By Jason Wojciechowski on January 10, 2015 at 3:37 PM
I'm back. The book has been sent to the printer, so preorder it if you want to read the best baseball annual in the business, 20 years running. Don't preorder it if you don't want to do that. But that's where I've been the last few months.
Today, while I sat at the library waiting for my wife's car to get out of the shop, Billy Beane made another trade, sending John Jaso, Daniel Robertson and minor league outfielder Boog Powell to the Rays for Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist. "What the hell is Billy Beane even up to!?" went the cries of the Internet, echoing the cries accompanying
nearly every move he's made this offseason. I don't know the answer any better than you do, but I have long since learned with Beane that he doesn't believe in the simple categories of "rebuilding" and "not rebuilding." Whether it's because of ownership, because he doesn't like losing, because he doesn't feel his entire organization needs to be redone, or otherwise, Beane doesn't engage in the sort of tear it downnnnnn stuff that's been going on in Houston, that happens every once in a while in Miami, that is disgusting the entire NBA world in Philadelphia. Beane traded Josh Donaldson for prospects at the outset of the offseason, sure, and he's sent away a variety of win-now players (Derek Norris, Jeff Samardzija, Brandon Moss), but when you notice that he's also signed Billy Butler, made this Escobar/Zobrist deal and acquired Marcus Semien, Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin in his trades rather than riskier players with more upside, you can do one of two things: declare that Beane is out of his mind or reconcile yourself to the fact that Beane doesn't want to win 65 games and draft third overall.
The hypothesis I'm going to start with before I take my first crack at unraveling just what the hell this roster represents is that Beane looked at his 2015 team as of, say, November 1, 2014, figured he could not win 95 games on the budget he had, and set out to put himself in a better position for 2016 through 2020 while also trying to put an 85-win 2015 team on the field.
2015's roster as of November 1, 2014
Before Beane embarked on his latest Wild Ride, his core 25-man 2015 roster looked something like:
That's a total of $82,330,000 in salary on the 25-man roster. Depth players, especially including pitchers who would be needed while Parker and Griffin completed their rehabilitation, include, perhaps, Arnold Leon, Fernando Rodriguez, Michael Ynoa and Josh Lindblom. Tyler Ladendorf and Andy Parrino are the most obvious backups in the infield, Bryan Anderson should hang around Triple-A waiting for a catcher injury (assuming Jaso can't catch) and Billy Burns would probably get the first call in the outfield.
This prospective team can hit a little, play good outfield defense and field an MVP candidate at third base; the top end of the rotation is nice, but the outfield depth is terrifying (having to play Gentry against righties when Crisp is hurt isn't great; having to call up Burns if two players get hurt is even worse) and the Opening Day salary total is a near-lock for the $82,445,900 that Baseball Prospectus says the A's paid for payroll in 2014 (counting far beyond the 25-man roster, so this isn't an apples-apples comparison).
If the A's wanted to chase a second base upgrade, say Asdrubal Cabrera, then add another $8 million or so to the bottom line. Someone better than Drew Pomeranz for the back end of the rotation? Good luck with that: Perfectly solid (but hardly star) pitchers like Brandon McCarthy are out there getting four-year deals for $48 million dollars. Brett Anderson is getting $10 million to throw his usual 40 innings. Justin Masterson had an ERA near six last year and he got $9.5 million.
The top talent on the farm was Daniel Robertson, a legitimately good player who may or may not have remained at shortstop. Behind him were corner sluggers (Matt Olson, Renato Nunez), Tommy John victims (Raul Alcantara, Dillon Overton) and last year's first-round pick (Matt Chapman). None of these players, Robertson included, have more than the slimmest chance of reaching an All-Star upside.
2015's roster as of right now
This new team costs $74,780,000, about $7,500,000 in savings, though that doesn't include Gentry or Freiman's salaries, since I've got them being optioned out. (But, again, the prior list didn't include whoever might have hung around Triple-A either.) Keeping Fuld on the roster while having Gentry in the minors helps the outfield depth, but catching (Anderson) depth remains poor. The infield is just a massive pile of movable parts, and includes Joe Wendle probably starting the year in Triple-A until the A's need him. (He's not on the 40-man.) Plus there's a stash of decent young options waiting for relief / back-end rotation jobs: Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Chris Bassitt don't have obvious spots on day one, but could force their way up, cover for Griffin/Parker not making it back, pitch in case of other injury and so forth. There's also R.J. Alvarez as a bullpen pitcher; I'd guess he'll break camp with the team but lose his spot to Chavez when the first Tommy John guy comes back.
The farm system lost its best player (and Michael Ynoa) but gained a further-away one who might have higher upside in Franklin Barreto, added the aforementioned pitchers, tossed in one more interesting corner bat in Rangel Ravelo and one halfway decent second baseman in Wendle, and left everyone else, flawed though they are, in place.
Direct comparison of the lineups
|v. LHP||v. RHP|
|Pos||Old 2015||New 2015||Verdict||Old 2015||New 2015||Verdict|
|C||Norris||Phegley||Offense down; defense ???||Vogt||Vogt||---|
|1B||Freiman||Canha||They're the same guy||Moss||Davis||Offense down big|
|2B||Punto||Semien||Offense up (big?)||Sogard||Zobrist||Offense up big|
|SS||Lowrie||Escobar||Defense up big||Lowrie||Escobar||Offense down (big?), defense up big|
|3B||Donaldson||Lawrie||Offense down big||Donaldson||Lawrie||Not much difference maybe?|
|LF||Gentry||Zobrist||Offense up, defense down||Fuld||Fuld||---|
|DH||Jaso||Butler||Offense up big||Jaso||Butler||Offense down (big?)|
[EDIT: Ken Arneson pointed out that the Donaldson-Lawrie situation against righties isn't actually that bad. And on their career splits, he's right. I've edited the above to reflect that; it earlier read "offense down big." I wouldn't expect Lawrie to continue to have a reverse split, because those are rare, so betting on any individual guy isn't where you put your smart money without more information, but the fact remains that Donaldson did incredible amounts of his damage in the power department by mashing lefties.]
