Rule 5 Draft Caps Off Frenzied Winter Meetings
The Rule 5 Draft took place this morning in San Diego, with teams looking to glean a useful player from the pile of former-can’t-miss-prospects, injured pitchers, and org guys. Of course, it’s tough to focus on the draft when teams have made so many moves over the past few days. The M’s added a new lefty today, but the story of the past week has been how much the division landscape has changed since late November.
First, let’s do some due diligence about the Rule 5 draft. The M’s selected lefty David Rollins, a pitcher in the Astros organization. This was actually the third time they’d drafted Rollins, tabbing him in the 23rd round of the 2009 draft, and then the 46th round a year later (this after he turned the Dodgers down out of high school). He eventually signed with Toronto, and then moved to Houston in a 10-player trade that sent new Mariner JA Happ to the Jays. Rollins’ splits against lefties are impressive, so the thought process makes some sense here – the M’s did well in grabbing Lucas Luetge a few years back, and they probably see Rollins in that role. He’ll probably compete with Edgar Olmos, the lefty the M’s grabbed from the Marlins, for a LOOGY role in the 2015 bullpen. The M’s didn’t lose anyone in the draft this year. The only M’s name that BA’s Rule 5 guru JJ Cooper had mentioned in the run-up to today’s draft was Steven Baron, so….yeah, not a huge shock there. Some teams may have thought about Jabari Blash, but the power-hitting OF would be tough to keep on a roster, and isn’t realistically ready to contribute now.
So the M’s 40-man is once again full, and Fangraphs’ depth charts give us the first, hazy glimpse of how the AL stacks up. By this measure, the M’s have the best team (on paper) in the AL, fractionally ahead of the Tigers and Red Sox. So the projection systems must really be high on Nelson Cruz, right? Not so much. Instead, the story of the off-season is how much the M’s have benefited from their rivals’ roster moves. The A’s, again, on paper, were an elite team. By run differential, they were the clear #1 team in baseball. By base runs, they were neck and neck with the Angels, Nationals and Dodgers, but still a 94-95 win behemoth. As Dave has said many times, you can’t simply take last year’s *results*, add/subtract for player movement, and come up with a new expected winning percentage. Clearly, the team wasn’t “starting” from a 95-win base, not with Jon Lester and Jason Hammel on their way out the door. Still, the point is that the core of their roster was very good, maybe even excellent, heading into 2015. With Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, and Jeff Samardzija earning arbitration salaries, that core wasn’t terribly expensive, either (it was clearly more expensive for the A’s than it would be for the M’s or other teams, but these were not guys making market-rate salaries by any stretch). Between Nov. 29th and December 9th, the A’s essentially dumped that core, for a collection of pieces that replenish a farm system depleted by last summer’s trades and cost-controlled young players to fill out the 2015 roster. That helps balance their ability to compete now with their ability to compete going forward, but let’s be clear – an AL West favorite as of late November has voluntarily sunk their playoff odds for 2015.
Maybe this is what they had to do, given that their roster wasn’t necessarily improving. Maybe the A’s are especially loathe to lose a player like Samardzija to free agency instead of dealing him with a year left on his deal. Maybe Joey Wendle will shock the world, the way the A’s did the last time they did something like this, back in the winter of 2011. Clearly, the A’s aren’t done with their shopping, either. At this time in 2011, they didn’t have several of the players that would star on their 2012 division winner, notably Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick. Still, the A’s appeared to have a team that would’ve been running with the Angels and M’s for AL West supremacy, and have instead settled for a team that looks – right now – to be a bit better than .500. They’ve been very public in saying that they didn’t believe that they could compete with their 2014 core, but look at any projection system you want, and that claim looks…odd. Steamer/ZiPS have been optimistic about the players they’ve added, notably Marcus Semien, Ike Davis and Brett Lawrie. But the drop from Moss, Donaldson and Samardzija is still too much to overcome. Whatever the gap between what they gave and what they got really is – and personally I think it’s a bit more than the projections show – the *direction* of the gap shouldn’t be in doubt. The A’s got worse for 2015, the year that the M’s have pushed their chips in the middle and decided to go for it.
This may make a lot of sense for the A’s, who have constraints the rest of the division doesn’t have. They may see the fangraphs projections for the Angels as too pessimistic; David Forst and Billy Beane have both talked about an “eleven win gap” between the A’s and Halos in justifying their activity, breaking sabermetric orthodoxy and giving a roundabout vote of confidence to Matt Shoemaker and the rest of the Angels’ staff. Whatever the reason, and however you personally rate Shoemaker, CJ Wilson and Garrett Richards’ chances, the M’s have been given something of a gift here. The M’s have added through the subtraction of others. For years, we’ve been looking at an M’s window that always seemed at least two years away. The gap between the M’s and the other teams was just too big in the short term, and then you had the perpetually loaded system of the Rangers to deal with as well. I always worried that the M’s would hit their window only to find a 98-win monster in Arlington or Anaheim waiting for them. The A’s had what looked like an elite team last year, a team that wouldn’t be as good for 2015, but that had enough talent to challenge the M’s at a minimum, and they’ve cashed it all in. It’s impossible to know now how the teams will stack up in March, but man the M’s look better today than they did a few weeks ago.
What’s interesting to me as that, as is so often the case, the A’s seem to be moving in the opposite direction as everyone else. The talk in baseball for the past year has been that thanks to the second wild card, almost no teams are ever clearly out of the running. The number of “selling” teams at the deadline was limited to the truly down-and-out. The M’s would’ve been sellers in years past thanks to a massive gap between 2nd and 3rd, but now could exchange Nick Franklin for a CF and continue their run. This offseason, we’ve seen that last-place teams can make a run at the next season’s pennant if they have some money. The Cubs and White Sox each won 73 games last year, but have been incredibly active, trading young players for stars and making a splash in free agency. The Cubs have perhaps passed the A’s on paper at this point, while the White Sox still need a few more moves (or a breakout), but both have clearly ditched the old conventional wisdom about building over a period of years, and identifying a young core. The Sox grabbed Samardzija for a single year; this is not a long-term play. The Padres  *tried to grab* Cuban free agent Yasmani Tomas,* and just completed a trade with the Dodgers to land OF Matt Kemp, despite a lackluster 2014, and a chasm between their club and the Dodgers/Giants at the top. All of this speaks to the value these clubs put on contention and making the postseason. So why have the A’s hacked away at their chances in 2015? Sure, they may have helped their chances in 2017 or so, but every other move suggests that the A’s don’t value 2015 playoff odds the way other teams do.
One possibility is that, given the state of the game, the best place to be on the win curve for a team without a ton of money, is right at that 82-83 win mark, and with a young club. Sure, you know you’re starting the year a step behind the division leaders, but you have several months to see who steps up, and you go into the trade deadline knowing what you need – or knowing that you have assets to sell. In this scenario, the marginal cost to move from, say, a 25% chance of a postseason berth to 50% far outstrips the marginal utility. The error bars on all of these projections are wide enough that maybe the A’s are right, and that from, say, 81-87 wins, it’s all more or less the same – that the smart play is to either go big (pushing to 91 or so projected wins), or go nimble by sticking at a cheap 82. I have no idea if any of this is right. I’m just happy that we’re dissecting the A’s decision to get worse (for now) and not the M’s. The A’s may be right about the economics of it all, but the M’s organization could use a playoff push, economics be damned.
* Initially said that the Pads got him, which of course they didn’t – the D-Backs did. The Padres surprised a lot of people by hanging in that particular bidding war, but ultimately it was another disappointing NL West team that came out with Tomas.