with their current organizational philosophy and constraints, is that they really do have to nail it an awful lot of the time.