Blowing Up the A’s

Back in 1999, the Oakland A’s went 87-75 for their first winning season since 1992. Their lineup included 21-year-old Eric Chavez, 23-year-olds Miguel Tejada and Ben Grieve, 28-year-old Jason Giambi, and an assortment of aging veterans like Tony Phillips, John Jaha, Matt Stairs, and Randy Velarde. The pitching staff was built almost entirely around guys on the wrong side of 30 — Kevin Appier, Gil Heredia, Tom Candiotti, Kenny Rogers, Mike Oquist, Omar Olivares, Billy Taylor, and Doug Jones. Midway through the season, 23-year-old Tim Hudson made his big-league debut, going 11-2 with a 3.23 ERA in 21 starts.

The A’s were at the beginning of the success cycle, biding time until the young talent in their system was ready to take over the team. Chavez, Tejada, Grieve, Giambi, and Hudson were soon joined by Ramon Hernandez, Terrence Long, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder, and young veterans like Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Jason Isringhausen, and Cory Lidle were added along the way. As the young players developed, the team continued to grow stronger, moving through the success cycle. Oakland won 91 games in 2000, 102 games in 2001, and 103 games in 2002.

Then, as those young guys started to get older and more expensive, they began to leave. Giambi went to New York, Tejada went to Baltimore, Isringhausen went to St. Louis, Damon went to Boston. Grieve was traded to Tampa Bay, Hernandez and Long to San Diego, Lidle to Toronto. Billy Beane continued to fill gaps with veterans, adding guys like Erubiel Durazo, Scott Hatteberg, Mark Redman, Keith Foulke, Ray Durham, Billy Koch, and Damian Miller. He also continued to add young pieces to the puzze, as Bobby Crosby replaced Tejada at shortstop, Eric Byrnes and Mark Ellis stepped in as everyday players, and Rich Harden joined The Big Three in the rotation

After two straight 100-win seasons, the A’s dropped to 96 wins in 2003 and then won just 91 games this season, failing to make the postseason for the first time since that 1999 team. It appeared, for the most part, that the A’s had gone through the success cycle — starting with a young, inexperienced team in the late 90s, improving until they peaked in 2001 and 2002, and then gradually declining as defections left the roster depleted. With Hudson, Mulder, and Zito getting expensive and free agency right around the corner, the window of opportunity to win with this core was closing.

The A’s could have continued to patch holes with veterans, introduced a couple prospects to the mix each year, and continued to compete for the next several seasons. Maybe they’d win 91 games again in 2005 and another 90 in 2006, perhaps sneaking into the playoffs another time or two. But at some point, the three stud pitchers would be gone, just like Giambi and Tejada before them, and the A’s would be left with a shell of a roster. Instead of going through that, Beane decided to blow the whole thing up and start from scratch.

This weekend, he traded Hudson and then sent Mulder away too, cashing them both in while their value was high and getting an assortment of young, cheap players in return. After six straight winning seasons and four trips to the postseason in five years, the A’s now find themselves right back where they were in 1999, which is both good and bad.

Instead of a lineup built around young hitters like Tejada, Grieve, and Chavez, they’ve got Crosby and Nick Swisher in place. Instead of a still-young veteran hitter in the middle of it all in Giambi, they’ve got the same thing in Chavez. Instead of bringing pitching phenoms Hudson, Mulder, and Zito gradually into the mix, they will attempt to recreate that magic with Dan Meyer, Dan Haren, and Joe Blanton, with Harden having already established himself with an outstanding season at the age of 22.

And just like in 1999, as the groundwork was being laid for a sustained period of excellence, there are plenty of young reinforcements on the way, from the recently-acquired Daric Barton, who is one of the top offensive prospects in baseball, to Huston Street, Richie Robnett, Kurt Suzuki, and the rest of Oakland’s extremely promising 2004 draft class. Of course, while Beane is setting the team up for another run behind young talent, there is a question of whether or not the packages of players he got for Hudson and Mulder are enough.

While all the rumors about Hudson going to the Dodgers were swirling around last week, I kept wondering why all the A’s could get for him were Edwin Jackson and Antonio Perez. Turns out they cashed him in for Meyer, Juan Cruz, and Charles Thomas, which still has me wondering. However, looking at some recent, similar deals suggests that this is basically the going rate for an impending free agent like Hudson.

In June, the Mariners sent a half-season of Freddy Garcia to the White Sox for Jeremy Reed, Miguel Olivo, and Michael Morse. About a week later, the Royals dealt a half-season of Carlos Beltran to the Astros and ended up with Mark Teahen, John Buck, and Mike Wood. While Hudson’s situation is different because he has a full season left before he hits the open market, it seems clear that star players who are due up for free agency are worth somewhere around one very good prospect (Meyer, Jackson, Reed, Teahen), one good prospect/young player (Cruz, Perez, Olivo, Buck), and maybe a third young guy who is sort of a marginal player (Thomas, Morse, Wood).

I’m surprised Beane couldn’t squeeze more out of some team for Hudson considering he had more time and leverage than Seattle or Kansas City had, as well as another half-season of his star to offer up. That’s not to say the A’s did poorly here, but I was expecting them to break the bank. The centerpiece of the deal for Oakland is Meyer, an excellent prospect who is very close to being major-league ready. He has fantastic minor-league numbers across the board, moved quickly through Atlanta’s system, and has a great pedigree (tall, left handed, polished college pitcher, first-round pick in 2002). I’d be surprised if he isn’t filling Hudson’s spot in the rotation by midseason.

Cruz is a completely different type of pitcher, but nonetheless very interesting and, at just 26, full of potential. Cruz has a 3.98 ERA and 154-to-75 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 151.2 career innings as a reliever, including a 2.75 ERA and 70-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 72 innings with the Braves this season. At the very least, he is a power arm who can give the A’s bulk innings out of the bullpen. However, Cruz was a starter in the minors and has a career ERA of 4.01 in 23 big-league starts, so it’s possible Oakland has bigger plans for him down the road.

Thomas’ inclusion in this trade confuses me. If you go by this year alone, he looks like a stud who hit .358/.416/.535 in 61 games at Triple-A and .288/.365/.448 in 83 games with Atlanta. However, Thomas is already 26 and, aside from hitting .324/.396/.449 in a 47-game stint at Double-A in 2003, has never put up that sort of offense in previous seasons. He is a career .259/.326/.386 hitter in 256 Single-A games and hit just .231/.322/.293 in 71 games at Double-A in 2002. It’s possible he’s just a late bloomer, but it seems more likely that he’s destined for a career as a useful spare part.

The package Oakland got for Mulder would seem to fit the same mold as what Hudson, Beltran, and Garcia fetched, which is strange considering Mulder actually has two years left on his contract. However, once you look at each individual player, I think it becomes clear that St. Louis gave up a little more than usual. Barton is a top-notch prospect who is a clear step above Teahen and on the same sort of level as Jackson, Reed, and Meyer. Haren is on the brink of being in the “very good prospect” class himself and is certainly a step above guys like Perez or Buck. And the third player the A’s got, Calero, has a lot more potential than your average toss-in.

The negative reaction Oakland’s two major trades have received from fans and the media is understandable and certainly not surprising. Any time Beane does something substantial — and trading away two of the best pitchers in baseball is obviously substantial — there is a large portion of the population that just can’t wrap their heads around what he is doing. Only time will tell whether or not he made the right moves in this case and counting on a new set of young players developing into stars is always a risky proposition, but Beane has put the A’s in a great position for another run through the success cycle.

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