The Oakland Athletics are taking a gamble by dealing away their best power hitter in Yoenis Cespedes, but the team believes its embrace of one key strategy will help them survive his loss.
The decision to trade Yoenis Cespedes was a difficult one for the Oakland Athletics. Cespedes wasn't just the cleanup hitter for their first-place club. He was also a player they had watched, over a span of two-and-a-half years, transform from a largely unknown Cuban escapee on whom they’d taken a $36 million gamble to an All-Star whose nickname, ‘La Potencia’ (The Power), was printed on T-shirts that were given away to 10,000 fans at Oakland’s O.co Coliseum last Saturday.
Somewhat awkwardly, that giveaway happened two days after Cespedes had been dealt to Boston on the morning of the non-waiver trade deadline. "We joked that in the future, we should have a 10-day grace period after the deadline before any player-related promotions," said Farhan Zaidi, the team’s assistant general manager and director of baseball operations.
Even so, there were a number of reasons why the A's could trade Cespedes and have cause to believe that they had improved. The most obvious was the central player they received back from the Red Sox, Jon Lester, a legitimate No. 1 starter with World Series experience who is in the middle of his best season (11-7, 2.59 ERA). "Those guys are rarely, if ever, available," said Billy Beane, Oakland’s GM. "If that caliber of player is out there, you go get him."
In Cespedes, the cost was high (he is locked up for the 2015 season as well), but the A's felt they could afford to part with him because they thought they could fill the gaping hole he left behind — albeit with two players.
In April 2013, the A's acquired a 27-year-old utilityman named Stephen Vogt from the Rays for what we can assume to be a small, though undisclosed, amount of cash. Vogt, a lefthanded hitter, has hit righthanded pitchers very well: A .338 average, a .853 OPS, four home runs and 19 RBIs in 144 plate appearances. In the Lester trade, Oakland also picked up Jonny Gomes, who had played for Oakland in 2012. Gomes is a beloved clubhouse presence, but is not held dear by opposing lefthanded pitchers, against whom he has a .295 average with an .808 OPS to go with four home runs and 21 RBIs in 146 plate appearances.
A central factor in the Athletics' surprising revival over the last three seasons, in which they have developed into the league’s highest scoring offense, has been their embrace of platoons and of the resulting advantage in handedness at the plate that the strategy affords them. This year, they rank in the top five in both plate appearances taken by lefthanded batters against righthanded pitchers and in those taken by righthanded batters against lefties. That is largely due to the combinations of players they have fielded at several positions — particularly, before last Thursday, at catcher, designated hitter and second base. The platoon strategy also has financial implications for a franchise with a payroll that continues to rank in the league’s bottom five: A pair of players with limited, if complementary, skills is almost always cheaper than a single, do-it-all star.
With the Cespedes deal, however, the A's have committed to pushing the strategy's limits to see how far it might take them. It is easy to point out that Vogt's OPS against righties is better than Cespedes’ (.772), as is Gomes’ OPS against lefties compared to Cespedes’ (.773). The A's, however, know that it is not so simple to conclude that the combination of the two players will be more productive or more valuable than La Potencia, and also that it will create difficult situations for manager Bob Melvin.
"A non-trivial consideration is late-game strategy," Zaidi explained. "Let’s say you have a lefthanded pitcher starting the game, so Jonny Gomes is in. Seventh, eighth inning comes, and there’s a righthanded setup guy, so you bring in Stephen Vogt. Suddenly, the game goes extras, Stephen is facing lefties and you have no countermove. Bob never had to worry about pinch-hitting for Yoenis. Now he’s going to have to deal with that. You’re not always guaranteed to have the lefthander versus a righty, and you’re sometimes going to have the platoon disadvantage."
Another consideration is that there is necessarily a limit as to how many lefty/righty platoons a club can maintain at a given time, due to constraints on roster size. Most clubs carry 13 position players on their 25-man rosters, and that means the maximum number of regular platoons is four, which allows for eight part-time players and five everyday regulars. The post-Cespedes A’s are now maxed out in that regard, meaning that Melvin currently has not only decreased in-game flexibility, but also has less protection against injury. But that will only be the case for the next three-and-a-half weeks, anyway.
That is because on Sept. 1 clubs can expand their major league rosters to 40, and that should prove more of a boon to the A's — who will be trying to hold off the Angels for their third straight AL West title — than any other club. All at once, their platoons will become far deeper, and Melvin will be afforded a new flexibility for late-game matchups. Behind Vogt and Gomes, he will likely have at his disposal players like the currently injured Kyle Blanks and Craig Gentry, and the eminently speedy minor leaguer Billy Burns, too. Suddenly, many of the limitations of the Athletics' platoon strategy will fall away, and at just the right time.
Trading away Cespedes in the midst of a playoff push was certainly a significant risk on the part of the A's. This is, however, a club that recently re-signed a lease to stay in the league’s most decrepit ballpark — one in which sewage often floods into the clubhouses ("I’m so used to it now, I just find high ground and wait for the engineers," Beane said) — and is therefore working with significantly diminished resources that require a commitment to audacity, especially as the idea of a long rebuilding process is anathema to its front office. "Assume every single day and every single year, we are trying to go for it," Beane said. "We either have a really good team and try to do everything to make it as good as we possibly can, or we’re trying to build one. We have to be bold in everything we do."
Last week, the A's added a new ace to the top of a rotation that already included three other starters with ERAs below 3.00: Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Jeff Samardzija. They did so at the cost of arguably their most beloved star. But it was part of a calculated strategy designed to bring something new to a stadium that has recently been best known for its bubbling sewage and outdated T-shirts: A championship flag.