The Oakland A's are in an awkward position as June comes to a close. They have the offense and the starting pitching of a playoff-caliber team, but they're in last place because all of the smaller things have gone wrong. They're finally playing well and have won seven of their last nine games, and 18 of their last 29, but they've dug such a hole for themselves that it'll take an even bigger hot streak to push back into contention. It's not probable, but it's absolutely possible and the weight of preseason expectations makes it that much more tempting to try.
However, there are also practical considerations. When the odds of success are low, sometimes it's better to play for the future than to bank too hard on a cause that is most likely lost already. And that means Oakland will have to make a tough choice in regard to several veterans who are impending free agents -- most notably Ben Zobrist, Tyler Clippard and Scott Kazmir. Should the A's gamble that they can still turn this season around and hold onto those guys? Or would they be smarter to sell next month and get maximum future value, essentially forfeiting the rest of the season in terms of playoff contention?
First, we must draw a distinction between the aforementioned players. If the A's trade Zobrist, their season is over. I do not believe they can compete without him, and indeed the team played like garbage when he was on the disabled list. They are 21-15 when he starts and 11-26 when he sits out, and while that stat isn't always meaningful I think we can agree that losing your switch-hitting, patient, slugging 2B/LF could be a leading factor in such a split when his chief backups are Eric Sogard and Sam Fuld. How many wins has Zobrist played a key role in just in the last two weeks? Dealing him is an automatic white flag. Likewise, removing Clippard from an already thin bullpen, one that has been taxed hard by injuries, would further expose what is already the weakest link on the roster and remove any chance of it stabilizing. That would also most likely end the season.
Dealing Zobrist or Clippard is a simple question of if you want to keep playing in 2015 or shift your focus entirely to 2016. Keeping Zobrist also comes with the virtual guarantee of a qualifying offer and an ensuing draft pick, but any trade return would almost certainly be more valuable.
Kazmir is a different beast, though. He was an All-Star last year and is off to a great start again this season, with a 2.70 ERA, solid peripherals, and a handful of dominant outings. However, he is also a part of the strongest area of the team, the part that could probably most afford to lose somebody. The A's rotation is five-deep with above-average starters right now: Sonny is an early Cy Young frontrunner, Jesse Chavez is a borderline All-Star, Jesse Hahn has settled in as a reliable No. 3, and Kendall Graveman has a 2.27 ERA in six starts since returning from the minors. All of those guys are rolling, and better yet they are all supposed to be good, which makes me even more confident that they can keep it up.
Without Kazmir, the A's still have options to fill the last spot in their rotation. They can always turn back to Drew Pomeranz -- perhaps not an excellent starting option, but plenty good to be a No. 5 and win half his games. Sean Nolin could still emerge from Triple-A, as he's returned from injury but is still easing his way back up to a full workload (season-high is 88 pitches). Barry Zito probably isn't a serious candidate, but he's still in Nashville -- five of his last six starts have been quality, with a 2.27 ERA and a good K/BB rate. Plus, all three of those guys are lefties, which might be important to the team since the other four current MLB starters are right-handed. I wouldn't be ecstatic about any of them, but I could find merit in each, and none would likely be the worst No. 5 starters in the league.
And the replacement doesn't even necessarily have to be someone in the organization already. Last summer, impending free agent Brandon McCarthy was dealt in exchange for 26-year-old lefty Vidal Nuno, who turned in 14 league-average starts at an average of six innings per for Arizona the rest of the way; he's now a reliever for Seattle with dominant numbers overall. The Red Sox traded a 35-year-old John Lackey (albeit with a cheap year left on his deal) to the Cardinals and got back 26-year-old righty Joe Kelly, who was solid in 10 starts the rest of the way; Kelly is struggling this year, but he's still got three more years of team control after this one. Jake Peavy wasn't even good anymore when the Red Sox dealt him, but they still netted two interesting relievers from the Giants who at least appeared in the Majors down the stretch.
That's three aging, short-term starters, only one of whom was even pitching well at the time, all of whom returned immediate MLB-ready pitching help just last season. Kazmir is better and younger than all of those guys, and in this case it would be Billy Beane making the deal instead of the (no offense) pitching-dumb D'Backs and Red Sox. What kind of 26-year-old hurler could Beane grab from a desperate team in return for an All-Star performer? Probably more than Vidal Nuno, and possibly someone good enough to make us forget about Kazmir entirely.
