Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
No team has won more combined games over the past two seasons than the Oakland Athletics. A’s general manager Billy Beane has been rewarded for his efforts in rebuilding the club by winning The Sporting News Executive of the Year in 2012 and Baseball America’s 2013 Major League Baseball Executive of the Year award. The fact that Beane has led the A’s to back-to-back AL West division crowns on one of the game’s tightest budgets has made him a deserving recipient of both awards.
That written, Beane’s rewards for his past efforts don’t guarantee that this winter’s moves will pan out. Beane had a busy offseason in which he acquired starting pitcher Scott Kazmir, closer Jim Johnson, infielder Nick Punto, outfielder Craig Gentry, and setup man Luke Gregerson. Kazmir will replace the departed Bartolo Colon in the rotation; Gentry will replace Chris Young as the fourth outfielder; Punto will backup incumbent starters third baseman Josh Donaldson, shortstop Jed Lowrie, and second baseman Alberto Callaspo; Johnson will take over closer duties from Grant Balfour; and Gregerson fortifies a bullpen that was outstanding in 2013.
The A’s have a deep team, but they’ll still need a lot to go right to win a third straight AL West crown. Regression from Donaldson is likely after the 27-year-old busted out with a .301/.384/.499 slash line coupled with exceptional defense at the hot corner last year. Lowrie, acquired by Beane last winter, played in a career-high 154 games after having never broken the 100-game mark prior to 2013. The A’s biggest acquisition last offseason, shortstop Hiro Nakajima, never made it out of Triple-A Sacramento, which made Lowrie’s .290/.344/.446 slash line a huge key to Oakland’s success. Getting another 150 games out of the oft-injured Lowrie in 2014 is asking for a lot.
Regression from Donaldson and Lowrie could be offset by improved seasons from Yoenis Céspedes and Josh Reddick in the outfield corners. Céspedes’ OPS fell from .861 in 2012 to .737 last year, while Reddick’s fell from .768 to .686. Gentry should be an upgrade on Young, who slashed just .200/.280/.379 after Beane acquired him from Arizona last winter. However, the cost of doing business with the rival Texas Rangers was high, as Oakland had to part with top prospect Michael Choice to get their man. Gentry brings a lot to the table: excellent defense, speed, the ability to get on base, and a .775 career OPS against left-handed pitching. Beane has been burned in the past by dealing away outfield prospects Andre Ethier and Carlos Gonzalez. Time will tell if Beane will ultimately regret giving up Choice for a fourth outfielder, albeit a very good one in Gentry.
In the rotation, Colon is out and Kazmir is in, along with a full season of top prospect Sonny Gray. The oft-injured Brett Anderson is also gone, as Beane sent him to Colorado for former top prospect Drew Pomeranz. Rather than re-up Colon as he did last winter, Beane chose to let him walk while first offering a contract to former A’s starter Tim Hudson, then settling for Kazmir on a two-year, $22 million deal after Hudson chose to sign across The Bay with the Giants.
Kazmir returned from obscurity to post a strikeout rate of 9.23 per nine innings last year while walking just 2.68 per nine as his fastball velocity increased from 86.5 mph in 2011 to 92.5 in 2013. The 29-year-old lefty is a risk given his past struggles, velocity loss, and injuries. If he can throw as well as he did last year, however, Oakland won’t really miss Colon despite the 2.65 ERA he posted in 2013.
Behind Kazmir, the A’s have Gray, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily, and Jarrod Parker, with Pomeranz, Josh Lindbloom, and Tommy Milone serving as depth. Along with the inconsistent Kazmir, Parker’s status bears watching as the Tommy John survivor lost velocity late last season and didn’t look quite as good as he did in 2012.
Beane shortened the game this winter by replacing Balfour with Johnson and flipping the superfluous Seth Smith to San Diego for Gregerson. Johnson and Gregerson, combined with incumbents Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, and Dan Otero should allow Oakland to post one of the game’s top bullpen ERA’s once more. However, it was puzzling to watch Beane spend $11 million of the small-market Athletics’ projected $77 million payroll on a non-elite, short-inning reliever in Johnson, who is projected to earn $10.8 million in his final year before free agency.
After spending big money on Johnson, the A’s flipped Anderson and $2 million to Colorado for Pomeranz. Rather than spending big bucks on Johnson, I would’ve kept Anderson in the rotation to see if he could finally stay healthy and make good on his potential as a front-line starting pitcher. That would’ve allowed Oakland to sell higher on him at the trading deadline or next winter rather than settling for Pomeranz, whose stock has dropped in recent years.
There’s a tendency in the sabermetric community to go easier on Beane than other general managers. When Beane acquired an expensive closer, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs defended the decision by writing:
"It’s not that it’s a transaction I love…At the end of the day, $11 million is a lot for a non-elite reliever…Johnson should help right away, and beyond that there’s no commitment. The A’s didn’t lose anything of value but money that would’ve otherwise been difficult to spend. And there’s something to be said for trading for a player you know you’ll have to pay, as opposed to bidding for one. With Johnson, there’s no suspense, no need for Plan B. It’s peace of mind for the winter, and peace of mind for the season. There are worse things."
It’s hard to envision Ruben Amaro or another less statistically inclined general manager getting that same treatment for violating sabermetric orthodoxy.
In the end, Beane has put together another deep team that should compete for a third straight AL West crown. However, regression from Donaldson, Lowrie, Kazmir, and Parker could make the going in the deep AL West tougher. Seattle, Houston, Los Angeles, and Texas had active winters that have improved all four clubs on paper.
Beane’s A’s have been the best regular season club in baseball over the past two seasons. That doesn’t mean every move Beane has made has come up aces. Young and Nakajima were flops last winter, and the Johnson, Kazmir, Gentry, and Anderson deals all carry significant risk going forward. Anderson could break out in Colorado, Choice could tap into his power in Texas, and Johnson’s salary could handicap the A’s at the deadline.
Beane had a busy winter and his track record of winning without a large payroll speaks for itself. A smart GM making a flurry of moves doesn’t guarantee anything for Oakland in 2014, unfortunately.