One of the perks of being a last-place sports team is that you get to pick high in the draft the next year. The Oakland A’s benefited from this consolation prize the last couple summers, getting the No. 6 overall pick both times and using them on dominant lefty pitcher A.J. Puk and high-ceiling teenage outfielder Austin Beck. Now they have one of the best farm systems in the sport, thanks in part to all the losing that brought them those top guys.
When the season is hopeless and there’s nothing to play for, wishing for the best possible draft selection is one of the shiniest silver linings to be found. Whether you want to call it outright tanking, or simply shifting priority from present to future, it’s natural to wonder whether it’s better to win pointlessly today or improve your odds for tomorrow. But it’s important not to get so focused on that goal that you lose sight of other superior opportunities, especially in baseball where draft position is relatively unimportant.
The A’s are in one of those moments now, one that’s bigger than ticky-tack considerations like draft slot. After spending the season as a doormat, they’re on a September run that has seen them win seven straight and 14-of-17. It’s the hottest they’ve been all year, by far.
As a consequence, they’ve risen in the league standings. If the season ended today they’d only be in line for the 10th pick in the draft, with three more teams behind them within one in the loss column (Tor, Mia, Bal). A sweep of the Mariners over the next few days could have Oakland looking as low as the 14th or 15th pick. That’s not the end of the world — Matt Chapman was selected 25th overall, and Matt Olson was 47th — but it does lower the odds of grabbing a premium prospect.
Ah, but there’s a reward for all that winning, even beyond being happy for the rest of that day. The lineup and rotation are filled with rookies and prospects, even more than the last two Septembers, and every time they play well it’s one more data point suggesting they can be a part of the next contending team. Furthermore, starting their careers off on the right foot has to be better on an intangible level than learning the ropes in a losing clubhouse.
It’s nice to see the veterans play well too. Khris Davis has joined Oakland’s dinger history books, while Jed Lowrie has enjoyed a second peak that will either boost his trade value or make him a strong presence in next season’s infield. Ditto Matt Joyce in the outfield, after his career year. Blake Treinen looks like a keeper in the bullpen. These types of players can serve as a sturdy backbone for a young, developing 2018 roster, so their success shouldn’t be ignored.
This isn’t a team of Plouffian stopgaps and scrubs anymore. The horde of rookies is ready to get their feet wet and the remaining vets are worthwhile. For this group, even with no chance of the playoffs, late-season success isn’t an inconvenient mirage but rather constructive progress. The oasis in the distance might actually be real this time.
But how might one measure a good amount of present-day winning, contrasted against the practicality of looking toward the future for just a few days longer? Here’s something to aim for: It’s still mathematically possible for the A’s to finish in second place in the AL West, with just a week to go in the season. That’s got more to do with the division being garbage than anything else, but never mind that. Here’s what would need to happen:
- A’s win final 7 games, finish with 83 losses
- Rangers lose 4 against A’s, at least 1 against Astros, finish with 84+ losses
- Mariners lose 3 against A’s, finish with 84+ losses
- Angels lose 6-of-7 against White Sox and Mariners, finish with 84+ losses
Granted, that’s an unlikely scenario with a lot of stars that need to align perfectly. The first part is the most important, with the A’s sweeping through the rest of their schedule. Losing even one game to either the Rangers or Mariners means Oakland can’t finish better than third, so there’s no margin for error in this best-case possibility. They’ll also need some help from the White Sox, which doesn’t seem like a great gamble.
But they don’t need to pass everyone. If they get out of the cellar and finish ahead of even one supposedly contending division foe, they will have accomplished something as a young, core unit. Perhaps the most poetic option would be to overcome the Mariners, who futilely acquired a pair of win-now rentals from the A’s themselves (Alonso, Valencia) at the cost of two now-breakout youngsters who have become part of Oakland’s 2018 plan (Boog, Blackburn).
And it’s not just the current MLB team. As you may have heard, the next wave of prospects recently got done winning another championship in the Double-A Texas League. The majority of the youth movement from Double-A up through Oakland has been part of at least one title squad in Midland, as the RockHounds have now earned rings four straight years.
The A’s finally committed to a full rebuild this season, and now their young lineup is already thriving and their farm system is stacked. They’ve already got all the pieces they need to make their next good team, and those pieces are reeling off victories in both the minors and majors. On top of the renewed allegiance to the Town, and the desire to change their narrative of constant player turnover, Oakland is doing a phenomenal job of creating a winning culture in an organization that had briefly lost its way.
That’s a far better end to 2017 than limping toward another top draft pick.