Let me tell you about one of my favorite players right now: Ryan Schimpf.
You might not have heard about this guy, because he's on the Padres and the Padres aren't a real MLB franchise. But he's fantastic. Schimpf had languished around the minor leagues since 2009, bouncing between AA and AAA since 2012. The Padres acquired him as a minor league free agent – the Blue Jays opted to not retain him after he had failed to hit over .200 in AAA two years in a row.
Schimpf was a 28-year-old minor leaguer who never hit in AAA and never came close to a call-up. He was probably destined to maybe a get a couple of MLB PAs as an injury replacement, bounce around a foreign league for a while before retiring and getting his real-estate license.
Until 2016. Inexplicably, Ryan Schimpf broke out. Dude hit .355/.432/.729 in AAA over 190 PAs. Because the Padres MLB roster is Yangervis Solarte, Wil Myers, and 23 Make-A-Wish children, Schimpf leveraged that into a call-up, and proceeded to hit 20 HRs in just over 300 PAs.
That's 35 HRs in 520 PAs between AAA and the MLB, for those counting at home. Dude was incredibly, inexplicably good.
Rebuilding teams need to find Ryan Schimpfs in order to compete. They need surprising overperformers. The 2012-2014 A's were built on Ryan Schimpf types.
The prime example of that was Brandon Moss, another minor league free agent who killed AAA, got a call up, and ran with it. What's forgotten is that Brandon Moss only got his call up because there was no one that could play first base on that A's team. He took Kila Ka'aihue's job, and his prime competitor for playing time was literally Daric Barton.
He also got that chance because the A's were terrible at that point in 2012 – they had been expected to be the worst team in the AL in the preseason, and when Moss was called up, they were 24-32. If the A's were .500 with expectations, the A's would have already filled first base with a veteran stopgap and Brandon Moss likely has a great career in Japan. And that would have made sense for that hypothetical contender.
The point here is that the A's are likely going to be bad in 2017. That could've changed this offseason, but it looks like the improvements this roster needed aren't coming. But being bad gives you a certain sort of freedom.
There's a gaping hole in CF on this A's team. That's not up for debate. It's not a good situation. If you look at the minor league system, it's similarly barren – there's Jaycob Brugman and nothing else. But the point shouldn't be to fill the hole. Why would you do that? There are no prospects coming, and a 2 WAR player on a one-year contract does absolutely nothing for the A's chances in the future. If the A's do pull a 2012 and miraculously become awesome, you can always get a similarly talented player via trade, like the 2012 A's did with Stephen Drew.
When I see people throw around names like Colby Rasmus or Austin Jackson or Desmond Jennings (even Jarrod Dyson, to a lesser extent), I get frustrated. Acquiring this sort of marginal, old player is actively counterproductive.
It won't help you at the trade deadline. The reason these players come cheap on one-year contracts is that no one believes in them. We know exactly what kind of trade return Austin Jackson could command after a good half-season: Jackson put up 2 WAR in a half-season with the Mariners in 2015, and was traded for a PTBNL and cash at the trade deadline.
The one-year-deal-that-you-can-trade-at-the-deadline logic isn't the same with pitchers, which is why the Rich Hill contract worked out so well. Teams are willing to believe surprising pitching performances more than surprising position player performance. Maybe that's not fair, but Rich Hill got a haul on the trade market last year and Steve Pearce did not, despite putting up similar WAR (2.5 fWAR for Hill, 1.9 fWAR for Pearce) in similarly abbreviated playing time.
There are no benefits to signing a marginal veteran to a one-year deal. It's a waste of time, money, and, most importantly, plate appearances. By signing a veteran to play centerfield, you lose the ability to react to breakouts in your minor league system. The A's would have lost Brandon Moss if they had a stopgap 1B they weren't willing to cut at a moment's notice. The Padres never would have known what they had in Ryan Schimpf if they had promised playing time to another 2B. The freedom and flexibility that comes with having an open position is extremely valuable to a rebuilding team, even if it's frustrating to watch.
What do I want the A's to do in CF, then? This isn't a blanket condemnation of acquiring a CF. I want a good CF, because good baseball is fun and bad baseball is less fun! But when they're looking through potential options, I don't want them to even bother with anyone with less than three years of team control.
That could mean a star, like Kevin Kiermaier or Billy Hamilton. That could mean a young MLB-ready piece, like Travis Jankowski. That could also mean Dalton Pompey or a AAA player we've never heard of.
That could also mean a Jaycob Brugman/Brett Eibner platoon. I know that feels like failure, but both are players who have great minor league résumés and deserve chances at the MLB level. It likely won't turn out well. But a 5% chance that either of those players turn into a long-term, impactful piece is a much better deal for the A's than the 80% chance of Desmond Jennings putting up an okay season.
I also ask that the A's remain open to alternatives, from both within and without the system. Jaff Decker absolutely seems like a Ryan Schimpf/Brandon Moss breakout waiting to happen, as a former top prospect with success in AAA. He might even be a dark horse to make the roster out of spring, since an OBP focused lefty with good defense is exactly what the organization lacks.
There will be center fielders hitting the waiver wire. There will be outfield prospects available for pitching, of which the A's have in spades. Keep searching. Keep turning over new rocks. The A's are at their best in terms of player development when they give shots to overlooked and undervalued players.
Rebuilding teams have the freedom to be creative with their roster. Don't ruin that advantage by weighing the team down with the Jed Lowries of the world. The world won't end if the A's don't acquire a famous and great CF. The world won't end if they run out Interchangeable Minor League Guy #4734 on opening day. Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, and Stephen Vogt were all once Interchangeable Minor League Guys. Austin Jackson will remain Austin Jackson.