This is one in a series of posts in which we break down each team’s wily offseason maneuvers and tragic offseason blunders.
Coming into the 2007-2008 offseason, Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane faced a problem.
The 2007 season had proved beyond all doubt that the A’s needed to rebuild. Beane had effectively decided bet the farm for the next several years on longterm contracts to 3B Eric Chavez and SS Bobby Crosby, but that was not working out due to both players’ injury woes (not that Beane should have necessarily bet the farm on fading pitchers like Barry Zito or Mark Mulder instead!).
Clearly the A’s as currently constituted had no chance to contend, but the question was, how could rebuild when there was nothing to rebuild with? Although the A’s farm system was not exactly barren, it was definitely no longer producing superstars the way it had been in the late 90′s, and outside of the occasional Travis Buck, was having difficulty producing even serviceable major leaguers of late.
Meanwhile the traditional avenues of rebuilding, via trade or free agency, were growing increasingly constricted. The combination of spiraling player salaries and baseball being flush with cash from better marketing and the cash cow that is MLB Advanced Media meant that teams were increasingly using their newfound cash to sign all the hot young players (and plenty of mediocre ones as well) out of their arbitration years, and in more and more cases, even several of their first few free agent years.
The words “cost certainty” were on everyone’s lips. Nobody wanted to trade away young talent, because young players provide more cost certainty, but at the same time, no good free agents were hitting the market, because all the good young players were being signed until they were well into their decline years.
Basically, baseball fans were getting what they had always claimed they always wanted. Far less player movement between teams, even poorer teams locking up their hot young stars, and more stable team rosters to root for from year to year.
Of course, every fan loves a stable roster when your team is great, but the problem comes in when your team sucks, because if players don’t move around as much, and are all locked in for years to come, then you are going to have a pretty sucky team for years on end.
This was precisely the problem that Billy Beane faced. He had cost certainty up the wazoo, but his team was sucky, and wasn’t going to get any better by signing whatever odd Kyle Lohses or Aaron Rowands might hit the constricted market, even if he had the money for that, which he didn’t.
So Billy Beane did what he always does – he bucked the system, found what people were overvaluing, and gave them what they wanted, for something he valued more. And in this case, when everyone was scrambling to find more cost certainty, Billy Beane decided to trade away cost certainty for something he needed more – boatloads of uncertain prospects from which he could sift tomorrow’s stars.
And I’m not talking about the weak cost certainty for a Dontrelle Willis or a Miguel Cabrerra – guys with just one or two arbitration years left and not signed to a contract. I’m talking about massive amounts of cost certainty – Dan Haren was signed for the next three years at an average of a paltry $5.25 million per. OBP machine Nick Swisher was signed for the next five years.
Most teams would never trade away players with contracts like that, even if they were in the most rebuildingest rebuilding mode in the history of rebuilding. Sure, they would gladly trade away overpriced big-name stars, fading “experienced veterans,” and talented players in the last year of their contracts. But trade away two outstanding young players just entering the prime of their careers and by some stroke of fate signed for the next several years to rock-bottom, bargain-basement contracts? Why would you ever want to do that?
But what Beane realized was that what good was keeping guys like Haren and Swisher around for, if you weren’t ever going to win while they were there? Sure, from some sort of “objective” perspective, their contracts look like absolute bargains, but if you are going to be losing anyway, what is the point of paying Dan Haren $5 million when you could instead be paying a prospect the major league minimum? Especially when people will give you all sorts of prospects for him? Prospects who might actually help you get back on a winning track, by rebuilding your team at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to rebuild?
So that’s what Billy Beane did. And I will be the first to admit that I criticized him in this space for making the Haren trade at the time, because I figured he maybe could have gotten even more. But that may have been a hasty reaction. In hindsight, when we consider what the Twins are reportedly set to get for trading the best pitcher on the planet to the Mets, Beane looks like he made out like a bandit by comparison. The Twins got four middling prospects, while the A’s got six respectable prospects. You think the Twins would have rather got what the A’s got for Santana? In a cold second they would have. The A’s traded away the lesser player, but got significantly more in return. That’s what trading away cost certainty can get you.
Check back in 2010 to see if it all works out.
Offseason Grade: B+
For boldness, and a little rashness, and Beane doing everything he possibly could to get the A’s back on a winning track in a ridiculously thin market. Probably nothing could have gotten the A’s an “A” grade this time around, because they were pretty much doomed from the start to not field a winning team in 08, no matter what moves they made.
Acquisitions: Prospects Brett Anderson, Dana Eveland, Greg Smith, Chris Carter, Aaron Cunningham, and Carlos Gonzalez (for Dan Haren); Gio Gonzalez, Fautino De Los Santos and Ryan Sweeney (for Nick Swisher); Kristian Bell and Graham Godfrey (for Marco Scutaro); Joey Devine (for Mark Kotsay); Emil Brown
Losses: Dan Haren, Nick Swisher, Mark Kotsay, Marco Scutaro, Mike Piazza, Shannon Stewart
Projected Lineup, Starters, and Closer:
LF Travis Buck – .288/.377/.474
2B Mark Ellis – .276/.336 /.441, 19 HR
DH Jack Cust – .256/.408/.504, 26 HR
1B Derrick Barton – .347/.429/.639, 18 MLB games
3B Eric Chavez – .240/.306/.446, 15 HR
SS Bobby Crosby – .226/.278/.341, 10 SB
CF Chris Denorfia – .283/.356/.368
C Kurt Suzuki – .249/.327/.408, 7 HR in 63 games
RF Emil Brown – .257/.300/.347
RHP Joe Blanton – 14-10, 3.95
LHP Rich Harden – 1-2, 2.45
RHP Chad Gaudin – 11-13, 4.42
LHP Lenny DiNardo – 8-10, 4.11
RHP Justin Duchscherer – 3-3, 4.96
CL Huston Street – 16 SV, 2.88