For Athletics, rebuild necessary after failed playoff run in 2014
If there was any doubt that the Athletics are rebuilding after they dealt Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays in late November, it was erased by Monday's trades of Brandon Moss and Jeff Samardzija to the Indians and White Sox, respectively.
As recently as mid-August, Oakland had the best record in baseball and was well on its way to a third straight postseason berth, targeting a deep October run behind the July rotation additions of Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Jon Lester. The A's went all-in with the acquisition of those pitchers, trading Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox for Lester and dealing their top two prospects -- shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney -- to the Cubs for Samardzija and Hammel. From Aug. 10 through the end of the season, however, Oakland went 16-30, coughing up its AL West lead and then suffering an extra-inning walkoff loss to the upstart Royals in the Wild-Card Game.
Surveying the wreckage in the wake of that defeat, I was optimistic about the A's pitching despite the fact that both Lester and Hammel were pending free agents. After all, Oakland still owned Samardzija for another year and was due to get spring 2014 Tommy John recipients A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker back in 2015. However, I was concerned about the team's lineup. Cespdes, one of its top run-producers was gone, Russell was no longer in place as the heir apparent to free agent shortstop Jed Lowrie, Moss needed hip surgery and centerfielder Coco Crisp was battling "chronic degenerative changes" in his neck.
Rather than pick up the pieces of that broken season, general manager Billy Beane has decided to sweep them into the trash. With Cespedes gone, Lester close to signing a multi-year deal elsewhere and Donaldson, Moss and Samardzija all traded in the last 11 days, the A's have lost five 2014 All-Stars since July 31. That's not to mention the loss of lesser trade acquisitions Hammel (who returned to the Cubs), Adam Dunn (who had been acquired from the White Sox for relief prospect Nolan Sanburn in August, but retired at season's end) and Jonny Gomes (part of the Lester trade, currently a free agent).
The return on this offseason's trades has been underwhelming. The best haul appears to be the primary players Oakland got from the White Sox for Samardzija: pitcher Chris Bassitt, catcher Josh Phegley, first baseman Rangel Ravelo and shortstop Marcus Semien. Bassitt, entering his age-26 season, adds rotation depth. Phegley has some pop and a strong arm, but he will be 27 in February and seems destined for a career as a backup.
Ravelo, drafted out of a Florida high school in 2010, has hit .301/.368/.424 in his minor league career but is adding power, resulting in a .309/.386/.473 line in Double A this past season as a 22-year-old. Semien, 24, has hit .272/.374/.465 across three-plus minor league seasons and bettered that line in half a season in Triple A in 2014. He has some power and speed, will take his walks and is a competent fielder, making him the sort of player who tends to be underappreciated due to a broad skillset that lacks a single eye-catching tool. Getting those latter two players for the rest of their 20s for a single year of a pitcher set to be a free agent is a good trade for a rebuilding team.
I'm less optimistic about the Donaldson and Moss moves. The most compelling player in the former deal is shortstop prospect Franklin Barreto, who impressed as an 18-year-old in the full-season Northwest League this past year and won't turn 19 until February but is likely at least three years away from the majors. Neither pitchers Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman project as much more than back-end starters.
Third baseman Brett Lawrie, who will be charged with replacing Donaldson, is a former first-round pick and top prospect who won't turn 25 until January, but he is also injury prone and has hit just .261/.316/.406 over the last three years for the Blue Jays. Moving from the Rogers Centre to Oakland's O.co Coliseum won't help Lawrie's production at the plate, though there's some hope that getting him back on a natural grass surface could at least help him stay healthy.
The sole player acquired from Cleveland for Moss is second baseman Joe Wendle, a 25-year-old who has yet to play above Double A and didn't hit much in 2014.
In that context, the team's three-year, $30 million deal for Billy Butler, which preceded the Donaldson, Moss and Samardzija trades, looks less like a misguided attempt to re-arm the lineup and more like a the acquisition of a place-holder. Given Butler's relative youth (he'll turn 29 in April) and pedigree (former No. 1 pick and top prospect, All-Star in 2012, fan favorite in Kansas City), any sort of spike in his performance could make the remaining year or two of his contract look like a bargain, prompting another trade.
Either way, with the Angels having reclaimed the division and the Mariners in ascension, the A's are clearly looking beyond 2015. Of all of the players they have added this offseason, the first to hit free agency would be first baseman Ike Davis (purchased from the Pirates last month) after the 2016 season, followed by Butler and Lawrie after 2017.
Exactly where Oakland goes from here is something that may not be determined until Parker and Griffin return to the mound. But for now, the A's simply appear to be getting what they can for the players on their roster who are getting more expensive (Donaldson and Moss are both arbitration eligible, while Samardzija and Cespedes are a year from free agency). Instead, they're focusing on pitching and infielders in the hope that they can surprise everyone all over again in a couple of years.