Perhaps the most interesting story of the offseason so far has been the roster reconstruction going on down in Oakland. Billy Beane is obviously the most high profile GM in the game and has developed a reputation for building young, successful teams that aren’t quite good enough to win the World Series. After missing the playoffs for the first time in five years, Beane proceeded to overhaul the core of his team. Gone are Damian Miller (age 35), Jermaine Dye (30), Chris Hammond (38), Jim Mecir (34), Mark McLemore (40), Mark Redman (30), Athur Rhodes (35), Tim Hudson (29), and Mark Mulder (27). That’s nearly 40 percent of last years roster and about $31 million in payroll, more than half of Oakland’s budget for 2005.
In return, Beane has brought in Kiki Calero (29), Juan Cruz (26), Dan Haren (24), Tyler Johnson (23), Dan Meyer (23), Jason Kendall (30), Keith Ginter (28), Charlie Thomas (25), Deric Barton (19). The difference in ages from the players shipped out versus received is striking, and the payroll difference is just as large. The combined payroll for the eight new major leaguers is about $13 million. Not only did the A’s get significantly younger, but they have shaved about $19 million off the 2005 payroll.
So, what have the A’s done to their actual team with these moves?
In reality, it looks the ’05 offense, right now, should be about the same as the ’04 offense, perhaps just slightly better. Jason Kendall should be a step up from Damian Miller, Keith Ginter will be better than Marco Scutaro, but Nick Swisher should be about the same as Jermaine Dye was last year. They could see improved performance from Bobby Crosby, though it’s just as likely that Erubiel Durazo slides back a bit to offset that increase. Overall, it’s hard to see a dramatic change either way. It’s still a league average offense with a line-up of solid hitters but only one superstar in the middle of the order.
The defense will most likely be worse in 2005 than it was in 2004. Jason Kendall’s not the defensive catcher than Damian Miller is. Keith Ginter, as a second baseman, makes a nice hitter. Nick Swisher isn’t much of an asset in the outfield. The decline probably isn’t huge, but it’s there.
Obviously, this is the big change. Gone are Hudson, Mulder, and Redman, who combined for 606 innings last year. However, despite their reputations, they posted a solid but not spectacular 4.23 ERA. The average AL ERA was 4.63, so as a group, they were about 10 percent better than average. If the rest of the staff had matched the performances of those three, the A’s 4.23 ERA would have ranked 4th in the American League, slightly worse than the 4.17 ERA (second in the league) the team actually managed. Despite all the hand wringing about moving Hudson and Mulder, they weren’t the main cogs in the 2004 A’s, and the A’s aren’t losing superstar performances from the 60 percent of the rotation they traded away.
However, they are replacing 600 above average innings with Dan Haren, Dan Meyer, and Joe Blanton. I’ve been a big fan of Haren and Meyer and they are two of the better young pitchers in the game, despite not having overwhelming stuff. However, Haren has yet to establish himself at the major league level, posting an ERA 14 percent below league average during his 118 innings over the past two seasons. He looked like he was ready to turn the corner as the season wore down, however, and if he stays healthy, I think he’s a solid bet to be league average or so in 2005. Meyer and Blanton are a bit sketchier; neither has proven that they are major league ready, and the A’s are taking a pretty big risk counting on them to take the hill every 5th day. I think Meyer’s the better of the two, but I’m not sold on either one keeping their jobs all season long. I’d expect the A’s will eventually get something like 400 innings from this trio, posting an ERA around 10 percent below league average. The A’s will have to hope for 200 innings from other sources, so I’m projecting the three spots vacated by Mulder, Hudson, and Redman to give up about 340 runs next year, as opposed to the 285 they surrended in 2004. 55 runs is a significant downgrade. Barring huge gains from Rich Harden or a return for Cy Young form by Barry Zito, the A’s rotation will likely cost the A’s about 4 or 5 games in the standings, compared to the 2004 version.
Perhaps the overlooked part of these deals have been the tremendous, cheap relievers the A’s have been accumulating. Their bullpen is perhaps the best, and arguably the deepest, in baseball right now. Dotel, Cruz, Calero, and Duchscherer from the right side with Rincon and Johnson as the lefties. On the outskirts looking in are Chad Bradford, Jairo Garcia, Huston Street, Chris Mabeus, and Seth Etherton. That second group that they don’t have room for might just make up a league average bullpen in 2005. The A’s have arms on top of arms coming out of the pen, and they shouldn’t have nearly the same problems protecting leads that they did in 2004. Expect a 2-3 win improvement from the bullpen for the A’s.
Overall, the current roster looks to be about 2-3 wins worse than last years model, plus lacks the “security” of having proven innings eaters in the rotation. However, for that downgrade, the A’s have stockpiled tremendous depth, gotten significantly younger, and freed up around $20 million in payroll. And he got Deric Barton, who will probably be a significant part of the A’s line-up in 2007 or so. That kid can really mash.
On an individual move by move basis, I’ll admit that I was a bit perplexed by Beane’s moves, but taking a step back and looking at it from a macro level, it looks like he’s setup himself up to have another successful offseason. The A’s have money to spend, and I’d be stunned if they weren’t in on J.D. Drew right now. If they manage to acquire a significant bat to improve the offense or another arm for the rotation, it looks like the A’s will again be a 88-92 win team. Only this 88-92 win team will be built of young players entering their prime rather than players who have experienced success and are heading towards big paydays and possible decline.
To those projecting the A’s to finish last in the AL West, I suggest you take another look at the roster. This is far from a bad team. There are some calculated risks in the pitching rotation, though the ridiculous depth of the bullpen should counteract some of that. The A’s are one more good player away from being about as good a team as they were last year, and they’ve got plenty of money to bring that player in. The A’s won’t be the same team they were last year, but I’ll be surprised if they don’t come pretty close to matching last years win total.