You are Billy Beane. It is November, 2014.
Your team has just completed one of the more epic collapses in baseball history. You had the best team by run differential by a wide margin in the middle of the season, but everything fell apart. Your team lost a one-game playoff in an extremely close game, and the victor went on to make the World Series. You have traded your best prospect away, and the farm system is not looking great. Your trade of Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester, designed exclusively to prevent the one game playoff loss, not only failed to do what you expected but has also been pointed to as the cause of the collapse.
You are at a crossroads; you want desperately to prove that the team you built is capable of winning in the playoffs, but you also see this team has glaring holes You have no left fielder, Josh Reddick just turned in his worst defensive season yet and also posted a .533 OPS against lefties. Despite Stephen Vogt’s emergence, your catching core is looking questionable at best. With Jed Lowrie leaving via free agency, you have no viable middle infielders, and with Coco Crisp’s defensive collapse, you may have nobody decent at any up-the-middle position.
You have stars, though. Sonny Gray and Josh Donaldson are franchise cornerstones who each look one good leap away from winning awards at their positions. Josh Donaldson has been in the top 5 in fWAR the last two seasons, though much of that is based on still-questionable advanced fielding metrics. Sonny Gray’s first season and a half have seen elite ERA’s, though his fielding independent metrics think he is a solid #2 rather than an ace. You also have some fine supporting cast. Scott Kazmir and Jeff Samardzija, and if they can repeat their 2014’s, they help assemble a fine playoff rotation. Sean Doolittle has jumped from lefty set-up man to dominant closer off the back of a sterling walk rate.
You receive a text; it’s from Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous. He’s been relentless in his pursuit of Josh Donaldson. Initially you rebuffed his advances. Nobody has to remind you of how good Donaldson is; you’ve been looking for Eric Chavez 2.0 for nearly a decade. He is incredibly persistent, though, and he’s surprisingly willing to trade what you would consider a franchise player. The latest offer is very tempting; it includes Brett Lawrie, Franklin Barreto, and even Kendall Graveman. Barreto would easily be the top prospect in your organization, and would help fans forget the loss of Addison Russell.
You check your projection system, which is surprisingly similar to PECOTA from Baseball Prospectus. You check what the dropoff would be from Donaldson to Lawrie. It’s not as bad of a plunge as you expected. Your PECOTA-mirroring system has Donaldson with a .293 TAv and 9 FRAA at third, while Lawrie has a .280 TAv and 7 FRAA at third. Donaldson is excellent, obviously, but so was Chavez. At any point he could turn into a pumpkin, and leave you with a franchise-crippling extension considering how low your budget is. Unless Daniel Robertson pans out, you don’t really have any options for shortstop in the near future, and Barreto sure would be nice to have.
Could you even get away with this trade, though? You were raked over the coals for trading Cespedes, even though he was pretty miserable with the Red Sox. You’ve even been jokingly texting Ben Cherington about just taking him back. You don’t have the kind of stars that could propel you into the playoffs like the Tigers do, and Donaldson’s late-career emergence screams regression. You remember his miserable cups of coffee before 2013, and don’t have any real explanation for his jump to superstar status. If you made this trade, so much would depend on Lawrie. If you’re right, and Lawrie can stay healthy while Donaldson takes a step back. If you’re wrong, you’re the laughing stock of the league.
Maybe you could take another route; maybe you trade Sonny Gray. There isn’t much precedence for trading an ace with just two years of experience, but the returns would be enormous. You could get back a guy like Barreto, address left field, and maybe even acquire a passable shortstop. The same caveats apply; if Gray takes a leap and wins a Cy Young, it’s the worst trade ever. If he goes down for Tommy John or loses velocity, you’re a genius. The return might be higher, but so would the stakes. Maybe Donaldson is less risky to trade.
If you don’t make any trades at all, you’re returning a team with serious question marks. You’d have to hope Reddick, Vogt, and Brandon Moss can mash righties, and that Donaldson and Norris can provide enough punch to keep pace against lefties. Everything would have to work out. Everybody would have to perform, and that doesn’t sound like a recipe for success.
After some consultation, you tell the Jays they have a deal. It’ll probably be broken during Thanksgiving weekend. A’s fans won’t have much to be thankful for, while the Canadians won’t even be celebrating a holiday. The irony is not lost on you.
You are Billy Beane. It is November, 2015.
Your team has just completed their worst season since 1997, the season before you took over as General Manager of the A’s. Your plan to reload around the field while trading the stars was immediately a failure. In an effort to shore up the offense against lefties without Donaldson, you signed Billy Butler early in Free Agency to an expensive deal, and he was an unmitigated disaster as an A. Your solution at shortstop, Marcus Semien, was so bad that you had to re-hire Ron Washington just to try and fix him. Your bullpen was the worst in the majors, and your young rotation was simply awful the last month and a half of the season. Your record was the worst in the American League.
