Last season, the A's were a sleeper team. It was a bit of a deep sleep, but it wasn't ludicrous to suggest that they would contend. Most of the moves they made a year ago seemed to indicate that they were planning to contend:
- They traded prospects to the Nationals for a year of Josh Willingham.
- They traded prospects to the Royals for a year of David DeJesus.
- They traded $4.25 million to Hideki Matsui's bank account for a year of Hideki Matsui.
Short-term lineup improvements for a team that already had a plus pitching staff. The top three pitchers were young, talented, and under control for years and years and years. Even if the one-year gambit didn't work out, the A's were going to have those pitchers around for a while.
Unless, well, you know.
And less than a year later, the A's are looking to forge a brand new pitching staff. Brett Anderson went from a pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA and preternatural walk rate to a Dr. James Andrews patient. Trevor Cahill went from a first-half sensation to a second-half collapse that made the A's think those two birds in the bush might be better after all. And once Cahill went, there wasn't much sense in keeping Gio Gonzalez around, especially when his trade value had a lot to do with the remaining years on his contract.
We get that the A's are low-budget. They don't have concessions; they have a lemonade stand. They don't have a huge cable deal, but they did reach a deal with Game Stop to sprinkle "GAME STOP" ads throughout their in-game telegram updates. They aren't going to be major players on any free-agent market. The last time they were, they spent $10 million on Ben Sheets, who then threw the sack of cash into the San Francisco Bay right in front of them.
But it sure seemed like a good plan at the time. With Willingham, DeJesus, and Matsui, the A's thought they were buying low-cost on-base percentage for one season. Where there had been three lineup holes behind a rotation that should have been contending for a playoff spot, there were now three competent hitters. Better than competent, actually. They had their warts, but getting all three made sense, dang it.
As is, the first domino was Anderson's Tommy John surgery. Then came Cahill's second-half immolation. That was followed by an offseason wherein the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels started stuffing $100 bills down insanity's g-string. Building a patchwork offense between Anderson/Cahill/Gonzalez was a good idea, but when injury and ineffectiveness claimed the first two -- and when the superpowers of the AL West started loading up on the world's best players -- the strategy became untenable.
So the A's held reset and the power button at the same time, saved some of the work they've already done, and started over. One of the hardest things to do in baseball is build a rotation with three or more quality pitchers. The A's had four last year, just not at the same time, and not for the entire season. There's a saving grace for A's fans with the quality of prospects the A's received. This isn't a flotsam-for-Michael-Bourn trade. The Athletics have pillaged the Nationals' system, and they did pretty well to get Jarrod Parker from the Diamondbacks.
Still, I would have loved to see the strategy again. Maybe with Jim Thome and Wilson Betemit; or Johnny Damon and David Ortíz; or Carlos Peña and Ryan Doumit. Some group of could-be-goods that weren't going to come at full price, with a hope that they could finally scavenge a major-league offense to support a top-shelf pitching staff.
But you can understand how they were wary about giving away money while committing to the $30 million that Trevor Cahill had coming to him, hoping that he wasn't as broken as his second half suggested. The good, sound, and rational organizational blueprint had to be abandoned. There isn't a huge competitive-balance problem with baseball -- certainly not the problem some talk about -- but that doesn't mean that the sport is always fair.