Did the A’s delay their return to prominence by failing to go all-in on a rebuild?

To Burn it Down or Water It
by Jim Silva
    In this modern age of baseball based on cold analysis, not relationships with players or loyalty to stars or fan favorites, is it irresponsible for a team without a clear window into the playoffs NOT to tank and engage in a complete rebuild? The question is pertinent because the A’s have now missed the playoffs for three seasons in a row, their last appearance in a playoff game – a wild card game they lost. They haven’t won more than 75 games since then, finishing 5th three seasons in a row. Can teams really rebuild while remaining in contention for at least a wild card spot, in a way that makes them competitive for the long haul? Is there a clear reason why the A’s haven’t started a complete teardown and rebuild? Let’s try to answer those questions by looking at the A’s and their competition in the West.
    The A’s won the AL West in 2012 and 2013 winning 94 and 96 games respectively before sliding to 88 wins and a wild card spot in 2014. They failed to move on in each of their three playoff chances losing the ALDS 3-2 twice and the wild card game quite painfully as the Royals literally stole them blind. So at that point it seemed like the A’s were poised to either spend money on free agents to try to extend their run, or start a complete teardown and rebuild. The A’s have generally acted like a team in a small market, so it seemed to most people that this was going to be the time when they would rip off the bandaid and trade everything that wasn’t nailed down. They would begin the inevitable sell-off of their valuable players for two purposes – attempting to rebuild a depleted minor league system while ensuring that they lost as many games as possible to put themselves near the top of the draft – another way of acquiring top young talent.
    What goes into a team decision to tear it down to the studs, commit to losing 100 games a season for three to five years, and really wallowing around in the cellar? Not being a general manager or owner, you’d have to assume that context would have to come into play. If the team is in a lousy division with a bunch of teams losing more than they are winning, one would think that they might decide to try to go for it – extend the run – for a couple more seasons. Conversely, if your team is sitting in a division full of clubs loaded for bear, then losing might be happening anyway so why not embrace it and look for your next window? So what was the context for the A’s before the start of the 2015 season? The Rangers looked pretty tough. The A’s had been battling mostly good Texas clubs since 2008. Texas had an ace in Cole Hamels, a lineup with a lot of power, and a mix of veterans (Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, and Shin-Soo Choo) and interesting young players (Rougned Odor and Elvis Andrus), but as it usually goes with the Rangers, probably not enough pitching to go around. Still, it turned out they were good enough to win the West in 2015 and 2016 as they won 88 and 95 games respectively, before sliding to 78 wins last season.
    So what about the Angels? They have lots of money and a large market. Did they have enough to convince the A’s that they had no chance after the 2014 season? First of all, that 2014 team won 98 games and the AL West. The Angels, aside from resources, had the best player in baseball in 22 year old Mike Trout, the still valuable (at the time) Albert Pujols, and a supporting cast that allowed the team to finish first in runs scored – pretty daunting. In addition to their powerful offense they had two good young starting pitchers in Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker and a solid pen. The Angels would be derailed in 2015 by regression by most of their pitching staff, and decline by the veteran position players not named Mike Trout. In 2016 and 2017 it was injuries to their pitching staff and mediocrity in most of their lineup – again, not Mike Trout – that lead them to win only 80 and 81 games. So did the Angels look like world beaters? Hard to say what the A’s thought at the end of 2014, but it is clear in hindsight that the Halo’s team was flawed and beatable.
    The Mariners won 87 games in 2014 with a strong pitching staff led by King Felix, and included some potential future star power in James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. They also had an excellent, young third baseman in Kyle Seager, and a star at second base in Robinson Cano, but were otherwise limited in their ability to produce runs. They weren’t built to dominate but looked like they could have just enough offense to support a starting staff that looked to be strong heading forward. Winning just 76, 86, and 78 games the next three seasons in part due to the slow development of the young pitchers and the speedy decline of the staff anchor, Felix Hernandez, showed that the Mariners were probably not scary enough to push the A’s into a full on rebuild phase.