Worst of all, the Donaldson trade went about as poorly as it could have. Donaldson took that leap you feared, and was voted the league’s MVP over Mike Trout, leading the Blue Jays to the playoffs. Brett Lawrie stayed healthy, but his defense was miserable, his bat wasn’t much better, and articles are coming out about him rubbing teammates the wrong way. Barreto was having a fantastic season in High-A, but a wrist injury caused him to miss more than a month.
Sonny Gray, meanwhile, had a great year but also has some question marks. His ERA was elite, but he also posted a .255 BABIP, and his September was so bad that the 162nd game couldn’t have come any sooner. A steady climb in FIP numbers from month to month during the second half is leaving you with doubt that he will continue to be elite.
You have committed to a rebuild, at this point. The emergence of the Astros and the surprising success of the Rangers means this is as good a time as any to rebuild. As the one non-contender in the division, it’s a seller’s market. Every press conference you are riddled with Sonny Gray questions. He’s young enough to be under control whenever you come out of this rebuild, but he seems wasted for the moment, and almost certainly his value will never be higher. Then again, he could take that leap and become the Cy Young winner next year. Jake Arrieta’s season is a reminder that big leaps happen.
At the end of the day, though, you elect not to trade Gray. Without a new stadium plan in place, you are worried that attendance numbers may slip into hellish levels if the team has no drawing power. Trading Gray would only further the stereotype against you; Billy Beane always trades his best guys and never builds off them. You were hopeful an ace would emerge out of the crop of Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt, et al, but none has. Gray will stay, and you can only hope he takes the leap Donaldson did and lead this team back to the promised land.
You are Billy Beane. It is May, 2016.
Sonny Gray has been horrible, His ERA is over 6, and FIP doesn’t think he’s fooling anybody. His walk and home run rates have soared. His fastball velocity continues to leak, while his Changeup velocity rises, leading hitters to rake on both pitches. His -9.9 value on his fastball is the seventh worst in the MLB. Your team is rife with injury, and only a dominant Rich Hill and the emergence of a few right-handed bats are keeping your team from the cellar. Relying on Rich Hill and right-handed bats does not smell like sustainable success.
You wonder if you made the wrong choice, back in November, 2014. Josh Donaldson hasn’t looked MVP caliber this season due to a drop in defense, but he sure would look nice right now. With the team looking to compete again around 2018, you’d love to trade Sonny Gray, but his returns would be exponentially lower than if you would have traded him two months ago. Every day you see articles, to this day, trying to explain the Josh Donaldson trade. You stare at your team, having been in-office twenty years now, and wonder if you’ve provided anything. You had a book written about you, but you’ve yet to hang a flag, and the organization looks just as bad as when you took it over.
You wonder what could have been. What if you held on to Donaldson, or even better, traded him now instead of two years ago? What if you traded Sonny Gray two months ago, instead of holding onto him? What if Sonny continues to deteriorate, or even gets injured and ceases to exist, like Jarrod Parker did? Maybe you need to just trade everyone; Danny Valencia would probably fetch a pretty high price. You see other GM’s being lauded as statistical geniuses, while you are mocked for making the wrong right turns, and you are struck by how fickle Baseball can be. Ten years ago, you could at least point to a Mark Mulder succesful trade to justify every Tim Hudson failure trade. These days, you have no Mulder. You have only Sonny Gray, and the mob outside the gates with Donaldson banners grows by the day. You know you’re one good trade away from being back in the limelight, but you doubt your ability to recognize that trade more every day.
You are suddenly paralyzed by a nefarious thought. You, Billy Beane, are Eric Chavez. It is not simply that you make bad trades, and try desperately to return to the days of good trades, it is that those days are gone. You once looked like a Hall of Famer, but Baseball changes, and you wonder if you didn’t keep up. You are not Derek Jeter; your second half WAR went the other way down the graph. Maybe the best move was to trade you when you were at your peak value. Perhaps you are also Sonny Gray, too, depending on how the next couple of months go.
You are conflicted by this thought. You still have flashes of brilliance; Rich Hill looks like a masterful coup. Like an old car that needs replacement, there no longer seems to be a pattern behind when your moves work and when they don’t. You know there is a way to make this team strong again, and that there is a way to finally bring home that ring you’ve dreamed of for so long. Some single stroke exists, in the millions of moves that could be made, that could be hailed as your masterpiece and justify all the others.
Something has to change.Next post: Trailing 30 – 5/23/16
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