In recent years the Oakland A’s have almost become synonymous with trading away their star players for prospects. They’re always building towards the future.
Vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane and general manager David Forst have made countless trades that sent all-star players to other teams in exchange for prospects. After the 2014 season the A’s brass traded away five of their seven 2014 all-stars.
Most notably was the trade of third baseman Josh Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays for major league third baseman Brett Lawrie and three prospects; pitchers Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman and shortstop Franklin Barreto.
Many of the fans were devastated as Donaldson went on to win the AL MVP for Toronto in 2015 and that out of the return for Donaldson only Barreto and Graveman worked out. Barreto is currently playing at Double-A Midland and Graveman, though he has struggled at times, has pitched so well this season that he has solidified himself as a member of the starting rotation.
Still, the question I am most often asked by A’s fans is this, “If the team is always trading stars for prospects in order to build for the future, why hasn’t this supposed “future” arrived and if it, in fact, does ever arrive when will it?”
It’s a valid question. How many times will the A’s let their star players go before they decide that a winning combination of players has arrived and actually try to compete for a tenth World Series title? Beane and Forst seemingly have a plan but unfortunately part of it is stunted by money or lack there of.
A lot of the reasoning behind trading stars for prospects has to do with money. The Athletics’ owners Lew Wolff and John Fisher have the money to allow the team to keep their, for the most part, homegrown superstars. However, baseball is not the owner’s priority and A’s payroll is evidence of that. In 2015, their payroll was the the fourth lowest in MLB. They ranked 26th out of 30 teams.
Prospects and younger, inexperienced players cost less than signing players who are established and respected around the league. They are usually under team control for five or more seasons. Once they hit free agency, however, teams with money to spend will offer them contracts the Athletics front office could never dream of offering.
Take 2013 Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, for example. He was granted free agency by the Tigers after the 2014 season and signed a seven-year contract in January 2015 with the Washington Nationals. That contract was for a whopping $210 million dollars. That alone is much more than the A’s total payroll.
Still, the fans of the Oakland Athletics are getting anxious and agitated, angry even, that the future they have been hearing so much about seems as though it will never arrive. Their stance is basically, “anytime a player becomes good the A’s will trade him for more prospects.” That has mostly been the case and likely will remain the case as long as the current ownership controls the team. It’s sad but it is the A’s reality at this time.
However, there is hope for the Athletics and their fans yet. Both the big league team and farm system are filled with young talent. Young talent that is of similar age and similar lengths of time that they will remain under team control. In theory, within a year or two the A’s could resemble the A’s of the early 2000’s.
Back then the A’s had a trio of young aces in Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson and the majority of the position players were young, along with a few veterans, like outfielder David Justice, sprinkled in here and there.
The 2002 A’s team went on to set an American League record for winning 20 straight games. Even though they lost to the Minnesota Twins in the ALDS that year, it still created excitement and proud, happy fans.
That time didn’t last forever. When players got too expensive they were traded or, as in the case of 2002 AL MVP Miguel Tejada, simply allowed to walk away into free agency without even an offer from the ball club. Still with continuity in the ages of the players the A’s were dominant for five or six seasons, despite never winning a World Series.
The fans in the East Bay are yearning now for a World Series contender. It may take a season or two, but it appears to be on the horizon. In the mid-late 1990’s the Athletics were not very good and then these prospects began to arrive on the big league scene.
It’s highly plausible that the Athletics are on the verge of finally finding the mysteriously absent “future” that they have been waiting for.
Assuming ace Sonny Gray, 26, returns to form after a rough 2016 season to lead the rotation, the A’s rotation should be a winner. With many injuries to the pitching staff this season the A’s have had to call up rookies Dillon Overton, Daniel Mengden and Sean Manaea to pick up the slack. Of course as rookies they’re still adjusting but they’re all talented. In a year, perhaps two, they will be seasoned big leaguers pitching great games for the A’s. Kendall Graveman, a rookie in 2015, would be the final piece of the rotation puzzle.
Gray will be the first to hit free agency but not until 2020 and Graveman will follow in 2021, giving the A’s four or five seasons in which to compete and that is just before they could lose Gray and Graveman.
The prize pitcher that the team just picked up in the Josh Reddick and Rich Hill trade on Monday, Grant Holmes, won’t be MLB ready for a couple of years but he was a number one draft pick and has been getting rave reviews from Los Angeles Dodgers’ writers and fans who are sad to see him go.
Things are similar in the bullpen and with the position players, many of whom haven’t even hit the big leagues yet. Youngster and rookie Ryon Healy has, in a very short time, proven himself to be the team’s third baseman of the future. Rookie reliever Ryan Dull has done the same this season, showing an immense amount of poise in pressure situations. The A’s received two MLB ready relievers in the Reddick/Hill trade with Los Angeles, thereby putting more young arms in the bullpen.
According to MLB.com, only a third of the A’s top 30 prospects are expected to be in the majors after 2018 with the other two thirds arriving any time between this September when the rosters expand and the beginning of the 2018 season. The A’s have collected a lot of good talent and the guys that arrive post 2018 will be around before Gray or Graveman or the A’s power-hitting shortstop Marcus Semien hit free agency.
In September we should get a glimpse of what the A’s could look like in 2017. Infielders Rangel Ravelo,Chad Pinder and Matt Chapman are potential call-ups as are outfielders Brett Eibner and Matt Olson. Young catcher Bruce Maxwell is already being mentored by Stephen Vogt on how to become an all-star caliber catcher and the two other pieces in the Reddick/Hill trade Frankie Montas and Jharel Cotton should be up with the big league club to gain experience in the bullpen.
Things seems to becoming together for the A’s. With most of their top talent expected to hit the big leagues by 2018 and with another ten expected to be MLB ready by 2021, the A’s finally have a crop of prospects that are all due to hit the majors around the same time. They should be able to build a young, strong contending team with these guys.
Of course, there will be logjams at some positions and some of the players won’t have what it takes to be in the majors. While others might be be traded for a veteran or two to provide leadership, stability and experience in the clubhouse.
So not every prospect will end up remaining an Athletic. Yet it does appear that there is hope on the horizon for A’s fans that a contending team is not very far away. The “future” that they have been waiting for may already be beginning to arrive and it looks bright.
Of course, unless the team changes ownership in the next decade, it will be inevitable that the A’s will still lose some of their stars to free agency or trades, but what they have in the making are kids who will be able to replace those stars.
Until a change in ownership occurs there isn’t a way to say to A’s fans that the fan favorites and the big name players will be kept long-term. They probably will not be.
What can be said is that the A’s have enough talent in the farm system that are due to hit the big leagues within the same time frame, that they should be able to field a team that will contend, not just for one season but multiple seasons. That knowledge should provide some comfort to the many anxious, angry A’s fans – the future is in the midst of arriving, it’s simply now just a matter of time.
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