Furthermore, does Kazmir represent a path to the playoffs even if he does stick around all year? Not to delve too deep into the land of the subjective, but he just terrifies me. I'm 100 percent confident in his ability, but every time he pitches I just hold my breath that this isn't the day he goes down for the season. I don't have any specific reason to think that in terms of a past injury flaring up in any way (like McCarthy's chronically bad shoulder, or the elbow of a TJS survivor), and in fact he's been a model of health since joining the A's and hasn't hit the DL since April of 2013, with the Indians. But given his career history, including falling entirely out of MLB for a while, there's a good chance you know the feeling I'm describing. Even a ticking time bomb stays intact until the moment it explodes.
And even if he does stay healthy, there is the matter of his 2014 splits:
1st half: 2.38 ERA, 4.0 K/BB, 6+ ip/g (in 19 starts)
2nd half: 5.42 ERA, 2.4 K/BB, 5.2 ip/g (in 13 starts)
He had five quality starts and four disaster starts among his 13 games after the break, and that's not the kind of performance the A's needed in 2014 nor is it what will get them to October in 2015. Let me be clear that this is the epitome of cherry-picking, especially given that his split was opposite in 2013 (ERA over a run lower in 2nd half, K/BB nearly doubled). Perhaps he will stay strong for longer this year, now that he's got a 190-inning campaign under his belt and his arm is once again used to a full workload. Perhaps we just have to chalk up all of last year's individual second-half swoons to the larger team collapse and not put too much stock in them. Perhaps he learned something after fading last year and knows how to avoid a repeat. Those are the kinds of maybes that will allow teams to look past last year's dropoff, and it could help that McCarthy and Peavy turned into immediate success stories for their new clubs after their trades.
All of those maybes could turn out to be true, but I feel that I know one thing for certain: Kazmir isn't getting any better. This is as good as he will be, and even if he stays strong it's likely that he'll at least see his ERA creep back up over 3.00 (his FIP is 3.53, and he didn't beat his FIP either of the last two years). Trading him might only mean losing a guy who will post a mid-3s ERA the rest of the way.
Kazmir is good right now, as good as he'll probably ever be. If you assume that he'll be even slightly worse the rest of the year, then the A's can probably survive without him if they get back an MLB-ready pitcher in the deal. Keeping him probably means a qualifying offer and a draft pick, like with Zobrist, but a 26-year-old starter with lots of team control is more interesting to me than a future pick anyway.
On one hand, teams are certainly aware of the risks associated with Kazmir, but there were even bigger risks with McCarthy and Lackey and Peavy and contenders still chose to make the immediate, marginal, short-sighted upgrades to boost their present playoff odds. The A's did the same thing themselves with Shark and Hammel, two imperfect options at premium prices who were nevertheless the best that Beane felt he could get at a moment when he needed to get help. A contender has no choice but to find the best possible upside and then hope that the risks don't come true, and even a mildly regressed Kazmir still offers a lot of upside to a team that can't roll with this year's Vidal Nuno as their No. 3 man. Kazmir is only 31, so there could still be years left in his tank.
And to tie it all together, the A's can afford the same marginal downgrade, because their path to the playoffs requires other parts of the team to step up too -- a downgrade from Kazmir to Nuno/Kelly/Pomeranz/etc is only relevant if the bullpen stops blowing saves, because if the bullpen never gets back on track then nothing can save this club. And if the bullpen settles down and stops blowing saves then maybe you don't need five guys with ERA+ marks over 110 in your rotation just to have a chance anymore. Maybe you can afford to have one merely league-average guy every fifth day.
To me, the question isn't whether the A's can afford to trade Kazmir and still compete. The question is if they can afford to keep him and still compete. If Beane can deal Kaz and get another decent young starter (a Nuno, a Graveman, etc.), and if he can get the other team to kick in a serviceable reliever to help shore up the pen, the team might actually turn out better -- and if not, then at least better set up for 2016. And if Kaz sticks around and suffers another second-half decline or finally gets seriously hurt, then the A's will be even further up the creek with nothing to show for it.
A lot will be determined in the next month. The A's will fight their way back up to .500, or they won't. Kaz will keep pitching well enough for other teams to want him, or he won't. The right team that represents the right trade match will go looking for help at the deadline, or it won't. But the more I think about it, the less I can find a scenario in which holding on to Kazmir makes sense -- even if you're not ready to give up on contending in 2015.