    Now the Astros – well, we all know they won the World Series last season, but in 2014 they were coming off a 92-loss season which was a 19 games improvement on their 2013 season. They were clearly packed with young talent such as Jose Altuve and George Springer. Two of their starting pitchers were coming off seasons with ERAs under 3.00 – Dallas Keuchel and Colin McHugh – but it was clear that the parent club still had a lot of work to do – especially with the pitching staff, before they could legitimately be considered contenders. 2015 featured the debuts of Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers and a big step forward from Dallas Keuchel, who won the Cy Young Award. Colin McHugh won 19 games and contributed 3.1 WAR. The Astros clearly had some speedy development going on and one of the best farm systems in baseball, but even though they won 86 games, they still had holes in their rotation, and many parts missing. 2016 was a step backwards for the rotation, although more new pieces of the puzzle in Alex Bregman and Yuli Guriel debuted, and their pen of the future was improved with the addition of Chris Devinski and Joe Musgrave who was projected to eventually join the rotation. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the Astros were on their way to becoming one of the best teams in the AL, and their youth led most to believe that they would be excellent for multiple years. They were definitely the organization to be feared by the A’s in the AL West and that would have likely been clear to insiders in 2014. But development of young players is tricky and the youthful Astros could have fallen off the tracks through injury, bad trades, or just plain failure of a couple of their future stars to develop like they did. The fact that the Astros had that many young players develop so quickly and spectacularly was startling. Now they look like they will be very hard to beat, but so did the Cubs after the 2016 World Series victory and now we are seeing holes in their armor even though they are still quite a good team. The Cubs are meaningful to the discussion because they followed a similar path to the Astros trading away anyone of value, losing a lot of games, and reaping the benefits of high draft picks for multiple seasons. They are a good comp for the Astros although they would likely have had no impact on the A’s decision making process since they are an NL team and the A’s would have to reach the World Series to face them in any meaningful way.
    Ok, but what about the A’s roster and minor league system at the end of the 2014 season? The A’s had finished 3rd in the league in runs scored and 2nd in the league in ERA. 24 year old Sonny Gray looked like he might be turning into an ace. The A’s small gamble on Scott Kazmir had paid off – Kazmir pitched in the All Star game and managed 32 starts, fashioning a 3.35 FIP. Jon Lester was dominant after the A’s got him from the Red Sox for Yoenis Cespedes. He made 11 starts and righted the faltering rotation, helping the A’s get to the post-season where they counted on him to anchor their rotation. He was a disappointment in the play-in game getting touched up for six earned runs in 7.33 innings, but the A’s got exactly what they traded for, fully knowing that he would be a free agent at the end of the season. The A’s actually acquired three starting pitchers around the trade deadline – they picked up Jeff Samarzdija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs for their shortstop of the future, Addison Russell, and outfield prospect Billy McKinney. Three established starting pitchers is a big addition to a team already in first place but Billy Beane watched the A’s lead dissolve as the young starters other than Gray withered. He was also seeking to shore up the rotation to win in the post-season with a one-two-three punch of Lester, Gray, and Samardzija. It wasn’t a gamble as long as the A’s made it to the post-season – it was considered by most at the time an absolute necessity for a team that had succeeded in the regular season only to crumble in the post-season. Yes, Russell was a steep price to pay for what might turn out to be half-season rentals, but flags do indeed fly forever. Samardzija pitched reasonably well but got unlucky and went 5-6 for Oakland. Hammel got shelled ending with a FIP of 5.10 after posting a FIP of 3.19 for the Cubs. It didn’t matter in the end because the A’s lost in the wild card game so they didn’t have to worry about Hammel’s rotation spot in the playoffs.
    The A’s lineup featured Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes (at least until the mid-season Cespedes trade that got Lester from the Sox), Brandon Moss who mashed and got on base, young catcher Derek Norris, rifle-armed right fielder Josh Reddick, and a crew of solid veterans who mainly got on base and hit home runs while playing solid defense. Their pen was good and the core was reasonably young, led by closer Sean Doolittle. It was all for naught as the Royals took advantage of a hand injury to Geovany Soto (the A’s only catcher who they believe could compensate for Lester’s inability to hold the Royals speedsters in check) to run wild, stealing 7 bases on their way to a 9-8 12-inning win.
    Going into 2015 off-season Oakland’s minor league system was ranked 27th by John Sickels. They had mined their thin ranks for trade fodder to make a failed run in 2014 and it showed. Jon Lester was a free agent, as was Jason Hammel. Cespedes was gone. So Billy Beane started what looked like a complete tear down; the beginning of a rebuild. He let Lester, Hammel, and Jed Lowrie go into free agency, traded Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays, for prospects and a flawed, but interesting, third baseman in Brett Lawrie. He traded Derek Norris to the Padres for Jesse Hahn, traded John Jaso in a package to get Ben Zobrist and Yuniel Escobar, traded Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox for Marcus Semien, Josh Phegley and Chris Bassit, and signed free agent Billy Butler, while making a few other moves before the 2015 season started. Since then, the A’s have turned over a good portion of the rest of their roster in an attempt to rebuild their farm system, but also to mitigate cost and remain competitive. Josh Reddick and Rich Hill were traded to the Dodgers for three young pitchers. Sonny Gray was sent to the Yankees for three youngsters, and Ben Zobrist went to the Royals for a pair of pitchers including Sean Manaea. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madsen went to the Nationals for two minor leaguers and their closer, Blake Treinen. So the A’s got a bit younger at the major league level and bolstered their minor league system which now ranks somewhere around 10th best, depending on whom you choose to believe.
