A Surprising Winner This Off-Season: The Oakland A’s

As the Hot Stove League season winds down and gives way to the annual rebirth that is spring training, writers start to assess who the winners and losers were in the off-season. I’m not going to do that, but if I were to, I think I’d be putting a team in the winner’s column with a bullet that most others would rank as losers. That team is the Oakland Athletics.

But wait, you say, the A’s traded their best pitcher and their best position player for a bunch of guys we’ve never heard of. How can that be a win for the A’s? It can be and it was, but to understand it, you have to step back and do a sober analysis of A's GM Billy Beanewhere the A’s were at the end of 2007.

Coming off their first ever playoff victory in 2006, the ’07 A’s rolled the dice with a lot of iffy and unhealthy players and it came up snake eyes, a 76-86 record, a third place finish and the first losing season for the franchise since 1998. In and of itself, that’s no reason to panic. Teams have down years where the injury bug and a few problems dog them down.

But this team had no future. Several players who were supposed to form the core of the A’s franchise for years had faltered. Eric Chavez’s back problems have led to spiraling production three years in a row and it doesn’t look like he is physically capable of being the player he once promised to be, or even once was. Rich Harden had the best stuff of any pitcher the A’s have developed in recent years, but after three years of constant injury, it is clear he cannot be relied on. Bobby Crosby has proven not only to be unhealthy, but also not to be anywhere near the player, offensively or defensively, that the A”s thought he would be when they let Miguel Tejada walk.

Couple those things with several poor drafts which left the A’s once-envied minor league system with only a few prospects who had any sort of major-league future, and you start to see what Billy Beane saw. Sure, with guys like Nick Swisher, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, Huston Street, Travis Buck and Daric Barton they had the core of a decent team, and a few shrewd moves and lucky breaks could put them on the outside track for wild card contention for a few years.

But the simple fact was they had no chance to put together a team that was a legitimate contender within the next few years. Most GMs would flail about, finding a few players to plug in who could help boost the team above .500. And, if the A’s played in the National League, where the best teams are not nearly as good as the best of the AL, Beane might have done that. But if he had, that would have been because he would have had sufficient resources to field a team that could have challenged the best in the league.

The resources to do that in the AL, where you not only have the huge financial powerhouses in the Bronx and Boston, but also have teams in Los Angeles, Cleveland and Detroit that are loaded for bear for the next few years, the best Beane could have done was make Oakland a decent, scrappy team that might, might sneak into the playoffs once or twice if the big boys faltered. That’s not what Beane tries to do. Despite the fiscal limitations under which he works, Beane’s goal is to build a legitimate contender, one that, like the teams from 2001-3 and 2006, stacked up well against the bullies from the East.

The trades of Haren, Swisher and Mark Kotsay had nothing to do with the A’s being a low-budget team, as some think. Haren will make $4 million 2008 and $5.5 million in 2009, and has a club option for $6.75 million in 2010. Those are bargain-basement prices for a pitcher of Haren’s caliber. Swisher will make $3.5 million in ’08, $5.3 million in ’09, $6.75 million in ’10 and $9 million in ’11. Again, that is an eminently affordable contract, even for the A’s (who, incidentally, are now in baseball’s lower-middle-class in any case).

What Beane recognized was that he had a choice—be a decent team for the next few years and probably miss the playoffs in all or most of them or try to rebuild his system and work on building a legitimate contender for the 20-teens decade. Most GMs would choose the former, but then most GMs have neither the vision nor the job security that Beane has.

I admit I wasn’t wild about the package the A’s got for Swisher. The potential gem in the deal is Fautino De Los Santos, a 22-year old right-hander from the Dominican Republic who just completed his first year of professional ball in the US. The kid has absolutely filthy stuff, as evidenced by his 153 strikeouts in only 122 innings last year. But his control needs work, and while he was unhittable in low-A last year (he surrendered almost exactly 0.5 hits per inning), he was also pretty old for that level. He Nick Swisherlooked more human, though he was still quite good, at high-A, and has a good deal of work to do before he can compete in the bigs. Still, he’s on a fast track and if his development continues at this pace, he could well make this deal worthwhile all by himself. But young pitching is always a gamble.

