The sale has begun. We all knew it was coming. The Oakland A's have a bad record and a few big names staring at free agency next winter, and with every loss it got more and more pointless to keep everyone around. On Thursday, they made the first big move of the 2015 trade deadline, sending starting pitcher Scott Kazmir to the Houston Astros. There was no MLB-ready talent coming back the other way, either, so this wasn't a retooling of the current roster. This was star-for-prospects, the kind of move that announces a team is packing it in and looking toward the next season.
But what does that mean for the rest of 2015? There are still 65 games left to play, after all. On Tuesday I wrote about the hope that remained, and the small chance that the A's could still claw back into the playoff race. Realistically, that hope is mostly gone now, and it will diminish even further as fellow veterans Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard inevitably follow Kazmir out the door. However, if you believed in it in the first place then you were probably following heart more than head anyway, and in that case not a whole lot has changed with this trade.
Let's start with an objective look at how the roster will be affected. Kazmir is gone from the rotation, and No. 6 starter Chris Bassitt is already replacing the injured Jesse Hahn -- at this point it's probably best to assume that Hahn is effectively done for the year, since he won't even throw a ball again until late August. With Bassitt spoken for, Drew Pomeranz has been pulled from the bullpen and reinserted into the rotation. I think that we'll see Barry Zito in Oakland before long, since he can eat some innings while giving fans a familiar face to cheer for, but the current plan is for Pom to start. That makes the rotation:
1. Sonny Gray
2. Jesse Chavez
3. Kendall Graveman
4. Chris Bassitt
5. Drew Pomeranz
Furthermore, Pom is now absent from the pen. He was serving as the top left-handed reliever and generally pitching high-leverage innings. So, with one deal, both the rotation and the bullpen got worse. The former could afford a downgrade, but the latter could not. If you're looking for a late-season miracle, then improvement from the pen was going to be a necessity.
But still, that rotation isn't bad. Sonny and Chavez are two of the top 30 starters in baseball, by both types of WAR. Graveman and Bassitt are making more good starts than bad ones. And neither Pom nor Zito would likely be the worst No. 5 starters in the league, not as long as the Red Sox have to keep playing every day. The rotation might not be the strength it was a few weeks ago, but it's still not a weakness. It's just ordinary now.
Figuring out the pen is a bit more complicated, because we don't know what will happen with Clippard. Most likely he will be gone, but does that really matter all that much? He hasn't been a Jim Johnson-level gascan, but he hasn't been as good as his 2.79 ERA suggests either. He's closer to the league lead in walk rate than the lead in saves, his strikeout rate has plummeted to its lowest level in his seven seasons as a full-time reliever, and we just got done watching him blow his last two ninth-inning save opportunities. I don't know who might close if both he and Pomeranz are out of the picture, but it's not as if the A's will be losing a lockdown presence. They'll replace a shaky bet with a slightly shakier bet. It'll look something like this:
Pat Venditte (on rehab!)
Venditte threw a right-handed inning for the Stockton Ports on Thursday (and is scheduled to go lefty on Saturday), so he could be back before long. If you don't think that O'Flaherty will finish the year here, then replace him with Arnold Leon. After them, there are still Ryan Cook, R.J. Alvarez, Phil Coke and Angel Castro in Nashville, but none of them are having particular success down there and they probably wouldn't help much here.
But is that group really so different than the one Oakland had at the beginning of the week? It's still a bunch of names who have what it takes to be good. Otero, O'Fats, Abad, and Mujica all have been excellent in the recent past. Rodriguez has struck out 17 of the last 33 batters he's faced, with just three hits and two walks in that span. Scribner has a 12.75 strikeout-to-walk rate, by far the best in the bigs -- the next-best reliever is Glen Perkins at 7.40. Venditte didn't allow a run in his first four MLB games and still carries all the same promise he did when he debuted. And Leon, who didn't make it as a starter, struck out 23 batters against two walks in 25 relief innings in Nashville, and he's at 10-to-1 in 9⅔ innings so far for the A's. Why can't a couple of them step up to fill the vacated shoes?
