As any boy scout or camper can recite, "leaves of three, let it be". It's a great way to avoid an itchy rash as well as an excellent way to build a ballclub.
Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, and Jason Giambi weren't just supremely talented. They grew up together on the big league diamond and formed the core around which highly competitive teams could be developed. Then came three pitchers, aptly anointed "The Big 3". They were, of course, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito and as "Moneyball" won't tell you they were the foundation for Oakland's success in the early 2000s.
Heck, even in 2012-14 the A's arguably thrived on the back of three rising young stars. They just weren't all that young so much as they were previously untested or unsuccessful. They were Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, and Brandon Moss, who grew up together in their late 20s to form the dominant island of misfit toys.
What the A's have done lately with their stars (Josh Donaldson) and rising stars (Addison Russell) is to trade them. I know it's annoying to dwell on the past and on the "coulda woulda shoulda," but as last season's "and you thought the finale to Seinfeld was bad" debacle has been followed by an epically disappointing 2015 campaign, I can't help going back to what I would have expected the A's to do and to wonder how much better things might look had they followed their own blueprint for reloading around a trio of young studs.
Addison Russell, Daniel Robertson, and Matt Olson are a trio that might have "grown up together" but were probably not going to do so, with impact, before 2016. Had the A's not made "bold" moves in 2014 and gone into the off-season with Yoenis Cespedes and Brandon Moss, they could essentially have chosen to keep one for LF in 2015 and deal one along with jumping at the excellent "Derek Norris for Jesse Hahn and R.J. Alvarez" opportunity. Perhaps that trade would have sent Cespedes packing in exchange for young starting pitching depth. (Heck, we know it can get you Rick Porcello for 2015.)
Your goal, each off-season, is to build a potentially competitive team for the coming year while also bettering yourself long-term if you can. Here's where that would have left the A's main players going into 2015:
1B - Ike Davis/Mark Canha
2B - Eric Sogard
SS - Addison Russell
3B - Josh Donaldson
OF - Brandon Moss, Coco Crisp, Billy Burns, Craig Gentry, Josh Reddick
C - Stephen Vogt
DH - John Jaso
SP - Gray, Kazmir, Hahn, Porcello?, Chavez, Pomeranz
That's a really good team. Now baseball is unpredictable and one has to presume that 2015 would have brought with it injuries to Crisp, Davis and Jaso, a plummet to feline catatonia from Gentry, and an inexplicable implosion by an entire bullpen. But on paper that's a really good team to try to compete with going into a season, with ample "trade assets" in your back pocket to reload for 2016-18.
And then in the winter of 2015, that's when you deal Donaldson, now 30 and still with 3 years left on his contract. With Russell and Robertson (and Muñoz) in the system you don't need Franklin Barreto and at the very least you can probably get, if those are the guys you like, Lawrie, Nolin, and Graveman back -- or whoever you want, and can get, from one of the many teams drooling at a chance to get 3 years of Donaldson's services.
You take care of your starting pitching depth through this trade and 2016 becomes the year of "letting the young studs grow up together" -- Russell at SS, Robertson at 2B, Olson at 1B, and if they hit the ground running you might be really good and if they don't you might struggle until they hit their stride. But you're building something special again, anchored still by Gray, Hahn, and maybe Chavez, along with any other young pitchers (like Graveman and Nolin) that you have added. You still have Reddick and Vogt, and you either still have Moss or you have the player you can get for him in the last year of his contract.
And you're set for a while because that core group led by Gray, Hahn, Russell, Robertson, and Olson are here for years, to be bolstered by possible additions like Renato Nuñez, Dillon Overton, or any other pleasant surprises. Now could this all go wrong? Of course. Perhaps that trio of Russell-Robertson-Olson flames out or can't stay healthy. Maybe Gray gets injured. Things can always go wrong, but there is a lot of potential for them to go right when you're dealing with very talented young players at the level of Russell and Robertson anchoring your team at such key positions on the diamond.
Somehow the A's got caught up in "win now" and "competitive windows" and "deal them a year too soon" thinking and lost sight of what has consistently worked well for them: Let groups of three special young talents rise up together, grow and blossom together, and thrive together, as the foundation around which you can build a winner with the same core for years.
What I think irks me the most about the last calendar year is that the A's actually had it all set up for them, for 2015, for 2016, and beyond. "Leaves of three, let it be." And then they rolled in the poison oak. You could say it was, well, rash. And I, for one, am itching for a mulligan.