Ryan Sweeney is a 23-year old outfielder who was once considered a pretty good prospect, but whose bat just hasn’t developed. He can play all three outfield positions, but that’s his best selling point unless his hitting takes a big step forward. He has demonstrated decent patience and makes consistent contact, but he is neither a .300-type hitter nor has he shown significant power. He doesn’t have much speed either, and his track record screams Triple-A lifer. We’ll see if the A’s can coax more than that out of him, but it’s not promising.

Gio Gonzalez has now been traded three times and is only 22. He’s a power lefty with control issues. He did a good deal better in his second year at AA in ’07 than he did in his first. His upside is a solid #3 starter in the majors. He’ll certainly get his fair shot, as hard-throwing lefties are a valued commodity and, if it all works out, he could be a solid starter for years for the A’s, but he has little star potential.

It seems like the A’s could have gotten more for Swisher, a young outfielder who, while not a great glove man anywhere in the outfield, can still handle all three outfield slots acceptably (he’s not really an everyday centerfielder, but he can certainly play there in a pinch without embarrassing himself). But the test of such trades, ultimately, comes a few years down the road, and there’s every possibility that this will look like a pretty good one for the A’s at that point.

The Haren deal, on the other hand, was a coup. Chris Carter, 21, is a hulking slugger who can’t field very well, but whose bat could well carry him to significant major league career. Aaron Cunningham, 22, can play all three outfield positions fairly well, doesn’t have much power, but is a good contact hitter and projects as a solid fourth outfielder. Dana Eveland, 24, and Greg Smith, 24, are both major-league-ready lefties who project as back of the rotation starters. But the two prizes in the deal were Brett Anderson and Carlos Gonzalez.

Anderson, only 20, is yet another left-hander (which itself really adds some spice to this trade for Oakland) but he projects more as a #2 starter. He doesn’t have a great fastball, but his curve is said to be devastating. Scouts say he has great command a great feel for pitching. Sounds a lot like a lefty A’s fans knew well before he crossed the Bay.

Gonzalez, 22, still has some refinement work to do, but has a very high ceiling to his potential. He plays centerfield right now, but it’s not clear he can play there in the majors. He’s shown very good power, but he is not a disciplined hitter and is easily fooled with breaking balls. He creams fastballs, though, and could be a decent hitter for average, but he needs to walk more and learn to lay off the breaking stuff. If he does, he’s an all-star.

That’s a heckuva swag, a good measure more than the Twins got for Johan Santana, more than the marlins got for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis (at least when you take into account that the Fish had to trade two marketable commodities for their package) and arguably a bit more even than the Orioles got for Erik Bedard.

And they got that for Haren, a pitcher who is not of the same caliber as Bedard, much less Santana. Haren may be one of the most overrated players in the game today. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a fine pitcher, a solid #2 starter, but he’s not a #1 and his 2007 season, which got everyone all agog, was not quite as good as it appeared.

Haren is a very durable innings-muncher. Last year, his strikeouts were up only very slightly, his walks down very slightly. His homeruns allowed were down more significantly, but, at 24 given up, nothing superstarish. I believe that 2007 was as good as Haren will get, and, when that was combined with a very good defense behind him and a very forgiving ballpark both at home and in two of the three other parks in his division, he became a Cy Young candidate.

Still, even at that, he was the 6th best pitcher in the AL, behind CC Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, Josh Beckett, Santana and Bedard. The 15 unearned runs he surrendered (a very high number) mostly happened early and helped him to the ERA lead in the first half. His “fade” in the second half was as much the result of more of the runs he gave up being earned as anything else.

Beane sold high on both of these players, correctly seeing that the market was placing a premium value on young players signed through their arbitration years to affordable contracts. And in so doing, he rebuilt a largely barren minor league system.

Beane would not settle for putting together a decent but unspectacular team. He is interested in building a winner. He looked at what he had and made the right call. Of course, it may not work out; at the time, signing Eric Chavez long term and letting Miguel Tejada walk away was the right move. Baseball is harsh—making the right move doesn’t always work.

But Beane did what he had to do, what few other GMs would have the nerve to do. And, once again, he leveraged the market as best he could to maximize the return for his team. What more a GM can do, I can’t imagine, and that’s why the A’s are winners this winter. They actually have enough still with the club to top .500, though I strongly suspect that Joe Blanton and Huston Street will be elsewhere by August, meaning the A’s will probably fall short of the standard of mediocrity. But they weren’t going to have much of a present anyway, and now they have a much brighter future. That sounds like a good winter to me.

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