In 2014, the Oakland A's were really good for the first four months of the season and then really bad for the final two months. During the offseason, they completely reshaped their roster by trading away four beloved All-Stars. And now, half a season later, they have the worst record in the American League.
But of course, correlation does not always imply causation. The trades drew three key hitters from the lineup, but the offense still ranks 8th in MLB in runs per game. They also cost a top arm from the rotation, but the A's starters still boast the 2nd-best ERA in baseball. The defense has been a problem and one of the players traded was a stud in the infield, but the other two position players were considered defensive liabilities when they were dealt and have been replaced by quality gloves. The biggest problem, the weakness that has cost the A's the most wins, has been the bullpen, and that's the one area of the team left completely unaffected by these trades and is one area that no one was really worried about entering the season.
So, with 85 games behind us, this seems like a good time to take a midseason look back at how those trades are really working out. (Note on WAR: I'm using B-Ref's results-based WAR rather than Fangraphs' process-based version, because right now I'm more interested in the past results of the last three months than predicting what will happen in the future.)
A's send 3B Josh Donaldson to Toronto Blue Jays
-- in return for --
3B Brett Lawrie, RHP Kendall Graveman, LHP Sean Nolin (minors), and SS Franklin Barreto (minors)
Donaldson: .300/.357/.537, 146 OPS+, 20 HR, +8 DRS, 4.5 bWAR
Lawrie: .291/.329/.425, 110 OPS+, 7 HR, 0 DRS, 2.0 bWAR
Graveman: 77 innings, 3.16 ERA, 122 ERA+, 45 Ks, 24 BB, 1.6 bWAR
Nolin (Triple-A): 33⅔ innings, 2.67 ERA, 1.53 K/BB, on DL w/ shoulder injury
Barreto (High-A): .289/.321/.452, 7 HR, 29 errors
This was easily the most controversial of the trades, even more so because it was the first and was completely unexpected. Donaldson is a superstar in his prime who is cost-controlled through 2018, which made him one of the best trade assets in baseball, and the A's didn't need to trade him. But they chose to cash in on his peak value and spread that production around the field. The package started with a 3B replacement in Brett Lawrie, an emerging star in his own right -- he probably won't ever be quite as good as Donaldson is right now, but Donaldson himself won't sustain this peak forever whereas Lawrie is a great bet to keep improving the next couple years. In exchange for that downgrade, Oakland also got two MLB-ready starting pitchers and a young shortstop who was ranked the No. 86 prospect in the minors by Baseball America.
Let's start with the obvious: Donaldson is still a superstar. He's exactly as good as he was in Oakland, and his comfortable new home park (the second-best hitter's park in MLB, via ESPN) is letting him put up even better numbers -- he has a 1.054 OPS with 14 homers at the Rogers Centre, but he's at .714 with 6 homers on the road. But that's just details; Donaldson is still enjoying his elite peak, on both sides of the ball.
Lawrie hasn't come close to matching Donaldson, but he's still been good. He has provided an above-average bat, a bit of power, and some clutch hitting, and he's improved by leaps and bounds on both sides of the ball as the year has gone on. His defense was a bit shaky at the beginning, but he's settled in now and is showing why his defensive reputation rivaled Donaldson's entering the season. Graveman struggled in April but returned from Triple-A in May and has now ripped off a string of nine sensational starts; three of those outings have been scoreless and eight have ranked as quality starts. Lawrie and Graveman have combined for 3.6 bWAR, not far off from the 4.5 accrued by Donaldson. Granted, it's not fair to compare two players to one like that, so consider that Toronto has two starting pitchers (Dickey and Hutchison) who have been below replacement level, and we can say that Lawrie + Graveman has been comparable to Donaldson + Hutchison. (Or Donaldson + Pomeranz, to use the A's No. 6 starter.)
You can absolutely debate the extra value of having a singular superstar performer, and all I can do is respond with the value of a deep, balanced team that minimizes weaknesses. We can also debate how long we think Donaldson can/will continue at his current level, and if a trade return like this might have still been available next winter. But there's one thing that I don't think we can debate, and it's any notion that this team would have a significantly better record if Donaldson were still here. Another win or two, thanks to a characteristic walk-off homer that we otherwise didn't get? Sure, maybe, even after allowing for however many fewer games they'd have won with Drew Pomeranz tossing mediocre five-inning starts every fifth day instead of Graveman. (The A's are 3-5 when Pom starts, 8-5 when Graveman does.) But with a quality two-way player replacing him and an extra star performer on the mound, I think there's a strong argument that the A's have recouped their value on the field even in light of Donaldson's continued excellence, with the chance to come out ahead in future years once Donaldson inevitably starts to decline.
