The rebuild that wasn’t: Oakland’s past, present and future

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.

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Comments

  1. Paul Singman said...

    Unfortunately I believe the A’s coughed up a young Andre Ethier to land Bradley, he wasn’t a FA signing. Other than that though, nice write up!

  2. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    You could also mention that Beane also let Giambi and Tejada leave without trade (big mistakes taking picks over known prospects with proven performance in the minors) and he signed Eric Chavez to a budget breaking big contract, the wrong one of the three position players to sign long-term, based on performances afterward.

    You could also mention the years of poor draft results, which forced him to rebuild during the Haren trade rebuild, because he had no farm system.

    I would have talked also about his signing Ben Sheets to a $10M contract, in conjunction with the Holliday trade, what was he thinking?

    Lastly, I would note that perhaps Beane has finally learned from all his bad trades how to get good players in return.  How long has he been at this job?

  3. Hecubot said...

    >>“I would have talked also about his signing Ben Sheets to a $10M contract, in conjunction with the Holliday trade, what was he thinking?”“

    Pressure from Selig’s office to maintain a higher minimum base salary. That’s exactly what he was thinking. Same with the relatively expensive signings of Fuentes and Balfour.

    Everybody wants to play home GM, but there’s a lot of back-room politics involved at this level.

    The Holliday trade came from pressure by the new ownership to make a splash.  It wasn’t Beane’s idea and it set the team back.

    A’s were relatively well positioned to make a run until they had unforeseen injuries to Chavez and Harden (coulda been a contedah. Seriously he had Lincecum/Felix stuff. Fastest AVG fastball in the majors and a filthy change), and Crosby’s failure to develop (looked like a plus defense shortstop with 20 HR power).

  4. Hecubot said...

    Oh, and as far as not signing Tejada and Giambi and keeping Chavez?

    The A’s knew both Tejada and Giambi were juicing, knew the ####-storm was coming and took the clean player. 

    Didn’t work out for them based on WAR, and they certainly don’t have any moral high ground on the issue.

    But that’s what motivated that decision. Along with the fact that Chavez looked to be a very rare GG defense/30 HR/100 RBI player who was young, healthy and going to be productive going forward.

  5. John C said...

    The statement that it is a “big mistake” to accept compensation picks in the draft rather than trade players for prospects is argumentative. The Boston Red Sox operate on the same philosophy when it comes to free agents they intend to let walk, and it’s worked out extremely well for them.

    If you have confidence in your ability to evaluate the talent available in the draft, you can get a much better payoff on a compensatory pick than by taking a prospect that another team considers expendable.

    Tejada leaving resulted in the A’s drafting Huston Street. I wouldn’t say that was a bad outcome. They drafted Nick Swisher for losing Johnny Damon.

  6. Hayden said...

    As someone else has noted somewhere, picking Chavez for the extension (rather than Tejada or Giambi) wasn’t a terrible choice at all. He was certainly going to be the cheapest, given that he was the only one who didn’t win an MVP. His skills projected very well; if you look here, you’ll see his WAR through his pre-injury years was on a track commensurate with excellent players like Robin Ventura and Scott Rolen. He had no injury history, either. I was really excited when they locked him up. He was also a really high-character guy, to the point that I still cheer for him even if he plays for the hated Yankees.

    The big failures I think have been the whiffs on seeing CarGo and Ethier’s true talent levels… we gave up both of them for not very much, and both could still be in Oakland now. (We also gave up on Peña, but it took him quite a while to be worth much.)

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/comps-for-ryan-zimmermans-extension/

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