Beane fearless when it comes to remaking A's
OK, what do you think of your Oakland Athletics now? They may end up being players in the American League West after all. Their pitching is deep, their lineup competitive. Isn't that the bottom line in all of this?
Don't you love A's general manager Billy Beane? You have to, right? It's not just his vision, insight and judgment, either. There are plenty of those things, but there's something else, probably his single best trait: He's absolutely fearless.
He also has the ability to ignore the noise. He's been doing this stuff long enough that he trusts his judgment and that of his assistants. That's the lesson of this offseason in which Beane has taken the A's apart and put them back together again.
And he has put them back together. That's the thing that Saturday's trade, in which the A's acquired Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar from the Rays for catcher John Jaso, Minor League shortstop Daniel Robertson and outfielder Boog Powell, made clear. The A's are not rebuilding. The A's were never rebuilding.
It was easy to interpret otherwise. Beane has traded five 2014 All-Stars, including his best player (third baseman Josh Donaldson) and one of his best starters (Jeff Samardzija). He also dealt Brandon Moss and Derek Norris, in addition to dealing away slugger Yoenis Cespedes during the '14 campaign.
Beane set out to do two things: replenish his farm system and keep the Major League team competitive. He appears to have done that.
Where the A's line up in the AL West is tougher to know. The Angels and Mariners appear to have separated themselves from the pack. The Rangers are an unknown quantity, given the number of players recovering from injuries. The Astros are getting better, but there's still work to do.
Then, there are the A's.
First, there's pitching. Oakland has quality arm stacked upon quality arm -- from Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir to Jesse Chavez, Drew Pomeranz and two of the new kids, Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin. With Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin expected to pitch again at some point in 2015, the A's could have a rotation as good as any.
This collection of arms is so impressive it appears similar to the pitching Beane acquired three years ago when he last remade his roster. That remake resulted in 94 victories and a division championship.
Beane has a completely new set of corner infielders, with Brett Lawrie taking over at third and Ike Davis at first, and added veteran Billy Butler at designated hitter. He put what might be the finishing touch, for now, on his Opening Day lineup on Saturday.
In Escobar, he has a defensive shortstop who was as good as any in the AL in 2013. His defensive range declined in '14, but the A's believe he'll be the guy he has been for most of his career.
As for Zobrist, if there was ever a guy born to play for the A's, it's this one. He can play almost any position, most of them well. He's coming off a season in which he had 34 doubles, 10 home runs, 10 stolen bases and 75 walks.
He could open the season as Oakland's starting second baseman, or he could move to left field. Or he could do both -- depending on the matchup.
Zobrist gives A's manager Bob Melvin great flexibility in playing the matchup game. Rather than count on 24-year-old Marcus Semien, who was acquired from the White Sox, to be the everyday shortstop, Semien may end up with a role similar to Zobrist's. He, too, can play short or second -- and almost certainly will end up taking balls in the outfield, as well.
Beane found a willing dance partner in Matt Silverman, the Rays' new president of baseball operations. He's also remaking his roster this offseason, having dealt Wil Myers, Ryan Hanigan, Jeremy Hellickson, Joel Peralta, Sean Rodriguez and now Zobrist and Escobar.
The Rays will be younger in 2015, but like the A's, they have enough pitching to stay competitive. If rookie Steven Souza, who was acquired in the Myers trade, is as good as the Rays believe, they could compete in an AL East that could be the closest division in baseball.
As for the A's, let's not presume Beane is done dealing, because he never is. But he appears to have a team good enough to play meaningful games in September. It is not going to be widely picked to finish ahead of the Angels or Mariners, but that stuff is meaningless.
The A's have made so many changes that it'll take some time to figure out how all the pieces fit. Likewise, the players will need some time to adjust to one another and make the transition from being a collection of interesting pieces to a team.
That's where Melvin figures into the equation. No manager is better at transforming a group of individuals into a cohesive team.
Beane will freely acknowledge that no trade comes with a guarantee, that all of them have some risk. Yes, even good, smart, sound decisions sometimes turn out all wrong.
It was a thing of beauty last summer when Beane went all in, making trades to acquire Jon Lester (for Cespedes), Samardzija and Jason Hammel. He appeared to have given the A's a decent shot of playing deep into October. Turns out, he was wrong.
The A's were 66-41 and leading the AL West by 2 1/2 games on the morning he made the last of those deals. They fell apart, going 22-33 and losing 12 1/2 games in the standings.
They made the playoffs for a third straight year, but lost an incredible 9-8, 12-inning Wild Card Game in Kansas City. That was a fitting ending to a bitterly disappointing second half.
Beane then looked at a roster that had finished 10 games behind the Angels and was going to lose Lester and Hammel in free agency. He didn't think the A's could be competitive in 2015 by being timid. At the Winter Meetings, amid a swirl of deals, his hotel suite looked like a bunker with food wrappers and soda cans strewn about.
In the middle of it all was Beane. He did a good imitation of a guy having the time of his life. He seemed to love that people were doubting him and that there was this notion of the A's sliding off the map.
That was never what he had in mind. He said that all along, and he reminded us of that on Saturday.