    The minor league system provided the A’s with their third baseman of the future (and present) in Matt Chapman, a first baseman with tremendous power (who put up nearly 3 WAR in just over a third of a season) in Matt Olson, and promises to send along another infielder in Franklin Barreto probably this season. Trades have brought them Khris Davis and Jed Lowrie (again). Lowrie just had his best season, producing 4.0 WAR, where his previous high was 2.2, and 119 wRC+ which matches his career high. Lowrie has always had a good bat but injuries have kept him off the field. Last season, he showed up for 645 plate appearances – second highest in his career. Davis has back to back 40+ home run seasons and is clearly one of the best power hitters in all of baseball – only his bat to ball issues and defense (yeah, that’s a lot) keep him from being a star. The trade of Sonny Gray got them minor leaguers James Kaprielian, Jorge Mateo, and Dustin Fowler from the Yankees – Fowler and Mateo are close to the majors and Kaprielian is coming off TJ surgery and Fowler had a catastrophic knee injury – the A’s knew that when they traded for them – their new market inefficiency. Mateo is a year or so away. Jesus Lazardo and Sheldon Neuse also came in a trade (with the Nationals). Neuse is also a year or more away while Lazardo just experienced pro ball for the first time last season, so he is years away. Grant Holmes and Frankie Montas came to the A’s in a trade with the Dodgers along with Jharel Cotton. Cotton came up in 2016 and looked like a solid addition, but took a step back in 2017. Montas was up and down last year, still throws really hard, and still struggles to throw his fastball where he wants it. Holmes had a solid, healthy season at double-A Midland – a hitter’s paradise, so he is not far off, but likely will be a number four or five starter in the majors if he continues this trajectory.
    The point here is that the A’s have some strengths among their core of youngsters – mostly on the infield – and a ways to go with their rotation. What used to be a strength, starting pitching depth, is now a glaring weakness. They will likely start the season with Sean Manaea and Kendall Graveman as their top two rotation dudes. Both pitchers are young and talented, but neither has developed, or likely will develop, into a one or a two. A.J. Puk is their top prospect, and he pitched last season at High-A and Double-A, so he will likely not see the big league rotation this year. They have some talent, but not a group of can’t miss prospects, so can you say they are almost done with their “rebuild” and are poised to storm the West? Even though they have a lineup with a lot of power and offensive potential, they just don’t have the arms yet and don’t have their rotation of the future pushing up from the upper levels of the minors. Shrewd trades and free agent signings might fill in the holes, but when you’re trying to compete with the Astros (Verlander, Cole, Keuchel, and Lance McCullers at the top) or the Angels (Otani, Richards) you need to do more than get lucky with a couple of nifty, cheap overproducers.
In 2016, after they did a half-way attempt at a rebuild in 2015, they picked sixth and got A.J. Puk – Nick Senzel went 2nd to the Reds, just to name one guy they missed out on. Picking 6th again in 2017, the A’s chose Austin Beck – Hunter Greene went 2nd to the Reds and Mackenzie Gore went 3rd to the Padres. 6th isn’t bad, but remember that the Astros and Cubs, for that matter, tanked so hard that they chose 1st a couple of times – the Cubs took Kris Bryant 2nd in 2013 and the Astros took Carlos Correa 1st in 2012 (the Twins followed that pick with Byron Buxton). There is often a big drop off between the first pick and the 6th pick, and because the A’s hung onto some quality veterans like Josh Reddick, Sonny Gray, Stephen Vogt, and Scott Kazmir going into 2015, they couldn’t crack the top three picks but were still nowhere near good enough to make the playoffs. Because of the way MLB incentivizes tanking, the A’s, by being bad, but not the worst team, slowed the progress of their rebuild and all but ensured that they won’t make the playoffs in 2018, 2019, and 2020 without spending a lot of money to buy a rotation, or by being the recipients of a lot of luck. Should they have tanked? We will see what happens to the Oakland team in the next two years, but it looks like had they gone all in on a rebuild after they missed in 2014, they might have “earned” the picks to be ready to compete in a  serious way as soon as next season. Instead, they have a cloudy future ahead of them as they hope Billy and Forst can work some magic to turn their remaining cows into fruitful magic beans.