Oakland has never believed in the complete from scratch rebuild, something that the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs have successfully done in the past five years. The latter showing more sustainable success for this season at least. In the national league: Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati are in the throws of their complete rebuilds that mandate selling off any big league talent for higher ceiling, controllable prospects. GM Billy Beane likes the idea of constantly improving and remaining close to contention every season, but if that’s 75 wins every year, is that a good structure? Critics of this method would say that two seasons of 100 loses would be worth it to create a sustainable, talented team that is full of high first round picks, ie. the Cubs. This continuous process trims the fat of under producing veterans by trading them for potential talent and creating openings for said prospects to prove themselves.
Oakland (25-29) has had a history of unconventional drafts and player valuation that has led to successful first round picks: Barry Zito 1999, Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton in 2002, and Houston Street 2004. More recently they have had success with Sonny Gray 2011 and Addison Russell 2012. Russell remained with the team for two years before being dealt with starter Dan Straily, and Outfielder Billy McKinley to the Chicago Cubs for two established starters Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija. As one of the smallest market teams, Oakland has to develop their own talent in order to be successful because they cannot afford to pay market value for it. Everyone in baseball is aware of the lack of starting pitching available in free agency, following this season and the A’s are ready to capitalize on it in the trade market.
Going into the season it was looking as if Oakland was prepaid for another huge haul for one of their first rounders, but Gray has largely underperformed so far this season. In 208 innings last season, Gray was 14-7 with a 2.73 ERA, a 3.8 WAR (wins above replacement) total for the team. He had 219 innings pitched in 2014, so a hangover from a large workload does not explain his lack of command. He was undoubtedly the ace of the staff for 2015, but his FIP of 3.45 suggests that the defense certainly helped suppress his 2015 ERA. So far this season he is 3-5 with an ERA of 6.19, with his FIP at 5.15 now is telling that he’s been not getting the same defense. This data is somewhat counter intuitive considering shortstop Marcus Semien had 35 errors in 2015, far and away the most errors from a premier defensive position. He’s on pace to only record 12 errors total this entire season, by contrast his pace from 2015 would suggest he would have an equal amount in the 54 games he’s played this season. Regardless of the other eight men on the field, Gray is not performing at the same clip as last year. As we continue to pull at the string connected to the sweater that is Gray’s performance we can unraveling more shortcomings. Gray has had trouble finding the zone and is walking two more batter per 9 innings than he did last season; 4.50 BB/9 in 2016 versus 2.55 in 2015. Gray utilizes his dramatic 12-6 curve 16.1% of the time and gets many batters to chase, but so far this season all of his pitches outside the zone have generated 4.6% less swings than they did in 2015. Batters have adapted to be more patient and lay off the breaking balls and his plus changeup, and have only swung and missed on 8% of pitches, a career low for Gray. Understandably hitters are able to watch enough footage, see what counts he likes to throw the curveball in, and be able to lay off when it’s going to clearly be in the dirt. Although hitters BABIP has been .318 so far this season is .045 above his career total, suggesting that the balls finding the gaps will find them less often as the season continues.
Gray is a very talented starting pitcher that has been off, as have many starters: Matt Harvey, Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke etc. If he can string together some dominant starts through the dog days of summer he can certainly retain his 2015 value. He is due to come of the 15 day disabled list this weekend and see how his balky shoulder is feeling. Some of his diminished production could be attributed to playing through the pain with his shoulder injury, but he needs to prove he is back in old form to get peak value. The market is incredibly sparse when it comes to controllable young pitching; Gray becomes arbitration eligible following the 2017 season, while remaining under team control through 2020.
It would take most teams an arm and a leg to pry Gray away from Oakland considering the haul Atlanta got for Shelby Miller in the offseason: Dansby Swanson (SS, 2015 first round pick), Aaron Blair (SP, 2013 first round pick), and OF Ender Inciarte. It took Arizona trading their best position player prospect, best starting pitching prospect, and a bonafide starting outfielder to get Miller coming off of a 17 loss season with a 3.45 ERA. Gray certainly has performed much better than that and should have significantly higher value, but he isn’t the only Athletic that is rumored to be on the move this summer.
