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Oakland A's repeating (successful) history by buying low on rotation

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Perhaps more pitchers should change their names to "Rich" for the sake of accuracy.
Perhaps more pitchers should change their names to "Rich" for the sake of accuracy.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Yesterday, in the comments of our offseason transactions roundup post, AN member Taj Adib brought up an interesting comparison regarding the Oakland's A's approach to free agent pitching:

The Kazmir deal [with the Dodgers] struck me as very similar to the decision the A's made in the Winter of 2012 to let [Brandon] McCarthy walk - similarly to Kaz, McCarthy had an extensive injury history and just seemed to put it all together once he got to Oakland. But instead of keeping him in the fold for more or less market rates, the A's took the less-risky and more inexpensive option of re-signing Bartolo [Colon] and redirecting the savings elsewhere.

That snippet is actually part of an interesting point Taj was making about why the A's should indeed have gone harder after Kazmir, but I'm going to hijack it here to make the opposite point (sorry bud).

To begin, the comparison is apt. As Taj noted, McCarthy was already made of mostly scar tissue and Band-aids when he arrived in Oakland on a $1 million deal. When he took the mound for the A's, you always had that little devil on your shoulder asking if this was the day his arm would rip clean off and fly into the stands. Matters were made worse when he was hit in the head by a line drive that nearly ended his career. When it came time to pay him market rate for his success after the 2012 season, the A's decided to pass and bet on someone cheaper even though they were a competitive team coming off a division title. The deal McCarthy got from Arizona seems comically low now (2/$15M), but at the time it was still a noteworthy outlay.

Instead, the A's shied away from the risky multi-year commitment and re-signed their other free agent starter, Bartolo Colon, for $3 million plus incentives. It was classic A's -- Colon had put up decent enough numbers the year before, he had a major flaw to lower his price tag (PED suspension), and his age and body type and injury history all served to drive down the cost further. But he bounced back and finished sixth in the AL Cy Young voting in 2013, while McCarthy struggled through 22 starts for his new team.

And then the cycle repeated. Having made his name once more, the market rate for Colon became untenable for Oakland's budget. He wanted a multi-year deal at age 41, and instead the A's let him walk so that they could buy low on the next potential bargain -- Kazmir himself, who actually got about the same commitment Colon did (2 years, ~$20M) but at a decade younger and with a much higher upside. And again, it was the right call; Colon's performance dipped for the Mets while Kazmir made the All-Star team for Oakland.

And now, we've reached the same dilemma. Kazmir hit free agency again after completing that deal he signed with the A's, and the team needed at least one new starter. His last contract had been a success, he didn't require any draft compensation to sign since he was immune to the qualifying offer, and his age and career history figured to limit him to a 3-4 year deal. Relative to the big names on the market, Kaz was going to be a bargain, but even 3/$48M proved to be more than the A's wanted to commit. It didn't help that Kaz had developed a new red flag by fading in the second half for two straight years.

Instead, Oakland doubled down on the buy-low strategy, handing out cheap one-year show-me deals to lefty Rich Hill and righty Henderson Alvarez. Those two hurlers both have talent, but they also have massive question marks, not least of which being the fact that they combined for around 50 MLB innings in 2015. But what is more risky for a low-budget team like the A's -- relying on a cheap flyer who might not pan out, or spending big on an established player who might flame out? The former might ruin your season; the latter might hurt you for multiple seasons. Before you answer, here is a GIF of Billy Butler running in slow motion.

Returning to the scrap heap yet again can be frustrating as a fan. Right now, in January, we have to stare at a rotation full of asterisks while other fans get to rest easy with the peace of mind that their team has employed reliable arms. But the numbers will all reset to zero in April, and each pitcher's track record (good or bad) will be left behind in favor of whatever he does in 2016. Hill, Alvarez or both could be the next in a long line of bargain pitchers for Oakland.

When it comes to pitching, cost-controlled youngsters and buy-low bounce-back veterans remain the way to go. The price for starters has been skyrocketing for years now, and Mike Leake just got $80 million on the open market; that's simply not a game the A's can play, nor one they should. After all, in the Royals' recent World Series win, four of their five starts came from Edinson Volquez, Chris Young, and Yordano Ventura -- two scrap heap pickups and a 24-year-old in his second full season. The Mets team they beat featured four pre-arbitration studs in their own rotation.

In Oakland, McCarthy, Colon, and Kazmir each came here from the discount bin and left as stars, and the one time the A's did spend big on starting pitching (trade value sent for Lester and Samardzija) it backfired spectacularly -- the effects are still being felt. Whether because pitching is inherently difficult to predict, or because the A's are particularly good at identifying the next bargain, or simply because of their financial restraints, buying low on starting pitching continues to be a wise option.

And indeed, if you want the A's to return to their glory days of 2012-14, well, this is the way to do it in terms of filling out the rotation. In fact, this is exactly how they did it back then.