Billy Beane is rightfully considered one of the best general managers currently working in baseball. His notoriety as an early-adopter of sabermetric principles is well-documented, perhaps overly so. Frugal ownership means he has guided the A’s to success in spite of a payroll that consistently ranks in the bottom third of baseball. This year’s A’s–widely considered playoff contenders–rank 26th of 30, far behind the teams they have to compete with (LA Angels and Texas Rangers both have payrolls twice as costly as the A’s).
How the A’s maintain success in the face of such a difficult competitive disadvantage is, at times, hard to fathom. In general the consensus is that the A’s are somehow a “smarter” team than others. This advantage could take many forms. Maybe they are better at developing players. Maybe they are the best at picking out talent to scout and draft. Maybe they identify and exploit market inefficiencies. They are most famous for this last strategy. In the early 00s, the A’s seemed to realize that the market overvalued context-dependent counting stats like runs-batted-in while underestimating the value of on-base percentage. Toward the end of the decade, the A’s and Rays seemed to realize the market was not treating defense as importantly as it should have. Last year the A’s found great success via the age-old platoon advantage, finding complementary players who could each mash from one side of the plate (Smith/Gomes, Carter/Moss, even Norris/Kottaras).
These advantages are hard to quantify or verify. However, another area in which one would expect a “smart” organization to excel would be the one area in which they compete directly with another organization: trades. A trade is, in some sense, a confrontation, which sometimes has a direct winner or loser. This can be a little fuzzy–after all, one team may be looking to dump payroll, or the two teams could have vastly different needs. I’ll be careful to acknowledge these “fuzzy” situations as I proceed through an examination of some of the major trades Beane has made over the last 10 years. The idea is that I can grade each trade as a win, loss, or tie; the “smart” organization would theoretically have a higher degree of success in trades.
This sort of analysis is inherently biased towards results rather than process, which is in a lot of ways a bad idea. However, we don’t know anything about the A’s process; we do know about their results.
(Note: Many of the trades here were ultimately made because Beane did not think he could re-sign a player. While perhaps Beane got the best he could for a player in these cases, I don’t think that’s excuse for not getting a fair return. This will be the biggest criticism of my method, so I’ll acknowledge it here.)
Let’s get to it.
We had Bradley for one season, the 2006 playoff team. He was undoubtedly a key contributor. However, Ethier has 17 career bWAR and a career 124 OPS+. Bradley was ultimately traded for Andrew Brown, who was released after two unproductive seasons. This is a loss.
This is a more recent trade, and all recent trades have to be taken with a grain of salt because the full ramifications of the trade may not have developed yet. However, this one looks like a clear win for the A’s. Not only did Reddick put up a breakout season last year, but Bailey–the All-Star closer who was the catch of the trade for the Red Sox–was hurt and missed the season. However, the thing that tips this one is the acquisition of Miles Head, who is a mashing 1B/3B who looks to be a part of the future for the A’s.
3. January 16, 2013: John Jaso traded as part of a 3-team trade by the Seattle Mariners to the Oakland Athletics. The Oakland Athletics sent a player to be named later, A.J. Cole (minors) and Blake Treinen (minors) to the Washington Nationals. The Washington Nationals sent Mike Morse to the Seattle Mariners. The Oakland Athletics sent Ian Krol (minors) (March 20, 2013) to the Washington Nationals to complete the trade.
This is a three-team trade, but we’re just going to look at what the A’s sent out and brought in when evaluating it. In that sense, you can just think of it as we get John Jaso; we give up AJ Cole, Blake Treinen, and Ian Krol. Of the three, Cole is the big mystery. He could turn out to be good enough for this result to change, but right now this looks like a slight win, or at least a tie.
4. December 14, 2007: Carlos Gonzalez traded by the Arizona Diamondbacks with Brett Anderson, Chris Carter, Aaron Cunningham, Dana Eveland and Greg Smith to the Oakland Athletics for Dan Haren and Connor Robertson.
The haul the A’s pulled in for Haren is impressive. Every one of the prospects we received spent time with Oakland’s major league club, quite a feat (yes, even Cunningham). Carlos Gonzalez and Brett Anderson highlight the pack, as both have blossomed into premier talents. Carter became the centerpiece of a trade to be discussed. Even Eveland put up a dcent season with the A’s, posting 2.4 fWAR during the rebuilding 2008 season (Sean Gallagher had 11 starts that year!)
However, we shouldn’t be too quick to judge this, because what Dan Haren did for the next five years was truly terrific, putting up 20 bWAR in the 2007-2011 period. In some sense the jury is out, because we still haven’t seen whether Brett Anderson can be a consistent front-line starter. I know a lot of us think he can and will be, but we don’t know yet. But Anderson and Gonzalez is too much. This is a win.
