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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #5: The Oakland Athletics

Last season, Billy Beane, Moneyball icon and godfather of the modern GM, uncharacteristically chased a straight. He attempted to make a run at the postseason by virtue of a strategy completely contrary to that which made him famous. He traded a blue-chip prospect (Carlos Gonzalez) for one season from an impending free agent slugger (Matt Holliday). He signed a quartet of aging injury-prone veterans - Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera, Nomar Garciaparra, and Adam Kennedy. He planted his top four pitching prospects - Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Vin Mazzaro, and Gio Gonzalez - in the starting rotation, even though it meant jump-starting their progress towards arbitration. He handed outfield spots to two players with low on-base percentages - Rajai Davis and Ryan Sweeney. Basically, he was the exact opposite of what Michael Lewis advertised way back in 2003.

Except, really he wasn't. This was Moneyball at it's core. The approach was different, but the strategy's essence was the same. Beane was playing against the market. With the economy plummeting, most GMs were reluctant to be aggressive, especially with veterans, so Cabrera, Giambi, and Garciaparra were available for relatively cheap, one-year deals. There was significant statistical evidence that the "Juiced Ball Era" was over, so speed and defense were reaching a new premium. Enter Davis, Kennedy, and Sweeney.

Other teams were becoming more and more reluctant to rush big-ticket prospects to the majors, especially pitchers, because of the cost of arbitration, but that also meant they didn't always field a team of the best possible players, and left them susceptible to AA and AAA injuries. (Nothing is worse than sending a bonus baby to have Tommy John before he's ever pitched an inning for the big-league club.) In the wake of the "Joba rules," the "Liriano rules," the Zumaya project, and the arrival of Tim Lincecum, dominant from the moment he stepped on the mound right across the Bay, Beane had to be wondering if maybe a bunch of 21 and 22-year-olds could own the AL West, especially pitching in a spacious park like the Coliseum.

He decided, while his competitors (except for the Yankees), were acting cautiously, he would go for the gold. The rationale was sound. The results were abominable. Holliday had the worst start of his career. Same for Cabrera. Giambi was even worse, to the point of being released around midseason. Garciaparra, predictably, spent most of the season on the DL, as did Oakland's two best incumbent players, Eric Chavez and Justin Duchscherer. The A's scuffled to their third consecutive losing season with the second worst winning percentage of the Beane era, despite having the second highest payroll of any team he's ever fielded.

As I said, although the chips didn't fall the way he would've liked, it's hard to fault him for trying, but I think it's safe to say, he won't play his hand that way again in 2010.

Free Agents:

Bobby Crosby (30) SS/3B
Justin Duchscherer (32) RHSP
Nomar Garciaparra (36) DL
Adam Kennedy (34) 2B

Arbitration Eligible:

Santiago Casilla (30) RHRP
Jack Cust (31) OF/DH
Rajai Davis (29) CF
Joey Devine (26) RHRP
Scott Hairston (30) OF
Michael Wuertz (31) RHRP

ETA 2010?:

Chris Carter (23) 1B
Adrian Cardenas (22) 2B/SS
Tommy Everidge (27) 1B/3B
Clayton Mortensoen (25) RHSP
Eric Patterson (27) 2B/OF
Landon Powell (28) C
Brett Wallace (23) 3B

The good news is that last winter's spending spree certainly wasn't a complete waste. Beane dealt Holliday at the deadline and got back at least two quality prospects from the Cardinals, Brett Wallace and Clayton Mortenson, both of whom are likely to join the big-league club at some point next season. He sent Cabrera to the Twins for their 2nd round pick from 2008, Tyler Ladendorf, who's probably at least a couple years away from contributing.

The silver lining for the A's was that seven pitchers made nine or more starts for them in '09, none of them older than 25, and they still finished third in the league in ERA (helped a great deal by their bullpen, which finished #1). Brett Anderson made a serious case for Rookie of the Year (which was won by his teammate, closer Andrew Bailey) when he went 6-4 with a 3.48 ERA in the season's second half. Trevor Cahill threw 179 innings and finished with ten wins and a league-average ERA (4.63), despite being only 21-years-old. Gio Gonzalez struggled with control, but struck out 109 batters in 99 innings. Josh Outman, who was part of the Joe Blanton trade in '08, joined the rotation late in the year and went 4-1 with a 3.58 ERA in a dozen starts. Dallas Braden was solid (8-9, 3.89) and Vin Mazzaro showed flashes of brilliance (2.95 ERA in six June starts). It is not unreasonable to expect all of these pitchers to improve in 2010 and Beane still has Mortensen, Dana Eveland, and Edgar Gonzalez waiting for opportunities. I don't think I'm being hyperbolic when I predict that two or three years from now Anderson, Cahill, and Gio Gonzalez will have made Oakland fans forget about Hudson, Mulder, and Zito.

The real question for the Athletics is offense. Beane has had a lot of success in the past filling out his roster with useful role players. Guys who possessed one particular excellent skill set. He's still doing that. Rajai Davis is a solid center-field, leadoff type, who could easily lead the league in steals with a full season. Jack Cust is the classic low-average, high-strikeout slugger, who will belt 30 bombs and draw a ton of walks. Kurt Suzuki is a very good defensive backstop, who isn't an automatic out on offense. However, all of the really successful A's teams had at least one or two superlative hitters in the middle of the lineup, guys like Chavez, Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Jermaine Dye, and Frank Thomas. The current A's do not possess such a player, and haven't since they let Thomas walk after his last great season in 2006. Carlos Gonzalez had the tools to become such a player, but was traded to Colorado for Holliday.

Perhaps Beane is convinced that Chris Carter and Brett Wallace have that kind of high-end potential. If so, they will probably get a chance to show flickers of it this coming year. The clock is now ticking on Beane's young arms. If he wants to have a run with them like the one he put together early in this decade with the first "Big Three," he will need to bring all the pieces together in time for 2011. Even though Oakland has very little money committed going into 2010, I expect Beane will be inactive this offseason. He will give many at-bats next year to Wallace, Carter, Daric Barton, Eric Patterson, Landon Powell, and whoever else he believes could develop into an everyday player. It wouldn't surprise me if he uses valuable pieces like Cust and Mark Ellis to increase his stockpile of young talent at midseason, so that next year he will have both the money and tradable resources to acquire whatever he still needs to become a competitor for the next three or four seasons.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster (Revised 1/1):

RF Rajai Davis (R)
2B Mark Ellis (R)
3B Eric Chavez (L)
DH Jake Fox (R)
1B Daric Barton (L)
C Kurt Suzuki (R)
LF Eric Patterson (L)
CF Coco Crisp (S)
SS Cliff Pennington (S)

SP Justin Duchscherer (R)
SP Brett Anderson (L)
SP Trevor Cahill (R)
SP Dallas Braden (L)
SP Vin Mazzaro (R)

CL Andrew Bailey (R)
SU Brad Ziegler (R)
SU Michael Wuertz (R)
LOOGY Dana Eveland (L)
MR Joey Devine (R)
SWING Gio Gonzalez (L)
SWING Josh Outman (L)

C Landon Powell (S)
1B Chris Carter (R)
IF Aaron Miles (S)
OF Ryan Sweeney (L)

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