Assuming the A's want to get Semien into the lineup, it would be against lefties, which pushes Zobrist into the outfield, which pushes Gentry out of the picture (because the A's haven't really given much indication that they want to platoon Reddick in the past): If Gentry isn't starting against lefties, then when is he playing?
An alternative possibility is that they do platoon Reddick (with Gentry) and then suffer Gentry's offense against righties by starting him in left field. But if you're making me choose between Reddick against lefties 20 percent of the time and Gentry against righties 80 percent of the time, and the defense between Fuld, Reddick and Gentry is basically the same, and plus you can keep Gentry in Nashville, then I think the way I've built it makes the most sense, even if Fuld is completely useless at the plate. As long as Bob Melvin keeps him out of the upper parts of the lineup, you can hold your nose and live with it.
So! Where does that leave us? With a bit worse offense against lefties but a better defense due to the Lowrie-Escobar swap, and a worse, probably much worse, offense against righties, though a better defense for the same reason. Righties being 80 percent of the battle shows where this team is lacking compared to the one Beane could have put on the field for about $7 million more.
Depth-wise, though, the situation looks better. As mentioned, catcher is rough. But at first base, grabbing Canha (which, granted, Beane could have done even in a world where the rest of the roster remained the same) makes Freiman depth, and also adds flexibility to the major league roster because Canha can do more defensively than Freiman. At second, the A's go from the Sogard-Punto pair to Semien-Zobrist-Sogard, with Wendle waiting. Shortstop and third base used to be backed up by Sogard and/or Andy Parrino and/or Punto. Now it's Zobrist and/or Semien, with Sogard still available but pushed down the depth chart to a more appropriate place.
The outfield depth situation is essentially unchanged beyond the addition of multiple players (Zobrist, Canha (and Semien?)) who can play the corners on top of the usual pile of batless flycatchers (Fuld, Gentry, Burns) backing up Crisp's neck.
Butler, meanwhile, has never gone on the disabled list, though to be fair, Jaso wouldn't have been concussed the last two years had he not been catching; nobody's ever asked Butler to strap on the mask.
The pitching boils down to a swap of Samardzija for 17 no. 4 starters, all of whom are young enough to bear our dreams for more. To the extent the Sharkster is an ace, there isn't one now and that's sad, but to the extent the Sharkster isn't an ace, there never was one in the first place, so what are we really sad about? I'm relatively firmly in the "he wasn't an ace" camp; however hard he threw, however physical his approach, however nasty his demeanor, he worked out a lot closer, when you got down to the brass tacks of run prevention, to "really quite good" than "one of the ten or so best in the game." I'm slighting Gray right along with Samardzija in all this, but that's intentional. "Ace" is a big word packed into three letters.
I didn't not pay attention to the team while all this movement was going on, but, with the aforementioned book taking up the vast majority of my spare time, thinking deeply about the A's was backgrounded. This had the downside of you not getting to wonder at the joy of my thoughts; it has the upside of those thoughts not truly forming until the team appears to be basically complete. (A trade of Scott Kazmir for who knows what remains possible, of course, and you can't count out Beane pulling any old dang thing out of his hat on top of the obvious things, so while "done" is a fluid notion for the A's, the current roster is a lot closer to Opening Day–ready than any of the interim rosters over the last two months have been; which, duh, I guess, that being the nature of the offseason and player movement, but recall that the whole point of this post is that the roster as of November 1st could have been considered more or less done had Beane (and the owners) so wished.)
That doesn't mean I'm right and anybody who's been thinking and writing all along (like my friends at Athletics Nation and elsewhere on the blogosphere) is wrong; it just gives me a different perspective, a different headspace in which to operate, and from that perspective, this team, full of unfamiliar names, hopes and dreams of upside, etc. etc., doesn't really look half bad. It's still missing the best player the A's have had in a decade, the player who put up a two-year bWAR the heights of which haven't been seen in Oakland since Jason Giambi's 2001-02, and the team will be worse, substantially worse, because of that, not least because putting Lawrie, whatever his upside, in Donaldson's place is only half the battle; they'll have to cover the 80 games Lawrie misses on the disabled list as well.
But the ultimate question, the fair question, isn't whether the team is as good as it could have been in 2015; the question is whether the team is reasonably good, competitive under the restrictions given to the baseball operations staff by ownership, and not a pit of despair. I think it is; the first thing, I mean, not the pit of despair. I don't know that the whole kaboodle is going to come out to a playoff spot, what with Mike Trout/Albert Pujols and Felix Hernandez/Robinson Cano and Yu Darvish/Adrian Beltre in the division, what with a revitalized Central division potentially making a strong play for Wild Card spots, what with Baltimore and Boston and Toronto in the East, but it's not a hopeless case and, perhaps most importantly, it shouldn't be a depressing case, a "you can count on a loss every night" case, a "let's guzzle bleach" case. I don't know how fun the team is, but the Fun Quotient was dealt its biggest blow in the Yoenis Cespedes trade; there was no unringing that particular bell for 2015 in any event, so let's continue the emotional process of putting that out of our minds.
In short, then: It's fine. They're fine. It'll be fine.
For this I'll use the 2015 Steamer projections at FanGraphs, and it's just meant as a rough guide, not as any kind of gospel. ↩
I'm including in Billy Butler's salary for 2015 his $5 million signing bonus. Otherwise his salary ($5 million) looks artificially low. ↩