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The Oakland A's new identity is a lot like the last one that worked

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s fair to say that the Oakland A’s organization has appeared a bit lost for the last three years.

They made a few enormous gambles in 2014 in an attempt to extend their unexpected run of success, but their luck ran out and everything went sideways. After their heartbreaking loss in the Wild Card Game that fall, it felt like they spent the next two seasons wandering in a stunned daze, making only a half-hearted attempt toward both competing and rebuilding and therefore failing at both. It was difficult to discern their long-term goal, probably because they made it clear they didn’t think they could afford to have one beyond a couple years out.

But all that might finally be changing in 2017. As optimism grows off the field, between a leadership shakeup, a re-commitment to the city of Oakland, and what feels like legitimate progress on a new stadium, there also appears to be an actual plan brewing for the roster itself. They’re going back to their roots and growing a team from within, rather than trying to cobble together a squad of nothing but misfit toys while paying big to patch holes on the fly.

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From 2012-13, it seemed the A’s could do no wrong, other than hitting against Justin Verlander. Their star-pitcher-for-prospects trades all struck gold, their expensive international signing panned out into a bargain star, a few young arms emerged out of nowhere, and the various platoon guys and role players they collected jelled into a playoff roster.

All of this was business as usual, though. None of these cost-cutting, buy-low, youth-oriented, value-maximizing strategies were new for the A’s, but they all came together at once when we least expected it and we were treated to Moneyball 2: The Platoon Advantage. It was just the next wave of Youngsters ‘n’ Hattebergs.

But as 2014 went on, the script flipped. The young rotation was hit hard by injuries, and the lineup later followed suit. Many of the hotshot rookies from the past couple years faded back toward mediocrity. Their desperate midseason trades cost them dearly but didn’t push the needle far enough. The previous two years had felt like a fairy tale, and now the clock had struck midnight and whatever Sogardian elf magic had been fueling their success was gone.

* * *

It’s easy to point at July of 2014 as the turning point from good times to bad, and maybe it was. But teams do wild things in the pursuit of winning a title, and even if I didn’t and don’t agree with every move they made, I can still understand why they acted so aggressively. Besides, refueling via major midseason trades was straight out of the A’s normal playbook; the only difference was that these deals were particularly bold and expensive.

That month certainly changed the A’s on-field fortunes, as will happen whenever you mortgage some of the future to maximize the present, but it was not solely responsible for the dark times that followed.

Once the A’s had taken their best shot and missed in 2014, they seemingly had two choices. They could double-down one last time and restock around their remaining All-Star core, or they could cut the cord, hold their periodic firesale, and start building their next winning team. Instead, they chose a curious third option: hold the firesale, but try to keep winning now without ever rebuilding. It did not work.

For the next two years the A’s seemed to alternate between making win-now moves and forward-thinking deals. They’d trade one star for prospects and then some prospects for a new star, shed a big salary and then sign an overpriced free agent, take a flyer on an interesting breakout candidate and then block him behind a safe veteran with no upside. Granted, many of the individual moves made sense on their own and I probably liked and defended many of them, but looking back now all I see is a hodgepodge of counteracting measures with no real goal or purpose in mind.

A competing team does not trade an MVP-caliber superstar, much less three other All-Stars. A rebuilding team does not invest heavily in a one-tool DH, nor is it afraid to throw its prospects into the MLB fire and see what happens. So what were the A’s in 2015 and 2016? It was as if they couldn’t stop chasing the dragon they never caught in 2014, leading to a series of increasingly reactive moves in a harried attempt to catch just one more bolt of lightning in their bottle.

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Perhaps these last two seasons can best be summarized using the criticism most often levied at the Moneyball movie. The film focuses on the great stories behind the complementary role players, like Hatteberg, Bradford, Justice, and Rincon, but it almost completely ignores the actual core of young stars that truly drove that team — including the MVP and Cy Young winners. (It’s a common complaint for historical adaptation flicks, and although I love the film I will concede it was unnecessary to make it seem like the A’s had zero talent left after 2001.)

That’s what I feel this team tried to accomplish in these two last-place seasons. Their Moneyball teams, and the subsequent 2012-13 division winners, succeeded with the aforementioned Youngsters ‘n’ Hattebergs model, but this latest edition tried to do it entirely with Hattebergs. The lesson learned was that you also need the young core of stars to make the engine work.

Sure, we can point to all kinds of reasons why things could have worked. If only that dastardly bullpen hadn’t ruined 2015, or that fragile rotation hadn’t derailed 2016, or the best position player hadn’t gotten hurt each year, or a couple more breakout candidates hit their jackpots. But that’s the thing about building an all-Hatteberg team — you require best-case scenarios from everyone, and leave yourself no margin for error in a sport where some bumps in the road are inevitable.

As soon as the A’s held their post-2014 firesale, their primary focus should have been building that next core group. That doesn’t mean going full Astros and actively tanking, because that’s not Oakland’s style, but perhaps too much attention was paid to a present day that should have been merely a secondary concern. Figuratively speaking, the A’s tried to imitate the squad from the Moneyball movie rather than the actual group that won 103 games during the 2002 season.

* * *

Finally, in 2017, the tide seems to be changing. The A’s are shifting not only their strategy but their very identity, both on and off the field. The talking points now revolve around building from within, grooming their upper-minors prospects, and investing in long-term player development. They’ve spared no expense on the international market. They collected several Top 100 prospects in the last 12 months, and this time around they kept all of them.

They’re looking for stars in the best way a low-payroll team can: by growing ‘em themselves. Glance beyond the stopgaps in the Opening Day lineup and see what’s bubbling beneath the surface. Veterans like Plouffe, Lowrie, Alonso, Joyce, Madson, and Casilla are here today, but by the end of the season we could be looking at dynamic rookies like Chapman, Barreto, Olson, Brugman, Wahl, and Montas.

Maybe a couple of those stopgap vets will earn our hearts (and further playing time) along the way, but they now serve their proper complementary role in the larger picture rather than being shoehorned in as the featured players. The situation isn’t as good as it could be if the A’s had gotten off to a proper start after 2014 (how many more Barretos could the Donaldson trade have yielded without Lawrie in there?), but nothing can be done about that now.

None of this is to say that Oakland figures to contend this season; they’ve merely rediscovered their path after doing some aimless wandering. They took the half-fruits of their half-rebuild, harvested as much extra as they could at last summer’s deadline, and now they’ll put it all out on the table and see if they wound up with enough for their next winner. It doesn’t always pan out — after all, the 2009-11 group never quite made the jump. But at least it’s a plan, and it’s one that has worked here before. In fact, it’s the only plan that has worked here in this century.