We’ve been putting off this summation for more than two years, ever since Josh Donaldson got shipped north of the border for Brett Lawrie and co. We’ve wanted to put this off repeatedly, since Billy Beane built winners in the team’s 2012-14 renaissance. We want to believe that the first mainstream sabermetric success of 2001-2006 could manage to always be one step ahead of everyone else, always innovating and unearthing the next great market inefficiency.
Time makes a mockery of us all. The A’s are sad now. The team has won a combined 137 games in the last two years, worst in the American League. The new CBA is taking away their revenue sharing stream. Sonny Gray might be broken. And in the middle of it all is Beane, once the grand genius who learned at the feet of Sandy Alderson and built a small-budget juggernaut, spinning his wheels, waiting for a savior.
Beane seemed so limber once, so easily fluid. He could nimbly find the diamonds in the rough, mostly because almost nobody did what he did.
Then, everyone did what he did. What’s more, they did it better, with more money, and with more boldness. Beane has never really rebuilt the A’s from the ground up. He’s never sold off all of his major assets with the express purpose of filling the farm system with ammunition. Even the biggest trade of the last five years — sending Josh Donaldson to Toronto — reaped oh so very little. Carrying out small trades here and there to keep the major-league product respectable isn’t doing the important work on the back end. He’s just...stuck.
That’s primarily because Beane does not seem to have evolved. Jeff Luhnow and Theo Epstein sold off everything on the Astros and Cubs rosters for parts, and through drafts and trades, now have two of the most sustainable organizations in baseball. Andrew Friedman has done the trick of taking all the money and all the prospects and making the Dodgers look like winners, now and for years to come. Neal Huntington got a whole book written about him and what brought the Pirates glory in the last few years. Mark Shapiro began what Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff finished in Cleveland, managing creative assets and a small payroll to make what was probably the most fun team in the sport last year, a a team that was a base hit away from winning its first World Series in almost 70 years.
Even teams like the Brewers, Braves, and Phillies are getting in on the act, putting multi-year rebuilds in motion in order to hit jackpot down the road. Beane? Thanks to the likes of Donaldson and some low-radar pickups — not to mention the emergence of Sonny Gray — he got back to contention for awhile there. But then, Donaldson left, and Beane didn’t appear to recognize that he probably needed to be bolder than he ever had been.
That farm system should make A’s fans nervous. Keith Law ranks it 23rd. Neither Law nor Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo at MLB Pipeline has any A’s prospect above 53rd in their recent rankings. Besides Gray and Sean Doolittle, Beane and his capo David Forst don’t have any more big-ticket assets to trade. Their remaining first-round draft picks over the last five years are not high-profile guys. A.J. Puk has some potential, but he’s a pitcher with only 32 2⁄3 innings in low A-ball under his belt. There’s a long way to go and a lot of roads to go down with him.
As for those pitchers, yes, there is something hopeful about the likes of Gray, Kendall Graveman, Sean Manaea, and Jharel Cotton. FanGraphs thinks those guys will pile up innings and fWAR, which would at least stabilize the team. However, none of them logged a cFIP lower than 92 last year. They may eat innings, but those figures suggest none will be any better than good.
Graveman, Manaea and Cotton have time to develop, and maybe they will make big leaps forward. That would be great! But what about Gray? He wasn’t as bad as his 5.69 ERA suggested, yet then again, he wasn’t as good as his 2.73 ERA the season before. Yes, Gray struggled with injury last year, and that may have led to his worsening cFIP and Deserved Run Average numbers, but there’s also the real possibility that Gray may never be as good as that electric rookie year. Which is very sad. Gray is fun. Gray has style. Gray should be great.
The very future of the organization is also in question. The A’s will continue to exist, but the kind of organization they will be may be overhauled in a massive way. The ownership group was shaken up back in November. In fact, maybe that part won’t be as sad. New president Dave Kaval seems committed to building a privately funded stadium in Oakland, thereby not abandoning the fanbase, and also not using taxpayer money to do it. The team could be transformed by such an event.
It will likely bring much more revenue, which could offset the changes in the CBA that will hit the A’s hard. As Henry Druschel crucially pointed out back in December, there’s no such thing as a small-market team. The A’s play in the Bay Area. That is an insanely wealthy part of the country. The club will no longer be able to cash in on revenue-sharing money it probably didn’t deserve in the first place.
Maybe Kaval and managing partner John Fisher will turn the ship around and start spending commensurate with their market size, but that is years away. Maybe Beane and Forst will have a better draft in the next two years and not trade away their first-round picks, but the track record isn’t there. Maybe Gray will bounce back and he will be traded for a big package at the deadline, but the odds of that bounceback are smaller than I am comfortable with. Maybe Manaea, Graveman and Cotton turn into a great rotation and can carry the team, but given that Stephen Vogt projects to be your best position player, I doubt it will be enough. The A’s are projected to win 78 games this year. I’m betting the under.
At the end of the day, the A’s can’t stick or twist. They can’t do anything that will make them better for the next few years. They’re just sad. Pour one out for the East Bay boys, and cue your favorite Adele song. You’re gonna need it.