The Oakland A's are in full rebuilding mode. They traded two young, cheap, and cost-controlled pitchers for baskets of prospects. The calendar they are planning to give away at the ballpark is filled with players who are gone.
The Oakland A's are signing and trading for veterans. They're acquiring worthwhile players to fill out their lineup and rotation.
Both are true. It seems oxymoronic, but both descriptions make a good amount of sense. While we were chuckling about their faceless outfield from a couple of months ago, the A's went and got a bunch of name-brand players. Well, maybe not name brand. But to put it in designer clothing terms, the A's are at least shopping at Target instead of stealing from the donation boxes outside of the local church. Seth Smith, Bartolo Colon, Coco Crisp … these are all players that other teams would want.
It seems that the binary set of rebuilding/contending is one that leaves out too many shades of gray, especially when it comes to the A's. The A's are rebuilding, but they're also making an attempt to put an interesting team on the field, without blocking prospects at the same time. Take their lineup, as MLB Depth Charts has it right now:
Jemile Weeks - 2B
Coco Crisp - CF
Josh Reddick - RF
Seth Smith - LF
Brandon Allen - DH
Kurt Suzuki - C
Daric Barton - 1B
Scott Sizemore - 3B
Cliff Pennington - SS
Every single one of those players makes a certain amount of sense for a major league team. It's a mix of unknowns, unprovens, and low-cost veterans, and not one of them makes you wrinkle your nose in disgust. Barton was awful last year, but he had a 120 OPS+ and a .393 OBP the season before. Pennington is a defensive standout (depending on your metric of choice), which makes his bat playable at short. Same with Suzuki at catcher. Allen has the potential to be the DH that the A's have been trying to create in a lab for the past decade.
And so on. Every player in the lineup has some mix of limited upside and short-term potential. That's not exactly the formula with the projected rotation, but there's an interesting mix there too:
The top two starters were excellent last year. The #3 and #5 slots are ostensibly filled with top prospects. And even if he's a soft-tossing left-hander, Milone has absurd minor-league numbers that could play well in the cavernous O.co Coliseum. Again, it's possible to look at every single player and conclude that they belong on a major-league roster. More than that, they'd belong on a roster of a team looking to win more games than they lose.
Is that to say that the A's will compete for the AL West? No. If Albert Pujols retires tomorrow, he'll still finish with a higher OPS than Barton. The Angels and Rangers are far too talented to both fall prey to a miracle season. One of them could melt into a puddle. Two of them doing it while everything goes right for the A's? That's once-a-decade stuff, if that. The A's aren't delusional.
But they're committed to being interesting, such as it is. Maybe not to the casual fan -- Sizemoremania doesn't exactly provoke StubHub servers to fail -- but in a general, "Say, these guys might not be so bad" kind of way.
Meanwhile, the Astros will pick higher than the A's in the 2013 Rule 4 and Rule 5 Drafts, and if they can unload Wandy Rodriguez and/or any part of Carlos Lee's contract, they'll likely spend less money, too. They're melting the team down to get at the gold fillings. They're going to cycle through all manner of prospects, projects, and rejects. Fernando Martinez is just the start. And they'll probably lose 100 games while doing it.
The A's lineup is filled with interesting names, but it's a lineup that trends far more towards competence than upside. It's not a stretch to think that there isn't a single member of that lineup who will still be around for the next good A's team. And in the interim, they'll win just enough games to futz with their draft position. That doesn't seem like a big deal, but the difference between the top five picks in the amateur draft and the 25 picks that follow is a pretty substantial one.
The Astros are rebuilding, as are the A's, but the two organizations are going about it in very different ways. The A's aren't burning the team to the foundations and playing any guy with a scintilla of promise, hoping to win the surprise-breakout lottery. They're putting together an interesting team. The Astros are looking for raffle tickets until they can rebuild the farm. Both are viable strategies. The A's will be more watchable, but they won't automatically have the quickest path to contention. Whatever they're doing over there, it's sort of fascinating*.