Ah, but then there are the other pieces. Nolin has had a lost season so far -- a groin problem kept him out until May, then he returned and walked too many batters for 10 games with Nashville, and now he's out again with a shoulder injury. He's still part of the plans and could be a factor in the 2016 rotation, but it's looking less likely that we'll see much out of him this year. As for Barreto, he had a brutal start in April, then caught fire in May, had a solid June, and now is hot again to start July. He's playing in High-A ball at the age of 19, so even decent numbers are impressive. He's still a long way from MLB, but he's arguably the A's top prospect and he's plugging along just fine.
When you trade one big piece for several smaller ones, your hope is that the sum of the parts will at least match the value you lost with the big piece. I think the A's have already nearly matched that value in the short-term just with Lawrie and Graveman, and I think Oakland is the favorite to have more to show for this deal in 2016 and beyond. That's especially true when you consider the Top-100 prospect they now have waiting in the wings, whether he ever wears an A's uniform or is merely a future trade chip. Most importantly, regardless of your feelings about the deal or the players involved, I don't think there's any reasonable argument that the 2015 A's are bad because of this trade.
A's send 1B/OF Brandon Moss to Cleveland Indians
-- in return for --
2B Joey Wendle (minors)
Moss: .232/.306/.450, 107 OPS+, 14 HR, 0.4 bWAR
A's 1B: .252/.331/.420, 10 HR
Wendle (Triple-A): .270/.309/.415, 6 HR
This deal is a bit simpler, because we can really only look at one side. Joey Wendle was the only player the A's got back for Moss, and he's still developing in Triple-A. He's got his flaws, the biggest being a dangerously low OBP, but the bar in 2016 is set at Sogard and there's still every chance that Wendle can clear it and become a positive addition. But we'll have to wait and see on that.
What we can do for now is look at how the A's replaced Moss on the 2015 roster. Given the hold Josh Reddick has on RF, the emergence of Billy Burns in CF, and the presence of other LF options like Ben Zobrist and Sam Fuld, I think it's safe to say that Moss would have been playing 1B on the 2015 A's. Instead, they have worked mostly with a platoon of Ike Davis and Mark Canha, with Max Muncy filling in while Ike was hurt and Stephen Vogt taking some occasional reps when Josh Phegley catches. (There has also been just a dash of Billy Butler mixed in.)
There are two ways to measure this. The first is to look at the production the team has gotten from whoever was playing first base that day. Looking at it that way, Oakland's first basemen have almost exactly matched Moss in terms of OPS -- .751 for the A's, .756 for Moss. The A's contingent has reached that OPS with a bit more OBP and a bit less power, but they've still hit double-digit dingers. And furthermore, Moss was a subpar defender at first, whereas Ike is a wizard and Canha is at least adequate (greater than or equal to Moss).
The other way to measure this is to simply look at the overall lines of the players who are replacing Moss, even though some of their at-bats have come at other positions. Here is Moss next to Ike and Canha:
Moss: .232/.306/.450, 107 OPS+, 14 HR (314 PAs)
Ike: .264/.331/.414, 108 OPS+, 3 HR (157 PAs)
Canha: .242/.304/.412, 98 OPS+, 8 HR (214 PAs)
What we've got here is three hitters hovering around league average, two of them low-average sluggers and the other a guy with plate discipline and doubles power. Value-wise, they're sort of interchangeable, and indeed bWAR can't tell a meaningful difference between Moss and Ike/Canha.
