By now you’ve probably heard: The A’s have acquired Matt Holliday from the Rockies. The expected package sends Holliday to Oakland in exchange for Huston Street, Carlos Gonzalez, and Greg Smith. The consensus seems to be that Beane caught the baseball world off guard with this move, but I really don’t understand all the consternation.
Oakland is able to field a payroll next year anywhere between $40 and $80 million, depending on whether Beane decides to retool or go for it. With several million coming off the books, he has the ability to add up to $35 million in payroll. Sensible paring of payroll the last two years has allowed Beane to save tens of millions of dollars against the expected decline in free agent contracts due to market concerns this year.
Oakland had good pitching last year, and they'll have better pitching next year. They have a deep, versatile bullpen, a young, dynamic rotation with several more major league ready arms in the minors to fill in, and they'll have full seasons from guys like Ziegler and Duchscherer next year, unless they trade Dukes to capitalize on his inflated value.
Their pitching is already among the strongest staffs in baseball. Their problem last year—their only real problem—was that their offense was, to put it kindly, terrible. Specifically, they were last in the American League in scoring, last in batting average, last in slugging, and second to last in on base percentage.
The biggest concern is obviously OBP. How much do you have to improve your team OBP to contend from where the A's were last year? Holliday? Holliday plus Furcal? Holliday plus Jerry Hairston? It won't take much. Beane can cobble now, or he can add $20 million to the books. He's been saving for the past two years so he could do this.
On top of which, the Angels are not in as good shape as people think. Yes, they won a hundred games this year. But there are problems:
Vlad is a year older, a year more injured, and a year slower. It's a walk year for him, but you can't expect too much improvement; he's got integrity and plays hard, so it's not like he can suddenly turn it on this year.
They're losing Teixeira. Granted, they didn't have him most of last season, but they need him to make their offense work.
Anderson is probably gone. That's not really going to hurt them, but it is another hole to fill.
KRod is leaving. Again, this is not such a huge loss on its own. Arredondo or Shields can close, and probably will do just as well as KRod. But it puts a hole in their bullpen. They don't have a ton of arms waiting to step in and fill late inning roles.
Kelvim Escobar is out until midseason at the earliest. He's had shoulder reconstruction, so an expected midseason return is optimistic, and it would be foolish to expect him to ever be effective again. Pitchers do not often return from shoulder reconstruction.
Garland is a free agent. A third time, Garland himself is not that great a loss. But he eats innings, he's reliable, and now they have to find four hundred rotation innings. How do you do that on the cheap? Nobody thinks Adenhart is ready yet, and if he is ready, he’s not ready to throw two hundred innings. They’ll need a swing man to cover him.
They're losing Darren Oliver and Juan Rivera. Oliver is replaceable, but he was invaluable to them as a long man and lefty specialist. Losing Rivera means their outfielders are Hunter and Matthews. And that's it. Hunter is aging but still productive. Matthews is below average at every facet of the game and shouldn't play more than a hundred games for a contender.
Basically, their 2009 team right now is Lackey, Saunders, Santana, and Scioscia. Granted, that's an outstanding core to be working from, but it's definitely vulnerable.
The Angels are not a 100-win team right now. They need two starters, at least one big bat, at least one bullpen arm, at least one outfielder and probably two, and they don't have as much money as the A's to play with.
So the A's are sitting there looking up at the Angels, thinking, "Our bullpen is better. Our rotation is just as good. Our defense is better. And if we finish anywhere other than dead last in OBP, our offense is comparable."
They had the third best pitching in the league in terms of runs allowed, fourth best in terms of ERA, and they're losing none of their pitchers. Where's the surprise?
The other consideration with the Angels is that their run differential was not that of a 100-win team to begin with. Based on their run differential, Anaheim should have finished with around 85-86 wins. Oakland can make up that gap. I’m on record speculating about the A’s trading for Holliday and signing Furcal. I’m feeling pretty good about that now.
Holliday will not be as productive in Oakland as he was at Coors. But best guesses by people who know stats a lot better than I do say he’ll still put up a .300/.380/.500 line. And that will make the A’s five wins better than they were last year.
It’s clear Holliday improves the A’s. But what did they give up? Huston Street had no place on the 2009 roster. He was leaving one way or another, and at this point, he’s little more than an effective middle reliever. Maybe he’ll regain his form in Colorado, but he had stopped being effective in the Bay.
Greg Smith was solid for the A’s last year, but again, was being edged out of the rotation by other pitching prospects. His strikeout to walk ratio was horrible, and he’s an extreme fly ball pitcher. The A’s sold high here, and I have serious doubts about Colorado being the right place for him. A low strikeout, fly ball pitching lefty with poor command in Colorado? That’s a recipe for disaster.
Gonzalez is the key to this deal. He has outstanding tools but poor discipline, and there are rumors of attitude problems and questions about his work ethic. Compounding this is a track record of high strikeouts and few walks. If Oakland wanted to improve its plate discipline and offense, Gonzalez was a key weakness.
Oakland gave up nothing useful from its projected 2009 roster. Beane can still move prospects for an outfielder, he's got $20-25 million to spend on free agents, his pitching rotation is set, his bullpen is set, and he has serviceable players at every position on the diamond.
So, he can CHOOSE where to upgrade. He can look around and see where there's a deal. He can pick his spots. And next year when Holliday leaves, he can take two first round draft picks in compensation. It's exactly the sort of deal we should EXPECT him to make.
Their next move is to shift Eric Chavez to first base. That will keep him healthier, and all the sudden they have ANOTHER productive, 30 HR, high-OBP bat in the middle of their order.
They'll explore trading for Beltre or signing Casey Blake. They'll talk to Furcal. They'll talk to Baldelli. And I think we'll see a serious push for Milton Bradley. The man was a monster last year, but he was hurt and he's a DH, which will keep the number of years down, and maybe the salary, too. Beane could easily swoop in and get another major bat.
Beane knows he's just a bat away from competing with the Angels. And there's no way four teams finish with 90 wins in the east again. The A's could sneak in with a wild card. This was a smart, foreseeable move.
The final consideration is the possible fallout for Oakland. How will this play out? If they aren't contending next summer, they'll get back more than they gave up in a midseason trade. How do the A's lose anything here?
Here are the scenarios:
Holliday and another acquisition help the team OBP and they contend. Holliday walks as a free agent and the A's get two first-round picks.
Holliday stinks up the league away from Coors. Holliday walks and the A's get two first round picks because his value as a class A free agent is set based on this year's numbers.
Holliday produces but the A's don't contend. The A's trade him to some other contender and get a haul of three or four prospects. The A's come out ahead of where they are now, having given up only one front line player to get him in the first place.
It's win-win-win for the A's, with absolutely no risk at all.
Oakland is five wins better this week than they were last week. Their pitching will improve with a year more experience and more development time. Right now, they’re a .500 team with the ability to add $25 million in salary. What’s not to like?
All hail Billy Beane!