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Billy Beane's Athletics need to embrace a rebuild

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Mired in another losing campaign, Oakland must finally accept the idea that they need to get worse in order to get better.

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Nobody in baseball today has as much of a reputation as a wheeler-dealer as Billy Beane's Oakland A's (yes, David Forst is the general manager, but they will always be Beane's A's). And it's well-earned; when the going gets tough, A's players get going.

Last year, Oakland dealt for Tyler Clippard, Ben Zobrist, Brett Lawrie and others in the offseason, but also sent away Josh Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija, Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, and John Jaso. That season, after their reload failed, they dealt Scott Kazmir, Clippard, and Zobrist at the trade deadline. Then they sent Lawrie, Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz away, and brought in Jed Lowrie, Khris Davis, and Chris Coghlan, Liam Hendricks, Yonder Alonso and Marc Rzepczynski. Beane and Forst simply can't stop overhauling.

The result, according to Ken Rosenthal's article this morning, is a directionless team without an identity:

"The A's live in no-man's land. They have no idea if and when they are getting a new ballpark. And while Beane, to his credit, is too competitive to tear down his roster, he's spinning his wheels with veterans such as Billy Butler and Jed Lowrie."

Despite the outside interest in Sean Doolittle and Josh Reddick, Rosenthal urges the A's to "commit to a direction, going all-in with their veterans who matter most, and allow...that group to serve as a foundation while the team's next wave of prospects emerges." In particular, he wants Oakland to go forward with Reddick, Sonny Gray, Steven Vogt, and Doolittle.

In theory, I'm sympathetic to Rosenthal's idea. The A's have wandered in the desert for the last three years, searching for their promised land. And it hasn't worked. Since the 2014 All Star game, Oakland is 130-175, a .426 winning percentage and a 93 loss pace. I want them to pick a direction and go in it.

But I think Rosenthal vastly overestimates the how good his direction will be for the club and how close the A's are to their destination. The good players the A's do have are not particularly young, and their young players (Marcus Semien aside) are not particularly good. It's not an old roster, but it's deceptively not young, and without much upside.

Now, all four of the guys he mentions are fine players. All four could potentially be valuable parts of the next really good A's club (if Oakland extends Reddick). But none of them, with the possible exception of Gray, are the kind of pillars a team builds around. They aren't a Mike Trout or a Bryce Harper, or even a Kris Bryant. They are cogs, not the engine itself.

Of the four, Gray is his own animal. He's 26 and has had two and a half years of incredible success before hitting a stumbling block in 2016. His velocity has been fine, but his strikeouts are slightly down, his walks slightly up, and he's given up a lot of homers. Chances are that this is a hiccup though, and that Gray will go back to being the front-line starter he was coming into this year. And unless a team is willing to ignore his poor first half, and pay the A's full freight for Gray, they should absolutely keep him.

The other players on Rosenthal's list, however, are anything but untouchable. For one thing, they aren't particularly young. Reddick and Doolittle are both 29. Vogt is 31. You can make a strong case that their best days are behind them, though they aren't candidates to fall off a cliff immediately. Again, that's not a criticism. They have been very, very good ballplayers, but since time is a cruel mistress, we should start to see them wind down slowly as they proceed into and through their thirties. Their value may never be higher.

When he is healthy, Reddick is still a quality outfielder, capable of producing three wins above replacement a year.  But he struggled through injuries in both 2013 and 2014, and is currently on the DL. He's not going to get healthier as he ages. He's certainly worth extending if he continues to be productive, but not at the risk of hamstringing the A's with a dead weight deal if he loses any effectiveness. And perhaps, because of their "no man's land" status, the A's have less room to carry such a risky investment than any other team in baseball. Given that he's scheduled to go on the open market this winter, there's no real incentive for him to sign the kind of team-friendly deal the A's would probably require.

Doolittle is a fine reliever who is exceptionally affordable for the next four years in a climate that's spent wildly on elite relievers. He strikes out a ton of batters and walks very few, and is equally effective against both righties and lefties. There would be nothing wrong with the A's keeping him through the end of his deal. That said, teams don't generally build around relievers, and if the A's are able to get a return slightly less smaller than the one the Padres got for Craig Kimbrel, that's a deal they have to make.

Vogt has a lot less mileage on him than most 31 year old catchers because he got into that line of work relatively late. But 31 is still 31. And despite an all star appearance last year, he profiles as an above-average catcher in a market that is starved for quality receivers. But by the time the A's are competitive, he'll be 33 or 34, and on the verge of free agency.

Don't get me wrong, the A's could be excused for holding on to any of these four players. In a vacuum, they're all solid players and could help Oakland the next time they're competing for a postseason spot. But that's not the issue. The issue is whether they're more likely to help than whatever Beane and Forst can get back for them. And how much further these players can push the A's along that road, even if they, like Moses, aren't around in the promised land when the prospects Rosenthal hints at are finally ready to contribute.