When I was working as a college baseball coach at a low-end Division I university, we had one common theme in our recruiting philosophy—look for players who were as talented as the players being recruited by the schools from bigger conferences, but who had one obvious flaw. What that flaw might be would vary from player to player, but if a guy was the complete package, we weren’t going to get him over our nearby ACC opponents. Our guys had to have something wrong with them for us to spend our valuable time going after them.
Usually it was being undersized. For instance, the right-handed pitcher with the upper-80s fastball wasn’t coming to us if he was 6-foot-3, but if he was 5-foot-10 we had a shot. Sometimes it was the other way around, like the mid-80s lefty with the plus breaking ball we landed who got overlooked by his big in-state schools because he was about 25 pounds overweight. Those schools didn’t have to hope they could get him into shape. They just recruited another kid who already was.
The A’s have essentially taken the same strategy this offseason, and have nailed the execution.
We were not fully funded as a college program, and by major league baseball’s standards, the Oakland A’s are not fully funded. When that happens at any level, the way to compete with better-financed teams is to get strong production from the players who don’t cost much, and then fill in the rest of the holes with the proper complementary pieces.
The A’s nailed the first part of this equation last season, getting solid to strong production from Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and others, all of whom were dirt cheap. They’re all still inexpensive, and for anything the A’s do in 2013 to work, they’ll all have to be productive again. Without that, it all falls apart.
But what the A’s have done this winter is to complement those young players with some who fit in the specific holes that left them just short last season.
For instance, the2012 A’s got virtually no offensive production from behind the plate from their right-handed hitting primary catchers, Kurt Suzuki and Derek Norris. Suzuki is gone, but Norris returns on the short-end of a platoon with the newly acquired John Jaso, a flawed player who excels against right-handed pitching. He’s not a great defensive player and can’t hit lefties, but the A’s still have Norris for that. Jaso isn’t perfect, but that’s what made him available to the A’s.
The same goes for Chris Young, a player the A’s didn’t truly need, but fit the mold of what they were looking for. Young was as available as any player in baseball at the start of the winter, thanks to the Diamondbacks’ outfield logjam, and even though he’s the A’s most expensive player, it’s only a short-term commitment. Young is flawed because of his low batting averages, numbers that are skewed because of his poor career average against right-handed pitching.
Because of Young’s prowess in the outfield, he has appeared to be an everyday player his entire career, but really is a platoon player masquerading as a regular. Against lefties, Young is a career .271/.371/.489 hitter with a .70 BB/K rate. Couple that with his defense in center field and you have an all-star. But against righties, he’s a career .228/.299/.419 hitter with no plate discipline. That makes him a fourth outfielder. It also made him readily available.
The A’s have the luxury of using Young in the match-ups that suit him best, and still have other center field options on days he doesn’t play. Young can enter games late for defense, pinch run, and pinch hit against lefties while getting starts along the way. By using him the right way, the A’s will be able to get the most out of a player who isn’t perfect, but can still do a lot of things right.
The latest move by the A’s was to acquire Jed Lowrie from the Houston Astros in exchange for first baseman/DH Chris Carter, minor league pitcher Brad Peacock and minor league catcher Max Stassi. The fit for the A’s and Lawrie could not be more perfect.
The A’s have relative question marks at all three infield positions, and Lawrie can play all three. Josh Donaldson came on strong toward the end of the 2012 season with a nice August and September, but he still posted just a .687 OPS last year. He’s hardly entrenched at the hot corner. The everyday at-bats at shortstop will go to Japanese import Hiroyuki Nakajima, but no one can ever predict how the transition to major league baseball will go. Second base, for the A’s, is a complete black hole, with Jemile Weeks and Scott Sizemore leading the “battle.”
Lowrie could potentially be better than all three.
But that “potentially” is how the A’s landed Lowrie in the first place. The 97 games Lowrie played last season represent a career-high for the 29-year-old, who has been injury-prone since his Red Sox days.
The good news is that the A’s probably aren’t expecting much more than that out of him. With Donaldson and Nakajima penciled in as the starters, Lowrie could see the bulk of the early-season playing time at second base, but more likely, he’ll be used a few times a week at any or all three infield positions to spell other players and also in an attempt to keep him healthy. The odds are against those who believe that the A’s have acquired an everyday player in Lowrie, but what they should get is everyday production out of him on a limited basis, which is what they’ve been going after all winter.
Again, he’s not perfect, but if he were, the A’s wouldn’t have been able to get him.
In this deal, the A’s did give up a lot for an injury-prone player who has yet to play two-thirds of a season, but they also dealt from positions of strength and depth, and likely won’t miss too much of what they lost. Even if Carter becomes the 30-40 homer player some still project him to be, he wasn’t going to get the at-bats (as the short-side of a first base platoon with Brandon Moss) in Oakland to realize that potential with the A’s. He could still become a nice player, but Lowrie could also stay healthy for a full season. There are risks with every trade, and the two teams in this one took on similarly small ones.
But for the A’s this was about finding yet another available piece that fit into the very specific puzzle they are putting together in their quest to once again beat their more talented AL West counterparts (the Angels and Rangers, not the Astros). This plan could blow up in the A’s face, especially if they don’t get strong production from young players again this season, but that’s part of what makes it so hard, not only for low-payroll teams to compete, but for them to do it consistently.
There’s still a lot that could go wrong for the A’s in 2013, but they’ve had as good a winter as a team with their resources could have hoped to have, adding the specific pieces they need to compete without mortgaging their future.