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?
Hear #Athletics are not in mode of trading Kazmir. In fact are now looking to make couple of adds
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) December 9, 2014
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.
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.