Most would say this is a slight win, but only because Cook tips the balance. I think we traded a no. 2-3 for a no. 2-3, basically, plus Cook. Trevor Cahill is one of the better pitchers in the league, and with his sinker, should provide above-average innings for years–and there are even some who think he could contend for a Cy.
This one is a killer. Again, we only had Holliday for a year, and that year turned out to be one of his worst. Street has actually turned out to be one of the best relief pitchers in baseball for the last two years or so, and we all know about CarGo, who has blossomed in Colorado into the five-tool player we all knew he could be. A loss for sure.
It is tempting to take the small sample size results of the last two weeks, declare that Jed Lowrie is the Second Coming of Rogers Hornsby, and move on. Unfortunately, I think the results are a lot more ambiguous than that. Brad Peacock and Chris Carter may play for the Astros, but I think both will prove to have what it takes to stick around in Houston as the rebuilding project continues. Carter may strike out far too often, but he has enormous power–4 homers already this season, and he would have hit about 40 last year if his pace extended over 700 PAs. So while Lowrie absolutely filled a void for the A’s, I am going to say this one is a tie until we know what Carter and Peacock are worth. (I know there are others who don’t see Carter the way I do, so if you want to grade it out as a win, go ahead.)
Since being traded from the A’s, Swisher has put up almost 15 WAR. Obviously this was a contract-avoidance type thing, but just pointing it out. If we are looking at this purely from the standpoint of this trade and this trade only, this grades out as a win, because it’s fair to suspect that Gio will surpass that 15 WAR mark; since becoming a regular starter in 2010, he has posted 4.0, 4.3, and 4.9 bWAR on his way to becoming a contender for the Cy Young. That means this is a win. Unfortunately, he became a contender for the Cy Young with a team other than the A’s. Cue next trade…
9. December 23, 2011: Gio Gonzalez traded by the Oakland Athletics with Robert Gilliam (minors) to the Washington Nationals for A.J. Cole (minors), Tommy Milone, Derek Norris and Brad Peacock.
HMMM. I am going to say this looks like a loss. Milone is great, and he will stick. Derek Norris has looked a lot better this year. Obviously Peacock and Cole became parts to other trades, both trades I’ve graded as wins, so it’s hard to say what their value was–could the trades (for Jaso and Lowrie, two starters on this year’s team) have been completed otherwise? I don’t know. But we traded a dollar for four quarters, or something like that. Milone may end up being about 3/4 of a Gio, though, so it’s not as terrible a loss as it might look at first.
This is probably the biggest loss on here. Why does no one talk about how terrible this trade was?!?!?! It’s true that this is one of the instances where Beane was just trying to get value for a guy who he believed he wouldn’t be able to keep. Hudson has made something like $90million since then, all with the Braves. But still. That trade was absolutely worthless. We got nothing for Meyer, Thomas was traded for JD Closser, and Juan Cruz we got Brad Halsey for, whom we released. In the meantime, Timmy just kept on going… and going… and going. Now 37, he’s accumulated 55 bWAR, good for 76th place all-time. He’s 92nd in career strikeouts. Adjusted numbers are even better to him–he’s 42nd all-time in adjusted pitching wins, and 28th in win probability added. He’s been an ace for almost 15 years now. (Can you tell I have a soft spot for old Huddy?) And we got nothing for him.
I was shocked when I checked Mulder’s stats page to see that he is only 35 today, though he retired almost five years ago. When he was traded after the 2004 season, Mulder had already racked up 81 career wins in five seasons; he would only win 23 more as injuries sadly decimated his ability to stay on the field. If you want to grade based on the results, it’s clear that this was a win for the Athletics, as they got rid of Mulder when he was at the peak of his value. Even if Mulder had continued at the same level, that productivity would have been matched by Haren–and Barton and Calero played plenty for the A’s, too.
Slightly past 10 years ago, but whatever. This one was definitely a win. Marshall McDougall hardly played in the majors and Baseball Reference literally lists his primary position as pinch runner. Couldn’t make it up.
If you want to talk about players I had completely forgotten about, Keith Ginter would be a good place to start. Wow! This one is a pretty bad loss. Why is there a Ranger up there? I thought this was about the A’s! Well… I’ve learned to hate Nelson Cruz as he’s punished the A’s a good deal over the years as a Texas Ranger. But he could have been an Athletic. It’s actually possible to see why this seemed like a good idea at the time; Ginter was just one year removed from a .257/.352/.427 slash line, totally great for a second baseman. However, he was terrible in 2005 and never played again.
