A’s continue to add perfectly flawed pieces

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.

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Comments

  1. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    You had me until that last statement:  without mortgaging their future.  Otherwise, great article.

    I’m not as familiar with their prospects, but didn’t they trade away AJ Cole to the Nats?  Most commentary I read on that was to the tune of “what are the A’s thinking?”  Do you not agree with other commenters about the loss of Cole? 

    But you make excellent points about everything else, so I hate to bring Cole up, but that is something I have not understood yet, trading him away. 

    Given the context of your article, that implies that he has a big flaw.  But looking at his numbers, he looks like a pretty good prospect:  high K/9, low BB/9, young for the league, his only flaw looks like the hits he gave up.  But generally that is not that big a deal, I thought, as his WHIP is low.

  2. Aaron said...

    I believe Beane talked about acquiring Jaso as a move that was signaling they were going after the division this year.  Although Cole fits into this philosophy, they were giving away future value for current value and that never comes free.

  3. T Moore said...

    Good Article!!!

    The future is now for the A’s… 2014 be damned … 

    By the end of next year the players prices will start driving them away from the A’s…

    Their low budget and cheapskate owner San Jose Lew, who is saving for his dream stadium in the South Bay – (traffic gulch (he will lose over half his fan base there)) are not a MLB club in terms of money to spend…  They are a Div. 2 college team to use your analogy..

    This trade was all about pieces as you have said…

    The power picture has really improved over last year…

    What???? 

    Yep. you add NakaHomer (many 20 tater seasons), Sizemore and Lowrie all capable of 15 plus ..  Then there is Young.. many 20 + HR seasons…  and the improved Jaso/Norris combo… Moss Cepedes, Reddick and more..

    This team will finish in the top 10 for taters no doubt in my mind..  Around 200 is easy..

    220 HRs is not out of reach for them..

    Great WIN NOW and bird-in-the-hand-trade for the A’s…

    The addition of Young created a logjam of hitters at DH… Carter or Smith had to go… It was obvious…  It is now done…  Good trade for Billy

    It will be a fun ST for the A’s… This is where they needed to be..

    The needed a Catcher, a SS and a 3rd Baseman in the off season and they did it…  Plus, they picked up Young and added depth to their bull pen along the way… 

    The A’s have a good shot at post season play now…  Just what this team deserved… Because in 2 years, it will be back to the bottom of the tables with them..

  4. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Aaron, that is my point, they traded away good future value for current value, that is the definition of mortgaging the future.

    And whereas Jaso looks like a platoon player, Cole looks like he can be a top of the rotation starter, at least from his stats.

    As Jeff aptly notes, the A’s did well to improve their flaws with their pickups.  But given that they were 2 games over Pythag last season, +7 in one-run games, they had to improve if they want to compete again in 2013.  But will it be enough cobbling these guys together? 

    I didn’t think so last season and they were able to do it, so hats off to them, but they are relying on pitchers to keep up their performance. The A’s pitching was last in ERA-FIP in 2012, at -0.39 (3.50 ERA vs. 3.89 FIP).  Adding that to their RA drops them from 92 wins Pythag to 85 wins, a drop of 7 wins.  Which ties with win the extra 7 one-run wins.

    So they are hoping to make up their 0.39 deficit in FIP with their current crop of pitchers while trading away a pitcher who might help with that, but in the future, in Cole, and losing one of their better performers in McCarthy, though he was very negative in FIP too.  Only Parker performed near his FIP (0.04).  Milone (-0.18), Colon (-0.40), Blackley (-0.12), Griffin (-0.79), they all will need to outperform their FIP for the A’s to compete again.

    Even if you go by SIERA, they are all even more negative than by FIP.

    The only light I see is that Brett Anderson looks like he came back great after being out all season, pitching really well.  If he can pitch a full season, he would be able to make up for the loss of McCathy’s performance, and probably and then some, but then who will make up for all the other pitchers who are expected to regress to their FIP?  That’s a lot of ifs involved to rely upon that happening again in 2013.

  5. Ken said...

    The A’s are confident that all their young pitchers are going to improve, and that Anderson will be a #1 type starter.  From that point of view, Cole was expendable.

  6. BX said...

    They traded good but very flawed future value for good but very flawed current value that’s under control for multiple years, whether by arb or by team option.

    That’s not mortgaging the future—- that’s a trade any team that won 90+ games in 2012 should make every day and on Sundays.

    Chris Carter- DH power is cheap on the open market and Carter should never ever wear a glove (even at 1B). And there’s roster flexibility issues with carrying a guy who can only DH.

    AJ Cole- yes he’s a top 75-100 prospect but pitching spects still have more than a 50% bust rate. And he’s not close to the majors, so his likelihood of being a bust is higher.

    Stassi- far from MLB, injury prone, and has a very concerning K rate in the low minors.

    Peacock- is most likely a reliever or back end starter, per Keith Law and others.

    The A’s traded very flawed future players for very flawed current players.

    Nobody is a free agent before the 2015 season unless the A’s want them to be.

  7. JD said...

    The problem as I see it is the A’s gave up a ton of talent an in return they both added money and made the team worse. Factoring in players they didn’t bring back (and ones they did), Beane took a 90+ win team and turned them into a sub-.500 team.

    I think it’s a stretch to think Young/Lowrie will be 3 WAR combined this year. Both Young and Lowrie will be lucky to put up a .700 OPS in Oakland (and in the AL); if young does it, it’s because he’s only starting a third of the games, so while he might be good in limited time, his overall production, as Jeff points out, will be as a platoon player. I’m not exactly sure what the Lowrie love is all about, but I think it’s a pretty good bet than he’s nothing more than a pretty good utility infielder.

    The A’s gave up the two best (maybe three best) players in the Lowrie deal. It was a truly horrendous trade because Lowrie is not clearly an upgrade at *any* infield position. Carter, on the other hand, is probably already a better hitter than anybody on the A’s except Cespedes (I have some doubts that Moss’s power is legit).

    Oh, and they re-signed Colon but didn’t even bother giving McCarthy an offer; McCarthy is significantly better, younger, and despite injury concerns ended up signing a deal that was a tremendous bargain for Arizona.

    I guess I get what the A’s are doing, but I haven’t been this disappointed in an off-season since Beane thought signing Cabrera and Giambi was a good idea.

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