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American League

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Reportedly traded RHP Chris Bassitt, C-R Josh Phegley, 1B-L Rangel Ravelo and INF-R Marcus Semien to the Oakland Athletics for RHP Jeff Samardzija and RHP Michael Ynoa [12/9]

Zachary Levine went over the suddenly serious Sox in the David Robertson TA, so head over there and apply many of the words about Robertson to Samardzija.

The right-hander is in his final year of arbitration, and is in line to make around $9 million, according to MLB Trade Rumors' Matt Swartz. He should return a compensation draft pick if he leaves as a free agent next winter. He's got the same FIP over the past two seasons as James Shields, more innings pitched over the past two years than Jon Lester. He's a sturdy no. 2, and the White Sox can fit him easily into a budget that is otherwise showing signs of strain after the acquisitions of LaRoche, Duke and Robertson.

Former top-50 prospect Ynoa has been around forever, which meant he was already on the A's 40-man roster despite pitching in High-A, which means that it was going to be hard for the A's to keep him around on transactional grounds alone. He finally transitioned to the bullpen last year, giving him his first legit 50ish-inning season after a bunch of years of illegit, injury-shorted 50ish-inning (or worse) seasons. The fastball is in the mid-90s, the slider has late dive, and his mechanics are stable and powerful. He should have a career.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Reportedly traded RHP Jeff Samardzija and RHP Michael Ynoa to Chicago White Sox for RHP Chris Bassitt, C-R Josh Phegley, 1B-L Rangel Ravelo and INF-R Marcus Semien. [12/9]

This game makes its teams behave in the strangest ways. So let’s take a team that won around 90 games. It’s not the richest organization, to be sure, and it won those 90ish games thanks in large part to some savvy drafting and international signings, and to a disciplined, years-long effort to go from pretty bad to very good. When the ultimate prize appeared to be within reach, it did whatever was necessary to make sure that the best star-level talent was there to push the team over the hump, even if, in retrospect, the cost was perhaps a bit more than the team could bear. In a sense, you’d say this team succeeded: It was a very good team, one of the best in the league, by some standards maybe the best in the league.

But then it decided it couldn’t afford to be that very good team forever. It assessed its situation and decided it couldn’t afford to be that very good even in the present, so it began to shed some of its most talented players. With each move, it looked even clearer that it couldn’t compete with the stronger teams in its league. So it shed more. It traded away a solid no. 2 starting pitcher, who had just one year remaining until free agency. It traded two of its best hitters, a couple of corner bats. It traded its star third baseman. It added a superstar in a trade, but just long enough to put him in the team picture; before long, that guy was gone, too. It said goodbye to perhaps its best reliever, to its ace starter, and to others still. You could question this team’s motives, but even if you restrict your assessment to those things we are semi-qualified to judge—the quality of the players out, the quality of the players in—the change was striking: The entire middle-of-the-order had been traded away, nos. 3, 4 and 5 all gone. Two of its top three starters gone. Assorted role players and relievers gone. And in all the activity, all the trades, it hadn’t even managed to add a single elite prospect.

And what made it so striking was that this wasn’t a team that seemed to need rebuilding. It had been arguably the best team in baseball the previous season. If that’s not a window, what is?

Though, at least the Marlins had something to show for the team they'd torn down.

***

Wow, Sam, you might want to see somebody about your hyperbole.

The A’s are obviously not the 1997 Marlins. The Marlins tore down entirely by trade, by choice; the A’s, realistically, were going to lose some of their key players this winter (Lowrie and Gregerson; deadline acquisitions Hammel and Lester) to free agency no matter what efforts they made. One of those middle-of-the-order bats that the A’s traded (Cespedes) was cashed out for a pennant drive, not to shed salary. The A’s have added some big-league players in this whole process, Brett Lawrie and Billy Butler and Ike Davis and Marcus Semien. The A’s won’t (probably) approach the sheer tonnage that the Marlins exported, and the A’s will probably still be a decent team next year. What they share is a rebuild that is stunning for its timing: The A's have decided to tear down the core of their team roughly 20 minutes after it seemed to be peaking.

In isolation, you could find a reason to support each move they’ve made over the past six months, from the Addison Russell trade all the way through to Marcus Semien. But it’s drawing the line from Russell to Semien—they had the one; now they have the other—that makes the cumulative effect of all these moves so stark. The A’s tilted all the way in one direction, playing not just for one year but for one second-half; then abruptly switched to the five-year outlook, and in the aggregate might have ended up worse with every move.