Matt Holliday played 93 games for the 2009 Oakland A’s. He was pretty good for those 93 games, but the 2009 team didn’t produce the way the management thought and Holliday–who was the first superstar to come to town since Miggy and Zito left–was quickly sent packing. Including the 2009 season, here are his bWAR totals: 5.2, 5.9, 4.0, 4.0. In St Louis he was a key contributor to the 2011 World Champion Cardinals. Brett Wallace is the only major leaguer we got in return, and we traded him in turn for Michael Taylor. Michael Taylor played left field–Matt Holliday’s position–tonight for the A’s. We turned Matt Holliday into Michael Taylor. Loss.
It’s true that you can think of this another way–since we had Holliday for barely any time, you could think of it as what we gave away for him versus what we got for him. The transitive property, kind of. It doesn’t really look any rosier that way: then it’s Carlos Gonzalez versus Michael Taylor. We had a 2/3 chance of getting a superstar outfielder (Holliday, CarGo, Taylor).
Brett Wallace has negative bWAR over parts of 4 seasons with the Astros. He has -.6 bWAR in 7 games for the Astros this year. That said, Michael Taylor has not really become a contributor to the major league ball club in Oakland yet. Both players seem like the proverbial AAAA player–a star at AAA but scrub in the majors. Tie, at least until Taylor busts loose (one can only hope).
The notoriously power-averse Jason Kendall came to the A’s in 2004 as a 3-time All-Star whose value stemmed from a career OBP above .380. He would never again be so productive, though he did give the A’s 3.7 bWAR in their playoff season of 2006. Mark Redman was abysmal after this trade, so I have to call it a win. Rhodes of course continued his epic journey through the big leagues as a LOOGY, seemingly appearing with every team on each circuit, but I can’t say he would have been worth what the A’s got from Kendall, and anyway, they in turn parlayed Kendall into a younger left-handed reliever…
After this trade, Kendall had one more good season and then was kaputt, posting negative values in two of his last three seasons and becoming a bit of a joke within the sabermetric community once so fond of his on-base skills. Jerry Blevins, on the other hand, is now a key member of the A’s bullpen. Rob Bowen was a backup catcher. Because Blevins has stuck, this is a win.
Marco became a fan favorite in his Oakland years, as he seemed to have a clutch hit up his sleeve anytime he came up during a difficult situation–despite his 87 OPS+, he seemed like a slugger when the going got tough. It was sad, then, to see him to depart–and even sadder when he succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations in his first two seasons away from the Coliseum, going for 9.8 WAR as a Blue Jay in 2008 and 2009. His disastrous stint as a Rockie notwithstanding, he’s been productive as a Red Sock and is again a Bay favorite today as a Giant. Graham Godfrey was once a pitching prospect of some promise, but he lost some luster after being cut to pieces in every start last year, and was traded to the Red Sox in a trade of little consequence. Loss.
T-Long was another fan favorite during his time ranging the outfield at the Coliseum, but the problem was that he wasn’t really that good. Mark Kotsay had his best season as soon as he got to the A’s, topping .800 OPS on his way to 4.6 bWAR and a couple of MVP votes (okay, enough for 14th place, but still!) He was good again the next season, but in 2005 and 2006 he faltered badly. So we got two quality seasons–one very good–in exchange for T-Long and Ramon Hernandez. The real question is whether Ramon Hernandez should have been someone we held on to. For the latter half of the decade Hernandez proved to be a slightly above-average offensive catcher. He kept his average above .250 and his OBP above .330 for the most part. In his next three seasons, Hernandez had 3.0, 2.5, and 4.2 bWAR. Hernandez was actually an All-Star in 2003. I think it’s clear that the A’s got what they wanted from Kotsay, but losing Hernandez was a bigger price than many might suspect. I call it a tie.
This is basically Kotsay v. Devine. I have to admit that I laughed when I saw Kotsay batting third a year or two ago for the hapless Padres. He has not been a major league player since about 2008 but has hung on through sheer veteran wiles, apparently. Joey Devine is a sad story. In 2008 Devine debuted as a flamethrowing righty reliever and somehow posted 1.9 bWAR in only 42 appearances. That is Kimbrel-esque. 2008 Joey Devine holds the MLB record for lowest ERA (min 45 innings): 0.59. That’s how good this guy was. Then came news of a Tommy John surgery… then another one. I’m not sure if Devine is still in baseball. However, for his amazing 2008 season, we’ll call this a tie/win.
I was about to write about a minor league trade in which we received Chris Denorfia years ago, but that is just crazy. Let’s stop at this round number of 20.
(Jack Cust would be included on here but sources differ as to whether he was signed as a free agent or received in a trade from the Padres for a player-to-be-named-later. If he was a trade, he was a win.)
Success Rate: 9.5 Wins, 7 Losses, 3.5 Ties
Hey, that’s pretty good! Especially when you consider that ties usually result from the two teams just having different needs, and you could be totally happy with what I’ve called a “tie.” However, some of the losses really hurt (Hudson, Holliday, CarGo).
What do you all think? Have I missed any important ones?