The A's traded Moss for a prospect because they thought they could replace him, specifically with cheap spare parts that wouldn't cost anything to acquire. In my opinion, they were correct. They gave up a minor league reliever and some international slot money to get their new 1B platoon, saved over $2 million in payroll, and got a free prospect out of it who might end up in the 2016 lineup. Furthermore, that prospect plays a position that the A's have struggled to fill, so while they were able to go out and easily find a new first baseman they clearly could not go out and easily find a young, promising second baseman without giving up something valuable like a bona fide All-Star. That's why it was necessary to trade Moss, to cash in on the surplus value his star status provided to get something that wasn't otherwise available. I can understand missing Moss because I miss him too, and I can understand being skeptical of Wendle as the sole return piece if you thought a better prospect could have been acquired, but this trade absolutely did not make the 2015 A's a worse team. Not even a little bit.
A's send RHP Jeff Samardzija (and RHP Michael Ynoa) to Chicago White Sox
-- in return for --
SS Marcus Semien, C Josh Phegley, RHP Chris Bassitt, 1B Rangel Ravelo (minors)
Shark: 17 starts, 116⅓ innings, 4.33 ERA, 87 ERA+, 97 Ks, 22 BB, 12 HR, 1.3 bWAR
Ynoa (High-A): Don't worry about it, he's a reliever in High-A
Avg. A's SP: 17 starts, 104⅓ innings, 3.00 ERA, 81 Ks, 29 BB, 5 HR, 2.1 bWAR
Semien: .260/.308/.399, 97 OPS+, 7 HR, 1.2 bWAR
Phegley: .268/.320/.500, 125 OPS+, 5 HR, 41% CS, 0.8 bWAR
Bassitt: 2 starts, 10⅔ innings, 2.53 ERA, 6 Ks, 1 BB, 0 HR*
Ravelo: Rehabbing in Arizona, hasn't played at Triple-A yet
* Bassitt's numbers do not include his five relief outings.
The truly interesting aspect of this deal is taking it a step further back and starting with the Addison Russell trade that brought Shark to Oakland one year ago. However, that's a bit more than I'm looking to bite off right now, and anyway SamYam is planning to dive into that topic later this week. I'll leave that to him.
Instead, let's focus on the Shark-for-Semien trade. Without a doubt, this has been the best deal of the four, strictly because Shark has been harpooned by the AL this year. (Do you harpoon a shark? Most of my marine knowledge comes from Jaws. One way or other, the AL got a bigger boat, as it were.) He's a one-year rental, so the only value he can provide is whatever he does in 2015, and so far that hasn't been much. He's thrown a ton of innings, which has salvaged some value, and his peripheral stats are still solid despite a small dip in strikeouts, but one way or other the runs have kept on scoring and the White Sox are only 8-9 in his starts. Meanwhile, the A's rotation is the best in the league. Their overall numbers make Shark look like a minnow, and their current "worst" starter (Jesse Hahn) has an ERA a run lower than Shark's. While that extra inning per start would have been nice to keep the bullpen involved as little as possible, the fact is that the A's didn't need Shark this year and are doing just fine without him -- if not better.
Meanwhile, they got four long-term players back. The centerpiece was shortstop Marcus Semien, and there's a good chance that you've decided you don't like him and there's nothing I can say to convince you. His defense has been atrocious and it can be hard to imagine how anything can make up for that. But it's worth noting that he's gotten markedly better in the last month or so, and he's made some seriously impressive plays lately. You still hold your breath when he throws to first, but the errors are growing fewer and farther between. Meanwhile, his .707 OPS easily outpaces the average MLB shortstop (.671), and at age 24, in his first full season in the bigs, he's a great bet to continue improving in that regard as well. Shortstop is a pathetically weak position around the league right now and even an average bat there is a huge plus, and Semien has at least provided that. According to bWAR, that seemingly pedestrian offense has been enough to make him worth a full win already. Granted, bWAR uses DRS to measure defense, and somehow it thinks he's been neutral in the field, but Fangraphs properly rates him as the second-worst defensive SS in baseball and still has him worth 0.8 fWAR. No matter how you slice it, Semien has been a positive presence, and we've likely been watching his absolute worst.
Next, the two smaller pieces. A's fans just got their first look at Chris Bassitt as a starter, and while the team lost both of his starts he still put them in a position to win twice while Sonny Gray was sick in the hospital. He's no Shark, but he's provided a handful of innings already and could become a bigger factor in the second half of the season. Rangel Ravelo, a hitting prospect who will probably end up playing first base, hasn't really played this year and is currently rehabbing before returning to Triple-A Nashville.
