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After Dealing Sonny Gray, Is There Any Hope for the Future of the Oakland A's?

The A's received a promising group of prospects from the Yankees in return for Sonny Gray, but the pattern of trading stars for rebuilding pieces is too familiar in Oakland.

It feels like it was much longer ago, but the Athletics last made the playoffs as recently as 2014. In the two-plus seasons since falling in the wild-card game to the Royals, the A’s have gone 184–246 and have finished last in the AL West twice; currently at 47–59, they’re working their way toward a third straight year in the division’s basement. That 2014 wild-card game loss was the final act of a team that had made the playoffs three straight times but never advanced past the Division Series. In its immediate aftermath, Oakland—which had bulked up that summer by acquiring Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija as part of its playoff push—punted, letting Lester walk in free agency and dealing away Samardzija and Josh Donaldson. The rebuild was on.

Three years later, it feels as if the A’s are running in place. On Monday, they once again called it quits on a season, sending rotation ace Sonny Gray to the Yankees for a trio of prospects—Oakland’s third straight summer of selling. The teardown has been stark: Since October 2014, the A’s have traded away Samardzija, Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Scott Kazmir, Ben Zobrist, Tyler Clippard, Drew Pomeranz, Brett Lawrie, Rich Hill, Josh Reddick, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and now Gray.

If there’s a logic to this constant churn beyond moving out players who either cost too much or soon will, it’s hard to see it. The pieces of the next contending Athletics team are never in place for particularly long. Instead, Oakland is caught in a depressing cycle of firesales, with the future both hard to see and imagine.

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The constraints with which the A’s have to work are as restrictive as any imaginable. Oakland’s payroll is regularly among MLB’s lowest, and ownership seems either unable or unwilling to spend. The team’s stadium, the Oakland Coliseum, is decrepit. Attempts to move have been stymied, most notably by the franchise’s Bay Area rivals, the Giants. But past Oakland teams have succeeded despite their shackles. The Moneyball A’s were built through the draft and with savvy signings and trades that targeted undervalued players, and they flourished, making the playoffs in four straight seasons.

But when that advantage vanished as other teams caught on to the sabermetric revolution, the A’s have been unable to rise above their station. The successful teams since those years have felt like flukes—the stars aligning perfectly with just the right group of cheap, cost-controlled players. It made it all the more shocking when Billy Beane and company finally went all in at the 2014 trade deadline, determined to make a championship happen within the narrow window they’d been afforded. That he and his team busted so hard seems to have haunted them ever since.

The reality is that the A’s need absolutely everything to fall exactly right for things to work. They need to hit on their draft picks, choose the veteran free agents who will produce the most bang for the buck, and nail every player evaluation in trades. One wrong move is enough to topple everything. The Donaldson trade, for example, was a catastrophe: a future MVP and franchise cornerstone dealt for four players, of whom only two—back-end starter Kendall Graveman and young shortstop Franklin Barreto—still remain. That’s the kind of deal that Beane and company simply can’t afford to mess up. They did, and in the process, it seems to have stalled out the entire operation. The A’s can’t win unless those prospects develop and provide All-Star-caliber years at bargain prices.

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That, though, is part of the problem. There is apparently no universe in which the A’s can afford to keep a player past those first few years of service, even when they are relatively cheap. Donaldson, when he was traded, made just $500,000 that year; his salary for 2015, in which he won the AL MVP award, was a mere $4.3 million; and he wasn’t due to hit free agency until after the ‘18 season. Gray, meanwhile, will earn only $3.75 million this season and is under team control through 2019. But both were dealt all the same, in anticipation of the future salaries that the A’s wouldn’t be able to stomach and the reality that once they and anyone else reached free agency, they were as good as gone.

The A’s can’t keep their stars because they can’t or won’t spend the money for them, and as such, there’s no clear path to a better future. Imagine a meter on each Oakland player, inexorably advancing toward “salary increase via arbitration” or “free agency within the next season.” Once things get to a certain point, the A’s have to act, and once they’ve committed to that course, they begin the cycle anew. And if they screw up the value calculus on a trade or sign the wrong player—see Billy Butler, who gave the A’s virtually zero production at the cost of $22 million over two years—then another layer of difficulty is added onto the endeavor.

A team built and executed on the cheap will see nothing but turnover, and when familiar faces are constantly sent packing, the fan base becomes increasingly unwilling to put up with the process. When the fans give up, the financial situation becomes direr, and the turnover only gets faster. Now that Gray is gone, the longest tenured player on the A’s is shortstop Marcus Semien (himself picked up in one of Beane’s firesales), who has been with Oakland for just 2 1/2 years. The average A’s starting lineup is a bewildering array of unknowns, and the worst part for fans has to be the knowledge that, should any of those anonymous players suddenly turn into stars, the clock has begun ticking on their time in the Bay Area.

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Is there a solution to this problem? Perhaps with different ownership, a new stadium, and an influx of money. But the A’s as currently constructed apparently have no choice but to stay on this treadmill, constantly turning players into prospects. It’s a frustrating and cynical way to operate a major league franchise, something Beane understands. “We need to change that narrative by creating a good team and ultimately committing to keeping them around,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle back in mid-July. “There are only so many cycles I can go through before I get as exasperated as everybody else.”

But until Beane figures out how to break the pattern, this is where he and the A’s will remain stuck. A lot of hopes seem pinned on a new stadium—said manager Bob Melvin after Gray's trade, "I think this time with a new stadium, now the whole model changes"—but that's placing faith in a long and slow process that has yielded nothing so far and is tied up in miles of red tape. The three players acquired for Gray—outfielder Dustin Fowler, starter James Kaprielian and shortstop Jorge Mateo—are all highly regarded prospects. One or two of them, or possibly even all three, may turn into stars. And three or four years from now, we’ll likely see them dealt for the next group of prospects, as we once again wonder just when the future will ever arrive in Oakland.