With Clipp and Pom on board, the A's had a bad bullpen. They will still have a bad bullpen, unless it gets better for no reason at all. Good relievers turn sour all the time and new ones emerge from nowhere, and it's just difficult for me to take bullpen analysis seriously. Losing Sean Doolittle had a major effect on the pen, but I just don't think that anyone else has been consistently, reliably good enough that his departure will change all that much. It's difficult to put together seven MLB relievers and get a worse performance than the A's have already received, so it's hard for me to care about losing anyone.
Finally, there is the matter of Ben Zobrist, who is also a good bet to be dealt. He has mainly played second base and left field for the A's, and so less of him would mean more Eric Sogard, Mark Canha, Sam Fuld and Jake Smolinski. Or, perhaps it would mean a promotion for Joey Wendle, who showed some signs of life at the plate this week in Triple-A, or even journeyman outfielder Jason Pridie, who is on absolute fire right now for the Sounds.
Regardless, there is a dirty little secret: Zobrist just hasn't been that good this year. His hitting has been alright (111 OPS+) and he's had a few big moments, but he's just one more decent cog in a lineup lacking an overwhelming middle-of-the-order presence. He's not hitting for big power or getting on base like crazy, he's just plugging solidly along. That's always been enough to make him a star in the past because he's played such good defense, but this year he has rated as an extremely negative defender across the board. I think he's looked downright bad in left field, and even at second he's not what he once was.
All told, Zobrist has barely been better than replacement level this year -- he's at 0.3 bWAR, or 0.7 fWAR. According to bWAR, each of Fuld (0.8), Canha (0.4) and Sogard (0.4) has been more valuable than Zobrist in similar amounts of playing time, while Smolinski's smoking start (0.6) has already surpassed Zobrist's entire season. The fWAR scale puts Zobrist ahead of the pack, but not even half a win separates any of them and nobody has been worth a full win. The point is, due to Zobrist's poor defense, all of these 2B/LF options have been indistinguishable in terms of overall value.
The team who eventually acquires Zobrist won't be doing so with eyes on his 2015 performance to date, but rather the chance that he can play well down the stretch and in the postseason. In his place, the A's will hope that Smolinski stays hot, or that Canha improves with more regular playing time, or that Fuld goes on one of his high-BABIP tears, or that Wendle comes up and hits better than Sogard. But they won't be losing an indispensable player from their lineup on either side of the ball, like the Reds would if they traded Todd Frazier, or the Rockies with Tulo, or the Padres with Justin Upton.
And that feeling represents my entire attitude toward this trade deadline. I knew it was coming, and even at my most optimistic moments I've still been firmly in favor of trading at least Kazmir. But even with some former All-Stars heading out of town, my opinion toward the rest of the season still hasn't changed. The A's still have their best starter, and their rotation is still adequate. They'll lose their most proven reliever, but he hasn't been anything special outside the context of the team's otherwise miserable pen. And they'll lose their aging superstar, but he's at best their third-best hitter and there's every chance that his replacements could out-perform him over the final two months. It feels like the team is losing a lot of name power, but they aren't losing their absolute best players (Sonny and Vogt) and they might not lose much in terms of overall value -- even Kazmir is a risky play after fading down the stretch last year and leaving a start earlier this month.
If you still believed in an A's second-half comeback on Tuesday, then there's nothing about this trading season that should change your mind, because you were already counting on a lot of guys other than Kaz, Clipp and Zobrist to carry the team. You were counting on Graveman and Bassitt pitching well, on multiple relievers finding their grooves, on Burns running wild, on Lawrie and Semien and Phegley sparking the offense. Now, if guys like Chavez and Reddick are dealt too, then things might get a little more dire, but if the only losses this July are the impending free agents then nothing much will have changed for this 2015 team.
The A's are probably done for 2015, and they're smart to deal away their expiring assets for the most value possible. But this isn't your usual white flag sale, because they aren't losing their most productive players or significantly altering their competitiveness in the current season. If you were already checked out for the year, then enjoy the new prospects and start following the minor league box scores -- the Double-A Midland RockHounds are pretty good right now. But if you're still waiting for that miracle, then don't let this Kazmir trade, nor the upcoming ones over the next week, rattle your fAith.