This isn’t how rebuilds are supposed to work. You trade away a bunch of talent, you play poorly for a few years, and if everything goes right, the players you got in the trade blossom into a core of talent that you can build around. Right?
So how on Earth did the Oakland Athletics trade away three All-Stars in one offseason and immediately improve? How did Billy Beane turn a mediocre team with little in the way of talent into a spunky, sneakily good club with a penchant for the dramatic?
To start, we have to go way back, because this rebuild wasn’t supposed to happen at all. To stay relevant in a league where teams regularly spent twice, sometime three or four times as much as the A’s, Beane famously needed to zig where others zagged. But in the past, teams would sometimes take several years to close inefficiencies where savvy general managers could find value. As Beane quickly found out, that lag time closed up.
After the Moneyball A’s of the early 2000s, the Big Three of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson were quickly heading toward free agency. And for a small-market team like Oakland, free agency means it’s time to start saying goodbyes. In the span of three days in the 2004 offseason, Beane dismantled the rotation. Mulder and Hudson were headed out of town. They fetched six players in return.
This first rebuild worked on the surface, at least for a little while. The A’s made the playoffs in 2006 and advanced to the ALCS, behind the strength of a few homegrown players (Zito and Nick Swisher) and a key free agent signing (Frank Thomas). But the A’s needed the six young players they received in the trades to turn into something valuable. Only one truly hit—Dan Haren. The remaining five either flamed out in the minors or were small, inconsistent role players in the majors. Not exactly the outcome Beane wanted.
That version of the A’s didn’t last for long. Instead of a long period of sustained success, the A’s had one good year, followed by sub-.500 mediocrity. So only three years after the rebuild, Haren and Swisher were traded away for nine players. This time, the return was a little brighter, featuring players like Carlos Gonzalez, Gio Gonzalez, and Brett Anderson. Unfortunately for Billy Beane, the A’s threw their chips in too early, trading Carlos Gonzalez one year later for a single year of Matt Holliday. That misstep, coupled with injuries and an inability to create a supporting cast, led the A’s to finish at or below .500 every year from 2006 onwards.
And that brings us to rebuild number three, four miserable years after rebuild number two.
Off went All-Star Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals, for four prospects. Trevor Cahill, an All-Star in 2010, was sent to Arizona for three more. A third All-Star, closer Andrew Bailey, made his way to Boston for another three.
In 2011, the three of them combined for a 3.61 ERA over 451.1 innings. Not bad at all.
Their replacements, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and 2012 All-Star Ryan Cook, all acquired via trade, have combined for a 2.95 ERA over 262.2 innings. All three are rookies, with six future years of team control. And on top of that, the A’s also received outfielder Josh Reddick, who has batted .271/.349/.529 in a tough park in which to hit. The rest of the trade package is still in the minors, with the promise of future dividends.
Long story short? In what could be Billy Beane’s defining masterstroke as a general manager, the A’s turned three pricey players who combined last year for 6.9 Fangraphs WAR into a set of nine replacements who have already put up 8.4 WAR in a little more than half of a season. The usual few years of poor play after a rebuild were shortened to two months.
The replacements are better, younger and cheaper. Right now. Throw Cuban import extraordinaire Yoenis Cespedes into the mix, and the A’s just experienced a rebuild that was anything but. Oakland’s rebuilding windows have been getting smaller and bleaker for a decade now, but this latest retooling looks like it just might be Oakland’s first that actually sticks the landing.