Will Billy Beane's Win-Now Trade Deadline Philosophy Pay Off or Backfire?

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Will Billy Beane's Win-Now Trade Deadline Philosophy Pay Off or Backfire?
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Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane is tired of his team being “one-and-done” in the playoffs.

The A’s have been to the postseason seven times during Beane’s 17-year tenure, but they reached the American League Championship Series just once. More recently, the A’s have won the American League West in each of the last two seasons only to lose to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series.

This year, however, Oakland officially is “all-in.” And based on Beane's aggressive trades over the last month, he surely will be disappointed if the As season concludes with anything less than a World Series title.

Beane bookended the month of July with blockbuster trades for a pair of front-line starting pitchers, acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Chicago Cubs on July 5 and then Jon Lester (and Jonny Gomes) from the Boston Red Sox hours before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

However, the A’s were forced to part with big pieces of the future in both trades.

To land Samardzija and Hammel, Beane traded a pair of highly touted prospects in shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney, the team’s respective first-round draft picks from 2012 and 2013, as well as right-hander Dan Straily. Meanwhile, the opportunity to acquire both Lester and Gomes pushed Beane to trade All-Star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who previously was viewed as a main cog in the A’s future success.

Yet, for Beane, that was a small price to pay for a chance to win a World Series in 2014.

"We have a team that can win right now,'' Beane said earlier this month, via Bob Nightengale of USA Today. "Just collecting young players is not something in our marketplace we can do.''

In general, both trades came as a complete surprise—at least to those outside the organization. Beane has a history of making blockbuster deals, but none of them involved the acquisition of “rental” players such as Lester and Hammel, both of whom will hit the open market after the season. Samardzija is at least under team control through 2015.

However, a closer look at Beane’s recent trade history suggests we should have seen these types of deals coming, as they represent the next logical steps for the A’s in their pursuit of a World Series.

After enduring a five-year playoff drought from 2007 to 2011, the A’s sneaked into the postseason in 2012 with a dramatic sweep of the Texas Rangers in the final series of the regular season. That taste of success—as well as the subsequent anguish of losing to the Tigers in a hard-fought ALDS—convinced Beane that he had a special team on his hands, a team with considerable room left to improve.

However, instead of targeting pricey free agents during the offseason, Beane capitalized on a leaguewide overvaluation of prospects and used the organization’s farm system to secure major league assets.

In fact, he went so far as to trade away a majority of the organization’s top-ranked prospects (as determined by Baseball America at the time of the trades), choosing to play the odds and not to buy into his young players’ long-term potential in the major leagues.

It goes without saying that the A’s would not be chasing their third consecutive AL West title this season if not for the returns in those trades.

Billy Beane Trades (2012-Current)
Date Trade Details
Oct. 20, 2012 Traded SS Yordy Cabrera (No. 15) to the Marlins and SS Cliff Pennington to the Diamondbacks; received OF Chris Young and cash.
Dec. 18, 2012 Traded OF Collin Cowgill (No. 11) to the Mets; received 3B Jefry Marte.
Jan. 16, 2013 Traded RHP A.J. Cole (No. 3), RHP Blake Treinen and LHP Ian Krol (No. 31) to the Nationals; receive C John Jaso.
Feb. 4, 2013 Traded 1B Chris Carter (No. 7 in 2012), RHP Brad Peacock (No. 4) and C Max Stassi (No. 14) to the Astros; received SS Jed Lowrie and RHP Fernando Rodriguez.
July 30, 2013 Traded IF Grant Green (No. 8) to the Angels; received IF Alberto Callaspo.
Dec. 3, 2013 Traded OF Michael Choice (No. 3) to the Rangers; received OF Craig Gentry and RHP Josh Lindblom.
May 15, 2014 Traded OF Jake Goebbert and PTBNL to Padres; received 1B Kyle Blanks.
July 5, 2014 Traded SS Addison Russell (No. 1), OF Billy McKinney (No. 2), RHP Dan Straily and PTBNL to Cubs; received RHP Jeff Samardzija and RHP Jason Hammel.
July 31, 2014 Traded OF Yoenis Cespedes and cash to Red Sox; received LHP Jon Lester, OF Jonny Gomes and competitive balance draft pick.

Baseball-Reference

R.J. Anderson of Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) explored Beane’s approach to prospects back in May:

The timing also provides a good spot to acknowledge an obvious truth: prospects can see their stock change in a hurry. The As had enough firsthand experience with the traded prospects by this point to determine whether they were overvalued by other teams; self-evaluation, such an underrated skill for front offices to possess, might have spurred the moves.

But no one can say for sure, and there are other potential explanations: maybe Beane (correctly) foresaw the AL West being more open than anyone anticipated, or maybe this was just an extension of the As longstanding strategy to push for the postseason.

And that brings us to Cespedes.

With the sixth-lowest payroll among all 30 teams (as of Opening Day) and a farm system that now ranks 28th overall after losing Russell and McKinney, the 2014 season will likely be the A’s last chance at winning a World Series for the next three to five years.

In previous years, Beane would have traded a young pitcher or two from depth in exchange for prospects, which then could be used to acquire a more established arm. However, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin’s respective elbow injuries early in the spring made that impossible. Therefore, Cespedes represented Beane’s best chance at landing an ace before the deadline.

The 28-year-old outfielder, who’s in the third year of a four-year, $36 million contract, will become a free agent after the 2015 season, and by then he’ll be well out of Oaklands spending range given the perpetual market for right-handed power.

Plus, as Anderson posited in regard to prospects, the team’s firsthand experience with Cespedes over the last two-and-half seasons surely played a key role in Beane’s decision to trade him Thursday.

On paper, Cespedes has come nowhere close to matching his 2012 production as a rookie, when he batted .292/.356/.505 with 23 home runs, good for a 137 wRC+ and 2.9 fWAR, via FanGraphs. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see him eclipsing a 3.0 WAR if he hasn’t already. Cespedes’ only redeeming quality is his .208 career ISO, but beyond that, his production has tapered off across the board.

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For Beane, the philosophy behind trading Cespedes at the deadline for a two-plus-month rental of Lester wasn’t any different than his philosophy behind dealing Russell and McKinney for Samardzija; all-in means all-in.

With the A’s window of opportunity closing quickly, Beane jumped at the chance to turn his team into a legitimate World Series contender, knowing that the organization wouldn’t be any worse off moving forward regardless of how the 2014 season unfolded.

Obviously, any number of things could transpire between now and the end of the regular season, but there’s no question that Beane’s blockbuster trades in July have the A’s primed for a deep run into the postseason.

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