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May 27, 2014
Painting the Black
Rebuilding a Right Way
To think Billy Beane entered the 2012 season in an unenviable position. His Athletics had won 70-something games for the third time in four years, spurring the ever-active general manager to retool his roster for the umpteenth time. Beane removed the veterans; he traded Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Andrew Bailey for prospects, and wished David DeJesus and Josh Willingham all the best as they departed through free agency. Beane would later balance the subtractions by adding Coco Crisp and Bartolo Colon—moves that (seemingly) doubled as peace offerings to the union—but the net result was a payroll trimmed of about $15 million.
All the departures caused the A's to abandon their short-term aspirations in pursuit of the future. Beane, who has worked with a bottom-six payroll since 2011, was left to improve his roster using one of the game's best farm systems. Built mostly through trades—the A's have picked in the top-10 just once since selecting Barry Zito in 1999—Oakland's farm system entered that pivotal 2012 season ranked fourth in the league; however harmful those aforementioned trades were to fan morale, the returns had nourished a once-weak prospect stable. It's been said that in baseball you're either selling hope or selling wins.
In the past half-decade, money-strapped teams like the Rays and Pirates have validated the tried-and-true methods for building good teams with young talent. The process goes something like this: collect prospects by the wagon-full, develop them, keep them as long as the cost is low, and trade the aging and expensive to fill the holes in the system. This practice can be slow and painful, but it has become known as the "Right Way" to rebuild.
Given the A's aforementioned collection of prospects and their recent success—no team has won more games since the start of 2012—you would think they had authored the all-American rebuild story. But they didn't; the A's actually built a winner by ignoring that construct.
Beane has disassembled his farm over the past two years at nearly the same pace he had used to build it. Seven of the 11 top prospects ranked by Kevin Goldstein in January 2012 have been traded, including three of the top five. In fact, Goldstein's current employer, the Astros, employ as many of those 11 players on their active roster (two) as the A's do—though Jarrod Parker would give the A's the lead if he weren't disabled. Beane's aggressive prospect trading extends beyond those 11: he moved two players from the bottom nine, pushing the total to nine of the 20 players listed. The A's didn't just trade the spare parts. They traded half their farm.
In return Beane didn't net stars, as he did when he lassoed Matt Holliday in 2008. These swaps are more like when Beane sent Carlos Pena and Jeremy Bonderman packing in a three-team trade for Ted Lilly. You can reduce the A's trading spree to five prizes: Alberto Callaspo, Craig Gentry, John Jaso, Jed Lowrie, Chris Young; or, as they would be described if a lesser GM made the same trades: a bat-only "shortstop" and "catcher"; an expensive, underachieving outfielder; a utility man; and a glove-first, part-time outfielder. One can only imagine the novels Dayton Moore would have inspired had he made the same trades. Yet look at how the deals worked out for the A's:
In nearly every instance, the A's were trading prospects for a player who had no more than three years of team control remaining. Those kinds of short-sighted deals, so often maligned by the public, have worked wonderfully for Oakland. Of course it's worth noting the trades began after that crazy 2012 season, which meant Beane had sufficient reason (namely, a division title) to start spinning prospects for veterans. Perhaps that makes their willingness to splurge more analytically acceptable, but keep in mind that miracle team was fronted by unexpected performances from youngsters and vets alike. Just eight of our 42 staff members picked them to make the playoffs as either division or wild card winner. There was reason to be skeptical about the A's repeating as division contenders, let alone champs.
The timing also provides a good spot to acknowledge an obvious truth: prospects can see their stock change in a hurry. The A's had enough firsthand experience with the traded prospects by this point to determine whether they were overvalued by other teams; self-evaluation, such an underrated skill for front offices to possess, might have spurred the moves. But no one can say for sure, and there are other potential explanations: maybe Beane (correctly) foresaw the AL West being more open than anyone anticipated, or maybe this was just an extension of the A's longstanding strategy to push for the postseason.
Even when Oakland's never-say-noncompetitive ways appeared detrimental, and when pulling the plug in order to secure a few elite young talents seemed attractive, the A's continued to try and win as many games as possible. The on-the-field results weren't always there, but as David Forst explained, the effort was in good faith:
No matter how hard a front office tries for relevancy, they need luck on their side to make it happen. The A's have experienced plenty of good fortune. Josh Donaldson, considered a nondescript catching prospect in 2012, has emerged as a superstar third baseman; Brandon Moss, a minor-league-free-agent signing, has outhit and outhomered Albert Pujols over the past two-plus seasons in fewer plate appearances. Jesse Chavez and Dan Otero, thus far key contributors in the rotation and bullpen, were claimed off waivers. Sean Doolittle, the new closer, went from busted first-base prospect to strike-throwing monster in no time. And so on. It's easy to write that without those breaks the A's trades would mean little, but the inverse is also true; a motor alone doesn't make a car.
Unsurprisingly, the A's results have been spectacular and transcendent. If PECOTA is right and the A's finish with a (disappointing) 89-win season, then it'll mark the most for the club in any three-year period since Moneyball was published. There's more historical significance on the line here. The A's entered the holiday weekend ranked first in team True Average and Defensive Efficiency, which puts them in select company. The last team to lead the majors in both, the 2004 Cardinals, went to the World Series, and these A's are outperforming those Cardinals relative to the league (albeit in a smaller sample). Odds are the A's won't maintain that pace, but it'll be fun if they do.
How Beane proceeds is anyone's guess. The A's payroll and farm system are again at the bottom of the league, leaving him with precious few assets to finagle an upgrade in the rotation (or anywhere else, for that matter). Come winter, he'll probably lose Lowrie and Callaspo to free agency, with Yoenis Cespedes and Jaso not far behind. At some point in the next couple years, Beane will again have to reload. Yet even that river is murky right now because his favorite retooling maneuver—trading starters for prospects (and then, maybe, prospects for veterans)—is hamstrung by injuries (Parker, A.J. Griffin) and poor performance (Dan Straily). With the future as uncertain as ever, the 2014 A's look like Beane's best shot at a title before that inevitable step back.
No fan wants his team's good years to be limited to a three-year run—potentially without a championship to cap it; that's why sustainability has become the buzzword used to justify bad teams' seven-year rebuilds. Yet you have to appreciate what Oakland has done, even if its efforts cannot be compared directly to the current crop of cellar-dwellers—they were down for a while too, after all, even though they had a higher talent level. Regardless, Oakland should be applauded more than the typical rebuild photocopied from the "Right Way" handbook. The A's didn't sit on their hands and let the probabilities associated with prospect and draft-pick attrition determine their fate; they tried and tried again to make something happen, and at last found a combination that clicked.
You're either selling hope or selling wins. But that's a false equivalency. Wins, as the A's have shown, are worth a lot more than hope.