Go back to June. The A’s projected lineup for 2015 would have been something like: Norris, Moss, Sogard/Punto, Russell/Punto, Donaldson, Cespedes, Crisp, Reddick, Jaso. The rotation would have been a concern, just as it was concerning enough for the A’s to take some serious interventions last summer: Gray, Kazmir, Parker, Griffin, Milone/Pomeranz, something like that. They would have had Addison Russell.

Now it’s something like Norris, Davis, Sogard/Wendle, Semien, Lawrie, Vogt, Crisp, Reddick, Butler. According to our very preliminary, not-ready-for-full-publication PECOTA run, that’s about five wins worse in the lineup. The rotation is unchanged, except Milone/Pomeranz is probably Graveman/Pomeranz.

And the farm system? The prospect haul comprises a hit-tool second baseman; a late-round starting pitcher who, through age 25, has made 19 starts above High-A; a Double-A first baseman with fringe power; a 26-year-old Triple-A catcher; a couple high-floor back-of-the-rotation pitching prospects; and, if we lump Semien in with the prospects, a second-division infielder who we might think of as Jed Lowrie but with club control. And Franklin Barreto, the 18-year-old upside. That’s a 16th rounder, an eighth, four sixths, Josh Phegley, and Barreto. Not sure I’d take the entire group over Russell.

Each move made the A’s better in the short term but worse in the long term; or better in the long term but worse in the short term; but, cumulatively, worse in the long term and worse in our immediate short term. This game makes its teams behave in the strangest ways.

Of course, that ignores the one thing they did get: Two months of Jon Lester, three of Samardzija and Hammel, and a pennant push that ultimately led to nothing. Which puts the whole thing in perspective: The A’s had a team with playoff aspirations sufficient to justify trading Russell; and, three months later, they had a team so overwhelmed by its division rivals that it’s hard to tell if they’re even trying this year.

***

“In isolation, you could find a reason to support each move they’ve made over the past six months.”

The case for this move, specifically: Marcus Semien’s not a bad ballplayer. Over the past two seasons, he walked more than he struck out in the minors (though both skills disappeared in a half-season in the majors), he’s got good power for a middle infielder, he brings positional flexibility, and by PECOTA’s estimation he projects to nearly average this year. He’s three years from costing anything, and six from free agency. The A’s didn’t have an internal solution at shortstop, and there weren’t many external solutions that they wouldn’t have to overpay for. He’s semi-established as a major-leaguer, and, as R.J. Anderson wrote in the Josh Donaldson TA, that seems to be the pre-requisite for trade discussions these days: “Players who are either in the majors or near it, and who lack stud ceilings but have big-league floors.” That’s pretty much Semien, a player who should already be close to average but without the tools to go much higher. “Jed Lowrie but with club control” can be a knock or a compliment, depending on which paragraph it’s in. In this one it’s a compliment.

Phegley’s a former first rounder who has J.P. Arencibia’s approach and power, but a little bit better glove. Bassitt has a good sinker and a nice curve, and should find a home in a big-league bullpen for a few years. They’re two spots at the very bottom of a 25-man roster that the A’s can say are taken care of. (Rangel Ravelo, the fourth name in the deal, is the aforementioned "first baseman with fringe power.")

The A’s won’t get a draft pick when Samardzija hits free agency next winter, but otherwise it’s an easy enough case to make that Semien (and, to a lesser degree, the others) will do more for the A’s in 2016 and beyond than Samardzija would have. And Jeff Samardzija costs money.

***

In a Tim Keown feature in ESPN the Magazine this September, Billy Beane said this:

Here's the way it works: Just assume that every move we make in the front office means we're all-in. We can't afford a five-year plan, so every move means we're trying to win every game we possibly can. All-in — I never liked that term. For one thing, I don't have that many chips to throw into the middle of the table.

Honestly, I don’t know how to parse that quote.

1. “Every move means we’re all-in.” What’s that mean? That the A’s are only concerned about the next week’s games? That every move is designed to win the very next World Series, at the expense of any long-term plan? That’s what all-in means. That’s sort of what the Russell move looks like.

2. “We can’t afford a five-year plan.” What’s that mean? Five-year plans are the inexpensive ones, the ones for teams that can’t afford one-year plans. The Samardjiza deal has nothing to do with 2019? The Gio Gonzalez deal had nothing to do with 2014?

3. “Every move means we’re trying to win every game we possibly can.” Yes, of course, the definition of competition. But we’re talking about balancing a win today vs. a win (or maybe two wins) tomorrow.

