It’s never easy seeing your favorite player get traded. And don’t get it twisted — despite his declining performance, Coco Crisp was still the favorite player of many (most?) Oakland A’s fans, myself included. That will become apparent over the next 24 hours, as the front page of Athletics Nation becomes flooded with our farewells and tributes to the talent and personality and swagger and sheer majesty of our longtime leadoff man. It’s an emotional purge that has become routine for us.
But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean the entire episode has to be sad. The fact is, this trade between the A’s and Indians is actually the perfect outcome for every party involved, and it’s hard to be upset at something so harmonious. This is a win all the way around. Let’s look at it from three different perspectives.
Entering 2016 it seemed entirely possible, if not probable, that this would be it for Coco. He’d looked more or less finished back in 2015, in his mid-30s with a lingering neck injury. He didn’t seem like a great fit for the roster this spring, with so many other options for LF, but I didn’t mind shoehorning him in if it meant getting to see a beloved favorite retire in an Oakland jersey for once. It would be our version of a franchise player farewell tour for our version of a franchise player.
But then something happened: It turned out Coco wasn’t done. Sure, it wasn’t his full former glory, and his defensive ability was almost completely gone, but he hovered around league average at the plate and retained his flair for making a big play at the right moment. And that actually posed a problem.
Settling in as a 36-year-old replacement-level player put Coco in an awkward limbo in Oakland. If he’d bounced back to being a star performer then it would have been easy to just let him play, and if he’d struggled like the previous season then benching him would have been obvious. But by being merely useful, he did enough to earn playing time that didn’t really benefit the rebuilding team’s present nor the future it was trying to develop.
And to make matters worse, there was the looming shadow of his vesting option. Playing in 130 games meant guaranteeing a pricey 2017 salary, and against all odds Coco looked on pace to reach that mark for what would have been only the third time in seven seasons with the A’s.
Quick digression: Think about that. His season-high with Oakland was 136 games (2011), and he was challenging that in the year we all thought he’d quietly fade away. For him to suddenly become that healthy, while finding a level of play that was just good enough to stay on the field without doing much to help, was a combination so unlikely that I still have trouble wrapping my head around it.
The vesting option became a sticking point, and it appeared to sour the relationship between team and player. It was fair for Coco to be offended that he might be getting benched just to avoid the payday, just as it was fair for his company to avoid unnecessarily committing themselves to overpaying an employee who offered pedestrian production. Everyone was right, which makes compromise difficult.
With that PR damage done, the A’s needed a conclusion. They could keep running him out there for another month rather than trying out younger prospects, or they could unceremoniously bench a fan favorite, but either way it was clear that this was no longer a retirement tour. Coco would keep playing baseball in 2017 and would probably do so elsewhere.
Given all that, trading him was the only thing that made sense. Too good to bench or release. Too much left to retire. But not good enough to build around, or to risk paying a big future salary. It was exactly the kind of worst-case scenario that seems to be an increasingly common result around Oakland’s neck of the sporting woods.
The A’s didn’t get much back in terms of trade return and they didn’t really dump any salary, but that doesn’t matter. The most important thing was finding Coco a new home, and as we’ll see in the next sections of this post, the timing and destination are perfect.
The story now has a happy ending, or at least as happy of one as was possible in a last-place campaign. The A’s did right by their longtime star, and they did right for themselves by clearing up a roster spot. With that done, they can move on to finding out which top prospects might be part of their next good team — like Joey Wendle, who made his MLB debut Wednesday in the roster spot cleared by Coco.
For those who seem confused by the Crisp deal, A's aren't dumping salary nor had they any hopes of a top prospect. This is good for CRISP.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) August 31, 2016
Coco was born to play in the postseason. Over the course of 162 games he can get banged up and go through some slumps, so his overall numbers don’t always jump off the page. But he can take over a game, and even in his current state he’s capable of carrying his team for a day. It might sound counter-intuitive, but he’s actually more useful to a playoff team than he is to a cellar dweller.
Coco is a leadoff homer to set the tone, or a three-hit day, or a big defensive play at the right moment, or a walk-off hit to seal a victory. Those things might brighten your Tuesday during the regular season, but they can utterly swing a postseason series. Coco isn’t a consistent force; he’s concentrated production, ready to be unleashed in short spurts. Deep playoff runs are built in short spurts, and those spurts are often keyed by role players rather than superstars.
This season Coco was only hitting .234 for the A’s, but he had four 3-hit days, and two more in which he reached base four times (via 2 hits and 2 BB). He swatted 11 homers, tied for his second-highest Oakland total. He notched a 13th-inning walk-off hit against the Rays in July. And his 28-for-65 performance (.431) with runners in scoring position, while lacking in predictive power, still symbolizes his reputation for shining in clutch moments.
The status quo for Coco would have meant spending another month playing part-time for a last-place team that he felt cheated him out of money. Instead, he returns to the team for which he made his MLB debut back in 2002, sitting in first place in his new division by several games, with sights set on October. He’s even accepted that he won’t hit his contract option with his new club.
Coco Crisp says his family excited about trade to #Indians, especially daughter Amailee, who was born in Cleveland in his early years there— John Hickey (@JHickey3) August 31, 2016
The Indians wanted an outfielder, and they got a solid veteran rental basically for free. They literally could not have waited any longer, as players added after Aug. 31 (today) are ineligible for the postseason.
Michael Brantley got MVP votes the last two years, but he’s missed most of 2016 to injuries. Tyler Naquin has put up a huge rookie season at the plate, but he’s crashed in August and his defensive metrics resemble Danny Valencia at 3B (-16 DRS!). Rajai Davis and Abraham Almonte are both starting every day right now, but both have been below-avearge hitters just like you’d expect. The rest of the time goes to Brandon Guyer and Lonnie Chisenhall, who are both fine but uninspiring.
Perhaps the addition of Coco is just more quantity rather than an increase in quality, but I can’t immediately tell you which of those in-house options I’d start over him. He gives them another option, not to mention some last-minute insurance in case any more injuries come along. How about: Coco/Guyer in LF, Rajai in CF, Lonnie/Almonte in RF? With platoon options on the corners for pinch-hitting situations?
(Update: Almonte is ineligible for 2016 postseason due to February PED suspension. At the very least, Coco serves as an October replacement for him.)
The A’s needed a happy conclusion. The Indians wanted an outfielder. Coco deserved one more chance to win in October. And A’s fans get to see some exciting prospects in September instead of watching a declining Coco while arguing with each other about the ethics of his option situation. This trade is a win for absolutely everyone.