Last but not least, the acquisition of Josh Phegley has been productive for two reasons. The first is that he's been the best backup catcher in baseball, so he's literally been productive on the field. But, just as Moss was replaced and then cashed in for an asset at a tougher-to-find position, the addition of Phegley to this larger deal afforded Oakland the option of dealing Derek Norris for another tough-to-find asset, in this case a highly touted young starting pitcher with six years of team control. Which brings us to ...
A's send C Derek Norris to San Diego Padres
-- in return for --
RHP Jesse Hahn and RHP R.J. Alvarez (minors)
Norris: .241/.288/.425, 101 OPS+, 11 HR, 35% CS, 2.2 bWAR
A's catchers: .296/.364/.553, 18 HR, 36% CS
Hahn: 96⅔ innings, 3.35 ERA, 114 ERA+, 64 Ks, 25 BB, 0.8 bWAR
Alvarez: MLB stats censored for decency, Triple-A stats are shaky but with 11.2 K/9
Like Donaldson in Toronto, Norris is still playing at a high level for the Padres. In fact, I think he might be the biggest snub from the NL All-Star roster, as I think he should be on there over Yadier Molina and maybe over Yasmani Grandal as well. Norris' OBP has gone in the tank, but he's still hitting for power in a notorious pitcher's park and has somehow added superlative defense to his resume. He's even throwing out baserunners now. Seriously, universe? Jim Johnson is good again, Jason Hammel has a 130 ERA+, and now Derek Norris can throw out basestealers? Really funny guys.
No matter, though, because as good as Norris has been, the A's new backstops have been even better. Heck, Stephen Vogt did what Norris couldn't and cracked his league's All-Star roster, and the Vogt/Phegley platoon has combined to dwarf the Lumberjack's numbers, like a mighty redwood looming over a solid oak. They've hit for more power, they've walked more, they've struck out less, and they've even matched his suddenly impressive throwing arm. The A's not only lost nothing by dealing Norris, they may have actually come out ahead just by opening up more playing time for the superior Vogt.
That's before even factoring in the players the A's got back. Alvarez tanked pretty quickly and blew his only save chance, leading to a demotion to Triple-A for further seasoning, but he was the lesser part of the deal. The key was Hahn, who has been every bit as good as advertised so far. Earlier I referred to him as Oakland's "worst" starter, but that's really a relative term. Sonny is an All-Star, Kazmir has an outside shot to make it as an injury replacement, Chavez has been remarkable, and Graveman is on an absolute tear. Hahn has been only 15% better than league average in terms of ERA, and he's done so while averaging six innings per start and 2.5 strikeouts for every walk. He's a young pitcher in his first full MLB season, so there have been inconsistencies, but he's already provided value and seems to be improving as the year goes on.
What happens if we tally everyone up?
The A's swapped out their 4-win third baseman (Donaldson) for a 2-win replacement (Lawrie). They lost their first baseman (Moss) but recreated him nearly identically (Ike/Canha). They lost their 2-win catcher (Norris) but replaced him in the everyday lineup with a 3-win catcher (Vogt). They gave up a workhorse 1-win starter (Shark) but added a pair of 1-win youngsters (Graveman/Hahn), which also let them turn their likely replacement-level No. 6 starter (Pomeranz) into their second-most reliable reliever. That's not the most precise math in the world, but if you add it all up the A's have come out even on the field in 2015. And none of that even takes into account the 1-win backup catcher they picked up (Phegley), nor the 1-win shortstop they added (Semien), with the knowledge that the alternatives at SS are Sogard playing every day out of position or Andy Parrino playing ... at all.
Think about that. The A's traded away four All-Stars, and yet it doesn't take any crazy logic to see how they lost virtually nothing on the field in the short-term. And in doing so, they saved a few bucks (which were used to help pay for new players like Zobrist, Clippard, and *sigh* Butler), set back the service clocks and/or the ages at a few positions, and added quality prospects at shortstop (Barreto), second base (Wendle), first base (Ravelo), starter (Bassitt, Nolin), and relief (Alvarez), all but one of whom are already in Triple-A. They held serve today and set themselves up for a brighter tomorrow.
