The A’s Are Just Doing What the A’s Have to Do

It’s a stunning reversal, is what it looks like. And it is a stunning reversal, if you just think about where the A’s were in the middle of last season. It was then that they dealt Addison Russell for shorter-term help. It was then that they dealt Yoenis Cespedes for shorter-term help. It was then that the A’s were very obviously going for it, and it was going well enough for them right up until the later innings in that game against the Royals. Now the A’s are shedding, only a handful of months later, and this isn’t what we’re accustomed to. Not from your average baseball team. The A’s are deliberately taking steps backward on the win curve.

They dealt Josh Donaldson. They dealt Brandon Moss. They dealt Jeff Samardzija. Of course, they don’t have Cespedes, and Jason Hammel is gone, and Luke Gregerson is a free agent, and Jed Lowrie is a free agent, and so on and so forth. You know what the A’s look like, because they’ve been one of the most popular conversation topics over the last few weeks. People everywhere are trying to figure out what Billy Beane is doing. The funny thing about it is Billy Beane is saying exactly what he’s doing, and why. The A’s are just doing what a team like the A’s pretty much has to do, if it wants to remain in any way competitive in the long-term.

I’d like to focus less on the specific moves. Maybe you think they should’ve gotten more from the Indians for Moss. Plenty of people think they should’ve gotten more from the Blue Jays for Donaldson. I don’t want to concern myself with whether the A’s are maximizing their returns and winning their deals. The truth of it is, we don’t know. We don’t know who’s winning a trade; we don’t know if anyone is winning a trade, at the time. With the A’s, I think the plan is pretty obvious. The execution? That’s questionable. But the plan is the only one that’s sensible.

Look at the Donaldson trade. What did the A’s get in return? Most immediately, in Brett Lawrie, the A’s got a major-league player, who will cost less money although he’s under control for one fewer year. Beyond that, there’s the bigger-time upside in the distant shortstop prospect, but the A’s also got a combined 12 years of big-league control over a pair of relatively low-upside arms who are close to ready to help. Cheap, long-term assets. Guys who could be around in 2019.

In the Moss trade, the A’s didn’t get a lot in Joey Wendle. Wendle, maybe, will be a minor contributor for cheap, a year or two or three down the road. But dealing Moss makes more room for Ike Davis, who the A’s picked up for free. Davis might be a little worse than Moss, but he’s also younger, without the injury questions, and Davis will cost fewer millions of dollars while he’s around. So there, the A’s might be making a minor downgrade, but there’s also upside, for less money.

And now Samardzija. You think Samardzija, and you can’t help but think about Addison Russell. If the A’s could do it all over again now, of course they wouldn’t have made that move. But prices are higher in the middle of the year, and the A’s gave it a shot, and when you give it a shot and it doesn’t work, you don’t just automatically have to lick your wounds and accept the consequences. The A’s gave up long-term assets to get Samardzija. Now they’ve turned Samardzija back into long-term assets, albeit inferior ones. But, look. Samardzija had one year left. Marcus Semien has six years of control, and he’s got an .860 Triple-A OPS as a middle infielder. Rangel Ravelo just posted an .860 OPS in Double-A as a 22-year-old, and he also has good discipline. Chris Bassitt just debuted in the major leagues. Josh Phegley has hit in the minors even though he hasn’t hit in the majors, and he’s a catcher with an excellent arm.

One year of Samardzija, a project in Michael Ynoa, and a presumed compensation pick for Samardzija as a free agent. Oakland took that and turned it into four guys, all of whom have had success at high levels, and all of whom could be contributors in short order. Low-ceiling contributors, absolutely. Semien is the prize, and he’s maybe a league-average infielder. But there’s a lot of years here of team control, years that won’t cost very much money, and a decent or average big-league performance for not very much money is what a team like the A’s needs a lot of in order to contend on a consistent basis.

The A’s were running out of long-term pieces. Beane himself said he saw a team in decline. It’s the one downside of years of success — success makes it harder to think about the long-term. What the A’s are trying to do, and what they’re mostly pulling off, is balancing the short-term evenly against the long-term. Maybe they went too far in one direction with the first Samardzija trade. Maybe they went too far in the other direction with the Donaldson trade. But think about your impression of the current A’s, and then look at the projected WAR.

Right now, in the American League, the 2015 A’s are in the middle of the pack. They’re about on par with the Indians and Rays. They’re absolutely not a great team, but they’re absolutely not a bad team. Maybe you figure the depth charts aren’t right. Maybe you figure the projections are too high on Brett Lawrie. But the actual important point is, the A’s haven’t stripped down to nothing. There’s still a mostly competitive ballclub here. The A’s project better than the White Sox. By a decent margin, actually. What’s skewing things is the direction the teams are going in. The White Sox are prioritizing 2015 more, and the A’s are prioritizing 2015 less, and given what we understand about the win curve that seems like the wrong move for Oakland. Additional wins are more valuable, and all that. But this is the reality of a team without money.

