Has Billy Beane lost his mind? I mean, really. For years, the baseball world thought he was crazy, just, you know…like a fox. But after unloading three of his best players in the span of about a week for seemingly nickels on the dollar, you have to start wondering if these are the machinations of an evil genius, or a lunatic. Or maybe just a desperate man who went all-in and lost.
Let’s start with the most recent trade of Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox. Beane, apparently hell-bent on a complete roster overhaul, shipped off the pitcher for whom he had traded his prized prospect, shortstop Addison Russell, just a few months ago. What he got back in exchange was… well, underwhelming. Marcus Semien is a light-hitting infielder, who could probably play second or third base. He has a nifty .272/.374/.465 career line in the minors, which you could dream on, but it hasn’t yet translated to success in the majors, where he’s hit .240/.293/.380 in parts of two seasons. Chris Bassitt’s a young guy with a big fastball and a funky delivery, but he has walked nearly four batters per nine in the minors, and has never been considered much of a prospect. Rangel Ravelo is a 22-year-old 1B/DH type that hits a lot of doubles, but has amassed only 18 homers in over 1700 minor league at bats. You get this for a pitcher who’s thrown over 200 innings with more than 200 strikeouts each of the last three years? It seems a bit thin. So, to review, that’s Addison Russell, one of the top prospects in all of baseball, turned into a failed playoff run and some mid- to low-level prospects with some upside.
In the Josh Donaldson trade, Beane shipped off his team’s best player, still under team control, for a former top prospect who has failed to produce, Brett Lawrie, and three guys named Sean Nolin, Kendall Graveman, and Franklin Barreto. Donaldson is a guy who has accounted for more than 15 WAR (Baseball-Reference) over the last two years, who can hit and field at an All-Star level. Nolin’s regarded as a fourth/fifth starter at best, Graveman projects to be a reliever, and Barreto is a little known middle-infielder in the low minors, although Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel thinks he might be the key to the entire deal. Still, we’re talking about three guys most people have never heard of and a developmental project who has yet to prove he can stay healthy and hit with any authority in the big leagues. For the team’s best player!
Finally, in yet another apparent salary dump, Beane shipped All-Star OF/1B Brandon Moss to Cleveland for a second baseman. ESPN’s Keith Law describes it like this:
“For Oakland, the move clears some payroll space but doesn’t bring much return in terms of on-field production. Wendle hit just .253/.311/.414 as a 24-year-old in about half a season of Double-A in 2014, playing an adequate second base.”
Law goes on to say, in the Insider post, that Wendle is a contact hitter with very little power who doesn’t run well. Moss, though arbitration eligible, had two years of control left, projecting to earn, Law estimates, $6-7 million in 2015. Then again, that’s roughly the going rate for a league-average player, and Moss appears to be slightly better than that, with legitimate power.
At this point, I’ll concede that Beane has a track record of making moves like this. Turning good players who are about to become expensive good players into guys who could be good players that cost a lot less, with more years of team control. While he’s varied considerably in the kind of player he acquires, he’s been true to this ideology, with the exception of the couple of trades he made with a playoff push in mind: Cespedes for Lester, Russell for Samardzija and Hammell, and, back in 2008, Carlos Gonzalez and Huston Street for Matt Holliday.
In both the “all-in” or “mostly-in” trade years, Beane appears to have fallen on his face or eaten his hat. Or maybe both. Samardzija and Holliday cost his organization dearly, and he had little to show for it. But prior to this year, Beane’s reloading/restocking moves to clear salary and start another push brought solid returns. Value for value. In the 2008 offseason, he moved Nick Swisher for Gio Gonzalez, who went on to become a solid #2/#3 starter, who he then moved to the Nationals for Derek Norris and Tommy Milone. In 2004, he off-loaded Mark Mulder for Dan Haren, Kiko Calero, and Daric Barton. He later moved Haren for Brett Anderson, Chris Carter, and Carlos Gonzalez.
So what’s different this year? Has Beane changed his approach, or has the market changed? Is Beane, for the first time, behind the curve instead of ahead of it? His track record suggests that’s not the case, but what is his track record, really? Lots of unpredicted in-season success? That’s a lot of question marks. Maybe too many.
Let’s look for a second at the types of trades that have been made recently in major league baseball. During the Red Sox’ fire sale this year, they shipped off their best pitcher, Jon Lester, an All-Star capable of throwing a no-hitter and beating cancer, for Yoenis Cespedes, a right-handed hitter with power and no plate discipline, who produced at an average to below-average level. No prospects. A sandwich-round pick, but no prospects. John Lackey got them Allen Craig and Joe Kelly, a broken down hitter who lost his ability to hit and a 5th starter/reliever. Last winter, the Diamondbacks dealt their best young player, a two-time All-Star who was just 24 years old at the time, Justin Upton, for Martin Prado and a couple middling prospects. The Tigers traded Doug Fister, coming off a 4-WAR season, for Robbie Ray, Steve Lombardozzi, and Ian Krol. At the time of both trades, there was a lot of head-scratching. People genuinely wondered what Kevin Towers and Dave Dombrowski, and to a lesser extent, Ben Cherington, were thinking.
Earlier this year, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro gave his opinion, via the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“In this day and age, I think one of the most over-coveted elements of baseball are prospects … I don’t know how many prospects that have been dealt over the last several years have really come to bite people in the ass. I think what’s happened is, I think teams are really kind of overvaluing in some regards.”
Now, while Amaro has been occasionally mocked for his unwillingness to part with his own expensive star players, there’s also the chance that he’s on to something. Billy Beane’s Moneyball strategies were all about exploiting market inefficiencies. If Amaro’s right, prospects are no longer an option. Billy Beane and his team operate on the margins, and on those margins, there is little room for error. Through his typical guile and exploiting whatever market inefficiencies he believed existed at the time, Beane built an improbable juggernaut in 2014, until it wasn’t. He went all-in on his big bet, and he lost. Again.
Now, it’s time to start over and try again. But looking at his cupboard, he realized it’s mostly bare, and there were no prospects to be had without overpaying. And that’s not his style. Now, I can’t read Beane’s mind, but maybe the inefficiency he sees is on project players. The Red Sox gambled on broken Allen Craig and Cespedes. Beane seems to be gambling on undeveloped or underdeveloped players. As recently as the beginning of the year, Baseball America ranked Marcus Semien as the White Sox #5 prospect, which really should be #4, because Jose Abreu was already in his prime. He has a track record of plate discipline, which Beane has coveted in the past. Brett Lawrie was a top prospect, top 50 in MLB in 2011, according to Baseball America, at one time. Both are young, and both still have upside. Both are major leaguers. A couple of the prospects he acquired are raw, but have considerable upside. Maybe this is Beane’s new gamble. Remember, he once bet on Josh Donaldson once upon a time and won.
The difference in Beane’s strategy goes back to margins. With unrefined prospects and project players, there is a much higher margin of error. Is there a chance the market has become too efficient for Beane? He used to mix his gambles: top prospects plus projects. Now, it all looks like a gamble. Is Billy Beane still crazy after all these years? Is it still crazy like a fox, or something else?Next post: Parallel Universe: Gordon Gets the Green Light
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