Right fielder Josh Reddick certainly seemed like a candidate to be moved before his injury, this due largely to the fact that he will be a free agent at the end of the season. He is a hard nose player, and that may have have contributed to his broken thumb that landed him on the DL on May 20th; he remains out of the line-up. He tried to stretch a double and caught his thumb on second base on a headfirst slide. He’s slashed .322/.394/.466 so far this season with 5 homeruns in 41 games. A gold glover in right field with an arm that competes with some of the best outfielder’s arms like Yasiel Puig and former Athletic Yoenis Cespedes. Reddick isn’t quite at the level defensively that the $184 million Jason Heyward is at, but it’s not unreasonable to expect Reddick to get four or even five guaranteed years in free agency, regardless of whether or not he is moved. Brewer’s Ryan Braun is not a perfect foil to Reddick because Braun has had more offensive success, the likes of which is tarnished by steroids, but he is also likely on the move from the Brewers. He’s slashing an outrageous .348/.415/.573, not unlike his 2011 MVP campaign. He’s been in and out of the lineup for the past ten days with neck stiffness, but as long as he can keep it together, there are teams in contention willing to take on the $80 million guaranteed through 2020. A team will likely be overpaying for less productive years as the 32 year old ages, and it will take a huge offer from a team with talent in the minors to get him from Milwaukee. Many evaluators says players lose nearly 0.5 WAR for every year after 32, and a full win above replacement after 36, but there are certainly exceptions to the rule. Carlos Beltran is producing offensively this year for the Bronx Bombers and is 39 years old.
There is a 37 year old pitcher that the A’s took a chance on after seeing a string of four great starts for the Red Sox at the end of 2015. They signed Rich Hill to a one year, $6 million deal and it’s an understatement to say he’s overperformed expectations. In 11 starts, Hill is 8-3 with a 2.25 ERA and a WHIP of 1.13. He has 74 strikeouts in 64 innings. This is coming from a man that had not started a game since 2009. His production at market value is clearly well above the current price of his contract. He has nearly as many innings so far this season as he did from 2010-2014 when he bounced around four different teams. His production is well above anyone’s expectations and a team in contention would love to have a southpaw to not only eat innings, but to be an effective starter. The A’s have other arms available out of the pen that could be valuable assets to contending teams down the line this fall.
The relief market has become one of the more expensive areas tradewise in recent years. The Yankees have a trio of lights out relievers in Betances, Miller, and Chapman. Notably the Astros traded for Phillies closer Ken Giles and it took five pitchers including former number one overall pick in 2013, Mark Appel. He wasn’t even the centerpiece of the deal. Brett Oberholtzer has been a swingman in the pen so far this year, but has started. Vince Velasquez has a complete game shutout with 16 Ks earlier this year for Philadelphia. The other two pitchers are working in the minor league affiliates. In other words, shutdown relief pitching value has skyrocketed in recent years and it could mean any of Oakland’s relievers could be on the move. That could be Ryan Madson who is 12 of 14 on save opportunities this year with a 2.31 ERA or Sean Doolittle with a 0.93 WHIP.
If offers come pouring in for Hill, Reddick, Gray, or any of the relievers than the front office may want to tag Billy Butler in on the deal to a team that is willing to take on the roughly $15 million owed to him in the second half of the three year deal signed before 2015. In this way, Oakland can remove payroll and get controllable, young talent in the process. It would rewarding to see the A’s look like the 96 win 2013 team that had names like Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, and an 18 win Bartolo Colon.
The ‘rolling rebuild’ may not be the best method to produce a dynasty because the team misses out on getting those top five picks in the draft for two or three years when the team is not competitive. Those players chosen in round one develop into major league players and make the years off losing records worth it for rebuilding teams. The question that GMs and their front office have to think about is how the effects of lower attendance and revenue from complete rebuilds will affect the team’s ability to sign free agents in the future. Oakland has the prerogative to move some of their more valuable assets this July if they intend to be competitive in the coming years.