Now, there is one final consideration that I cannot simply write off, and that is the effect of massive turnover. There is no doubt a negative effect that comes with a group of athletes who have never played together before, even in a sport like baseball where no one is passing to each other or running plays or setting a zone defense. Infielders need to learn each other's tendencies, double-play combos need to build a rapport, catchers and pitchers need to get familiar, etc. But this is something that many A's teams have overcome before; at FanFest in 2012, the players made exactly the same jokes about needing name tags as they did this past February. And yet, the lack of familiarity didn't stop them from coming together and winning that year. That doesn't mean that all of this turnover isn't a factor, it just means that it isn't necessarily a dealbreaker, because we've seen just in our own team's recent history that starting out in April as a group of strangers doesn't doom a club to failure on its own. It takes more than that.
The offseason trades were tough to swallow, but the stark reality is that those trades are not what has this team in last place. The players who were lost have been adequately replaced, and the areas of the team they were drawn from have not been the ones causing the losses. No, if you want to know what has the A's in last place, I must once again direct you to the 17 games* that were lost by the bullpen, either by blowing leads or by failing to hold ties. (And remember, Oakland seemingly returned the best parts of a relief unit that ranked 3rd in MLB in ERA last year, so this was supposed to be an area of strength.) Take that down to the AL average of 12 relief losses, and the A's would be 43-42 and comfortably in the playoff hunt. And that, of course, leads me to the real travesty of the offseason, the truly crippling mistakes that Billy Beane made. He failed to bring back these two stud performers:
Jim Johnson: 2.14 ERA, 25-for-28 in save sits (20 holds, 5 saves, 3 blown saves)
Luke Gregerson: 3.34 ERA, 19-for-21 in save sits (18 saves, 1 win, 2 blown saves)
If only those two were still anchoring the pen, the A's might well be in first place. Real funny, baseball.
* Oakland's pen is only credited with 16 relief losses because one of them involved the reliever inheriting runners from the starter and allowing them to score, so the starter was credited with the loss.
Update (3:45 p.m. PT): Two final notes, after reading responses to this.
1. Although I mentioned the team's defense, I didn't give it a lot of credit for the team's poor record. The errors have hurt, yes, but the A's aren't even the worst defensive team in the league. B-Ref and Fangraphs use entirely different ways of measuring this -- Fangraphs ranks the team 27th in total defense (i.e., better than 3 other teams), while B-Ref somehow places them around middle of the pack (16th/17th) and a tick above average. They're bad, but not uniquely or historically bad, and while the other teams below them on the Fangraphs list are also bad teams it's also worth noting that those other teams can't hit or pitch either.
And two spots above the A's on the list? The first-place Astros. And two spots above them are the first-place Yankees, with the 48-34 Pirates nestled in between. Yes, poor defense is a problem. Yes, it can cost you some wins, and I can agree that it's cost the A's a couple games this year. No, it does not have the A's in last place. Again, that would be the 17 games blown by the bullpen, and while a few of those were certainly aided by errors, a lot of them also came from back-breaking home runs or loads of untimely walks, and you simply can't defend against those.
2. I hear a lot about how the numbers don't tell the story, and that the A's are losing because they traded all of their proven winners who knew how to win games and close out wins and had the will to win. I am dying to know who those winning players were. Are they the same guys who lost two straight ALDS Game 5s and then pissed away the Wild Card game last year? Sure, Justin Verlander is tough, but even he has never won a ring either. So the A's couldn't quite beat a guy who himself couldn't even make it to that final victory. Two years in a row. Didn't even lose to the eventual champs, and it was the same story in 2014. I love our former stars as much as anybody but this narrative of "trading away that winning spirit" is complete hogwash, especially after being forced to read all the hot takes at the end of every playoff series about how they were a good regular season team that didn't have what it took to win in October. Suddenly the reverse is true just because those guys got traded?
Good players win. Sometimes, the best players win, often not. There was absolutely nothing special about the winning abilities of the departed players, outside of their obvious All-Star abilities, because if they had some special mystique then I imagine it would be us celebrating multiple titles instead of our friends across the Bay. It's not like the A's traded away a former World Series MVP or something. Just the guy who came about an inch short of fielding what turned out to be the walk-off hit in the Wild Card game last year. If great players have some supposed supernatural ability to will themselves to wins, well, with all due love and respect, it seems Donaldson and friends didn't have it.