4. “All-in—I never liked that term.” Me neither. You just used it! You’re the one who said it!

5. “For one thing, I don’t have that many chips to throw into the middle of the table.” This is a non sequitur.

I think what it’s supposed to mean is that the A’s approach roster-building more fluidly than other teams. They almost never give up entirely on a season, unlike some other small-market or sub-.500 teams, because after all these years they know they can’t afford to waste even a longshot chance at the postseason. They also almost never get too committed to a single season, because they know they don’t have the margins to dig themselves out of a deep hole, Red Sox style. So the A’s can make two moves, within months of each other, that don’t appear on first glance to be part of the same plan.

Or it might just mean the A's ownership is nuts.

That’s normally how teams end up sitting on 80 wins for a decade, but the A’s have been far more successful. Their fluidity has served them well. But there’s a cost to any strategy, especially a strategy borne out of—as Beane's "don't have that many chips" line implies-—weakness and underdoggery. In this case the moves have weakened the A’s in every direction. It’s not up to us to impeach a team’s process, but the A's are worse off than they were a year ago.

Thank you for reading

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Muboshgu
12/09
Oakland went all in for 2014, and now their blueprint says they have to blow it up to retool. I'm curious to see what else they have in store, but they should still be competitive in 2015.
ColKiner
12/09
Sign a double-play prone DH only batter on the downside of his career for 3yrs and 30 million and then start the rebuild....are we sure that Royals management didn't migrate west over the winter?
ravenight
12/09
Seems like Beane et al think the undervalued commodity is guys somewhere between replacement and average with lots of club control. Though I guess there could also be some (perceived) undervalued talent in the minor league haul (either individually or in aggregate). I'm curious what their aggregate payroll looks like over the next 2-3 years compared to how it looked before the Russell trade. If they are 5-ish WARP worse next year, how bad is it in 2016, and how much did they gain in 2014? How much money did they save per win they dropped?
eliyahu
12/09
I suspect that the Butler signing thinking is something along the lines of them expecting Butler to rapidly outhit his contract, and then trade him mid-season for valuable pieces.
apilgrim
12/09
So the A's send out approximately $21 million in payroll, and then add $3.8 (Davis) and $10 (Butler). A total of $7 million saved does not seem like enough to make a big move.
hotstatrat
12/09
Can we discuss Drew Pomeranz here? Is he not still realistically considered a potential future star and a no-brainer for the 5th spot? My guess about his demotion in the latter part of the season was to not wear him out. Enlighten me, please.
ErikFanClubPres
12/11
He broke his hand
Robotey
12/10
The only thing I can compare the Butler move to is when a dude at your auction draft jumps to $20 on a player when the bidding was at $4 and everyone looks up and thinks the same thing: whoa, I had this guy at $9, $10 tops. This idiot just bid against himself. Just who was going anywhere near that money for Butler?
kalimantan
12/10
Billy Beane is great for baseball. You've just written four separate TA's for this move on the one page, because who can really figure out what he's doing? and isn't it great!
jjpzebra
12/10
He may be great for fantasy baseball, not necessarily real baseball. Here in the Bay Area, it's the Giants first for a reason - - not that they are far more successful by any measure, but because they are a team that has an identity beyond it's general manager. It's tiring to say the least to cheer for a team of transients. Fantasy baseball doesn't make money for the A's. John
oldbopper
12/11
Brett Lawrie, Billy Butler and Ike Davis were called major league baseball players in this article. I have nothing but the highest regard for the staff at Baseball Prospectus but this is looking like nothing but a 60 win season, or less, if these guys are in the starting lineup on Opening Day. These team has been destroyed since last July and each move seems stranger than the one that preceded it. Cespedes for Lester didn't work out but was not insane. They got nothing from Hammel and no much of a return for Samardzija. Moss for some questionable prospect makes no sense and Butler and Davis do not provide any comfort for A's fans. It seems like Billy Beane is trying to show everybody that he is smarter than everyone else but I agree with the comment that A's ownership has gone bananas.
Johnston
12/11
Yes, they have definitely gone bananas.
diryn1
12/11
Butler's 10 million is offset by Jim Johnson and his 10 million being gone so there is more salary flexibility there than stated above. Many of these moves are forced by the restrictions on payroll that Beane has. Keane said a few years ago when the Fremont stadium looked like it would happen that the fans wouldn't have to "cheer for laundry any more" - that the names on the uniforms wouldn't continually be changing.
diryn1
12/11
Beane not Keane