The Rays have talked about this before, too. They’re in the same boat. When you have a normal club, or a club with a lot of money, you think short-term. You think about seizing opportunities. Look at the Mariners right now, for example. More privileged teams can look at where they are on the win curve, and then try to push higher. You can push higher on the win curve because you have resources. The A’s have fewer resources, so if they were to push higher on the win curve, they’d get depleted quick. The A’s now don’t have Addison Russell. They’d sure like to have him! The advantage of being decently rich is you can take future resources to get better now, and you’ll still survive in the future. The A’s just can’t borrow against the future much. They can’t afford to push themselves up the win curve.

The advantage of that being, there’s no such thing as certainty. The A’s just went for it, and they were eliminated by the Royals, who weren’t necessarily a better baseball team. The A’s can’t get much higher on the win curve, but they also know they don’t have to be very good to have a successful season with a deep playoff run. It’s expensive to get into the upper tier of ballclubs. Yet, you don’t need to be in the upper tier to win.

And that’s how the A’s are operating right now. And now, think about the money saved. Think even about the money saved going from Moss to Davis. Guess what?

Last year’s opening-day Oakland payroll was about $82 million. At the moment, they have a 25-man roster projected for an opening-day payroll of a little under $70 million. Beane’s already said they’re not trying to slash payroll, so maybe the A’s have eight figures to play with all of a sudden. That’s not Jon Lester money, but that’s money that could be spent for short-term boosts to fill in the little gaps. The A’s now have available money to get better, after having made moves to push more security toward the seasons still to come. Now that they’ve made the tough decisions to improve the future, the A’s can throw some money around for the present.

You don’t have to love the moves they’ve made. Billy Butler signaled that the A’s weren’t trying to tear down and rebuild. Butler only makes sense for a team trying to win in the short-term. The A’s are also trying to win in the short-term, the short-term and the long-term, and Butler’s a 28-year-old with a good track record of hitting. Take a few steps back, and you understand the A’s are doing what they have to. Individually, specifically, in the details, maybe they haven’t made the best moves possible. But this is how it goes for them. The A’s try to operate such that the window never closes, and despite all the moves they’ve made lately, the window now isn’t closed, and the future window’s opening up a little wider.

We hoped you liked reading The A’s Are Just Doing What the A’s Have to Do by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Pirates Hurdles
Guest
Pirates Hurdles

But why not just keep Moss and forget about the whole Butler nonsense? Moss is better and costs less. The defending Billy Beane thing is getting real old, real quick.

M@tt
Guest
M@tt

But, teh right-handed POWERZ!

Reading helps
Guest
Reading helps
M@tt
Guest
M@tt

An understanding of sarcasm/satire also helps.

Joe
Guest
Joe

When Billy Beane wrote Moneyball, he explained why this is the way he needs to do business do be a consistent winner. I don’t believe in Moneyball. What have the A’s ever won? They’ve never been a great team but there are no great teams any more.

Izzy
Member
Izzy

Very astute, Mr. Morgan.

MJ
Guest
MJ

First, Billy didn’t write moneyball. The book was written about him and the 2002 A’s team by Michael Lewis. Second, when you don’t have the financial resources of the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, etc. it is necessary to keep your team young and relatively cheap in order to stay relevant. Finally, you can’t build a team to win the World Series. You build a team to make the playoffs. You can’t assume your team will make the playoffs every year and make moves that will only help in the World Series. By this standard I would consider the A’s to be very successful during Beane’s tenure they just havnt gotten it done in the playoffs.

Kevin
Guest
Kevin

Yyyyyyyeah…… you missed the joke, there.

edgardiazrocks
Guest
edgardiazrocks
Yirmiyahu
Member

This has to be a joke. The “When Billy Beane wrote Moneyball” line gives it away. This is sarcasm, right?

Joe
Guest
Joe

1) Billy Beane wrote Moneyball
2) Consistent
3) What have the A’s ever won
4) There are no great teams any more

The only way to be more clear would be to embed a link in my name or mention Gary Sheffield.

Kev
Guest
Kev

My favorite chapter of Moneyball was when Beane explained how he built the computer that picks all his players.

Powder Blues
Guest
Powder Blues

Because when you trade player A for a prospect, then go sign FA player B (who is identical to player A) for only money, you are left with Player B + Prospect. It’s a win.

I’m actually surprised this strategy isn’t utilized more often during the offseason, assuming decent FA options are available.

obsessivegiantscompulsive
Guest

Well, calling them player A and B, that makes sense, but how is Donaldson identical to Butler?

Donaldson fWAR last three seasons: 15.6 fWAR
Butler fWAR last three seasons: 4.1 fWAR

Donaldson, despite not playing a full season in 2012 AVERAGED nearly 3 WAR HIGHER than Butler in that three year span.

I agree that it’s a good strategy if executed properly, but in this example, it was not, they are not identical players.

M@tt
Guest
M@tt

he was talking about Moss

Jacob Jackson
Guest

Please rec this everyone, Powder Blues explained in two sentences exactly the logic behind everything the A’s are doing.

