Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics value the future; they just don’t think about it the same way you do. That’s what I’m coming to understand about the team, as Beane radically reshapes a roster that just got done winning 278 regular-season games in a three-year streak of consecutive playoff appearances. They made another significant move Saturday that helped crystallize the idea, trading John Jaso, Daniel Robertson and Boog Powell to the Tampa Bay Rays for Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar.

Zobrist and Escobar make Oakland a realistic contender again, albeit one of a different shape than their predecessors. Jaso was likely to be the club’s best left-handed bat, but Zobrist stands fine in his place. Escobar strips away the risk the team took on when they made an apparent commitment to Marcus Semien as their everyday shortstop, after trading for him last month. (Semien, for his part, helps offset the risk that Escobar is turning the wrong kind of corner, after he had an atrocious defensive season in 2014.) Zobrist’s added defensive value (not only being able to play positions Jaso can’t, including shortstop, but being more competent everywhere than Jaso is anywhere) is another huge bonus.

It’s a long shot that this is exactly the roster the A’s will take even into Spring Training, let alone the season, but as it stands, the team is not so demonstrably worse as to allow us to rule out another 88 wins or so.

Oakland Athletics, 2014-15

Position Players
Position 2014 2015
Catcher Derek Norris, John Jaso Stephen Vogt, Josh Phegley
First Base Brandon Moss, Stephen Vogt Ike Davis, Mark Canha
Second Base Eric Sogard, Alberto Callaspo, Nick Punto Ben Zobrist, Eric Sogard, Marcus Semien, Yunel Escobar
Third Base Josh Donaldson Brett Lawrie, Semien
Shortstop Jed Lowrie Escobar, Semien, Zobrist
Left Field Yoenis Cespedes, Moss Zobrist, Craig Gentry, Sam Fuld, Canha
Center Field Coco Crisp, Craig Gentry Coco Crisp, Gentry, Fuld
Right Field Reddick, Moss Josh Reddick, Zobrist, Vogt
Designated Hitter Callaspo, Jaso Billy Butler, Vogt, Escobar, Canha
Bench/Others Sam Fuld, Nate Freiman, Adam Dunn, Jonny Gomes Tyler Ladendorf, Billy Burns, Nate Freiman, Joe Wendle
Pitching Staff
SP 1 Jon Lester Sonny Gray
SP 2 Jeff Samardzija Scott Kazmir
SP 3 Sonny Gray Drew Pomeranz
SP 4 Scott Kazmir Jesse Hahn
SP 5 Jesse Chavez Jesse Chavez
Other SP Jason Hammel, Drew Pomeranz, Tommy MIlone, Dan Straily Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Sean Nolin, Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman
RP 1 Sean Doolittle Sean Doolittle
RP 2 Dan Otero Dan Otero
RP 3 Luke Gregerson Ryan Cook
RP 4 Fernando Abad Fernando Abad
Other RP Ryan Cook, Jim Johnson, Eric O’Flaherty, Evan Scribner R.J. Alvarez, Evan Scribner, Eric O’Flaherty

 

Is the team on the left better than the one on the right? Very probably, although the list on the left comprises players who made contributions throughout Oakland’s season, and not any set of 25 players who ever shared the dugout. The one on the right is a team made sober by a hard reality, relinquishing a bit of its former glory for the right to keep living and growing. This is the family starting again in a two-bedroom apartment after the market turned sour and cost Dad a fortune. It’ll be hard for the kids for a while; they still go to the same school, and a bunch of their friends (who used to also be neighbors) still have capital-M Money. It’ll be an adjustment. But they’re not suddenly in poverty.

That’s how Beane thinks. And that’s why he was willing to trade his top prospect, a shortstop or third baseman with the promise of a well-balanced offensive skill set to complement his positional value, and an under-the-radar but very successful young left-hitting outfield prospect along with him. Astute observers will note that he did a grander version of the same thing in July, when he sent Addison Russell and Billy McKinney to the Cubs for Lester and Hammel. Robertson and Powell are a step down the ladder from Russell and McKinney, but the parallel is there.

It’s illustrative that Beane was willing to give away future value to capture and leverage present value twice in a six-month period. It’s more illustrative, though, that he was able to. It’s not the case that the A’s are the league’s best scouting and drafting machine, so what that really says is that it’s not as hard to end up with two prospects in the general class of Robertson and Powell (or even Russell and McKinney) as one might suspect. They’re valuable assets, but not scarce ones. The scarce commodity is a player in that class who reaches their potential.

To capture the value MLB’s roster rules create in the cases where players do succeed that way, one must acquire them before they clear that hurdle. Beane regularly bets, and certainly bet here, on his ability to continue acquiring players at low points in value, whether that be right before they break out, or after they show signs of decline or damage. Beane will have replaced Robertson and Powell no later than June, and he’s pounced on the Rays’ doubts about the future of two stalwart regulars to make them his own. It’s a brilliant move.

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