It hurts the feelings of fans who get attached to players, but the logic of it – the math of it – is undeniable. If B is the free agent market, and the A’s have an A that is equal to B that they can actually afford to sign (Butler), they SHOULD trade A for C. Once they sign B in free agency, they are left with both B and C, instead of merely the A they had before.

More teams should be churning their rosters annually. It allows the A’s to perpetually participate in free agency, despite having a low payroll. Low-budget teams that keep their arb guys through free agency are less able to do this.

Someone mentioned the Twins above. What if they had traded Mauer for youth and depth instead of a long extension? It would’ve been wildly unpopular, and yet the Twins probably would’ve won more the past three years, too. They’d have the prospects contributing, and the $20M in Mauer money to put into free agency each year.

edgardiazrocks
Guest
edgardiazrocks

Twins avg 2014 attendance: 27,785
A’s avg 2014 attendance: 25,045

Bryz
Guest

Jesus, you don’t know when to stop.

Target Field is brand new and the high attendance has been in reference to its newness. Attendance has dropped sharply over the past 5 years. It was ~39,500 in 2010 when the stadium opened. It’s down to ~28,000 as you’ve found. Losing 11,500 per game over 5 years is pretty terrible.

edgardiazrocks
Guest
edgardiazrocks

And so they fired the GM and the manager and are trying something else.

The A’s attendance has been rising steadily the last five years, and rather than caring about that they are blowing it up instead of building some brand loyalty with players like Donaldson.

By simply saying that there’s one way to do this and, “gee aren’t the Twins stupid!” Maybe we can look at this Beane being a “high stakes gambler” thing a little more.

The A’s aren’t a small market team, yet they pretend they are and then actually sacrifice franchise financial stability for short term wins and then refuse to cash that in on either political value for a new stadium or fan loyalty and marketability by having new, unknown players every year.

Everytime they have a draw like Balfour was, the sell them/let them walk because they are at or past their “peak value”

So in the end, by this strategy the A’s are always competitive for longer, but still financially “strapped”

It’s an odd way to run a railroad is all I’m saying.

Sabean Wannabe
Guest
Sabean Wannabe

Economics dictates that the price will adjust to these tactics. If Player A and Player B have the same value and they cost he same money BUT Player A also costs me a pick/player in a trade, then the price of Player B will rise to balance this out.

Of course in baseball, not everything is free/open. A team may have to trade for a player because they are not a popular landing spot for free agents.

Jacob Jackson
Guest
Jacob Jackson

You call it an “odd way to run a railroad”…but I would call it a strategy that has helped the A’s, with a low budget, avoid ever being terrible. They’ve won at least 74 games every year for 17 straight seasons.

It would not be a smart strategy if 5-10 other teams were doing it. If that were happening, it would lessen the value of what Beane was offering via trade. But it is certainly a viable strategy, and the evidence of that is the sustained run of competitiveness the A’s have had (perpetually avoiding 90-loss seasons).

The main point of my post above is that no one who reads Fangraphs regularly should be even remotely confused about what the A’s are doing, and that Powder Blues’ post spells it out perfectly.

It’s certainly reasonable to disagree with the A’s strategy, or to not like the returns the A’s get on their trades, but the comment I keep reading that surprises me is “what are they doing?” Powder Blues summed it up in two sentences.

edgardiazrocks
Guest
edgardiazrocks

I’m not saying it’s a bad way to win baseball games, I’m saying it’s an odd way to run a business and make money and grow brand loyalty.

It seems as if pleasing the fans [customers] is WAY down on the list of concerns.

Maybe it will work maybe it wont?

People always say that winning is the most important thing for revenue generation. The A’s seem to be the opposite of that. Winning hasn’t really changed their bottom line.

Ben Lindberg and Sam Miller talked about this here.

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=25159

rustydude
Member
rustydude

I agree. These “explanations of Billy Beane” are getting extremely tiresome. After this umpteenth attempt one begins to wonder if Fangraphs isn’t on the A’s payroll. Oh wait, the A’s are cheap and can’t afford any extra payroll expense. So again, you have to wonder what’s going on around here.

Nova HK
Guest
Nova HK

Butler is cheaper than Moss in 2015.

The Billy Beane Apologists Club
Guest
The Billy Beane Apologists Club

All along, the plan was to circle the wagons around the dynamically valuable Billy Butler, and it was executed beautifully.

Forrest Gumption
Member
Forrest Gumption

Moss is older and coming off hip surgery. Butler pretty much never gets hurt. That alone replaces a risky player like Moss with a sure thing like Butler. A’s can’t afford to make mistakes like they did with Johnson and Nakajima, who they paid $16M for no reason at all.

Moss was due $7M in 2015 and probably more than that in 2016, so, say, at the minimum he additionally shaved $15M off long term payroll. Could he have thrown in money and gotten a better prospect? Sure. But this is not terrible at all.