Of Complacency and Roster Construction

Of the many other sins of which you could legitimately accuse this site, it is at least clear that we are not bandwagon fans.  Proof: in 2009 (final record 75-87 and a last place finish) we were throwing a post like every other day.  And now, after watching close to a half season from the best Oakland team of at least the last 25 years, a team which has been far and away the best team in baseball from almost Game 1 (no need to take my word for it), this is only the first post since the start of the season and only the second post since the end of last season.  Apparently contentment breeds complacency.

And it’s not like this post is going to be The Brothers Karamazov – one of the pleasant side effects of rooting for the best team in baseball is a surplus of content out there discussing your rooting interest, on both a local and national level, most of it far better than anything I could write.  It doesn’t seem like there’s much for me to add.  Everyone already knows that the A’s are run by the kind of man who won’t let a little thing like two consecutive division championships with the sixth-lowest payroll in the game stop him from spending his offseason overhauling the roster by digging through the bargain bin at Ross Dress 4 Less.  Everyone already knows that the team that leads baseball in runs allowed is also the team where not a single member of the 2014 starting rotation was in the rotation on Opening Day 2013, and the team that leads baseball in runs scored runs out a roster composed almost exclusively of failed prospects from other organizations.  Of all the rosters that every Moneyballed, this is the Moneyballiest.

With one exception (hopefully) – though to the rest of the world, Moneyball means competing on a lower budget by capitalizing on undervalued resources, Oakland fans have always seen Moneyball in terms of results.  That is to say, for the last fourteen years Moneyball has meant that we every season we lose all our veteran All-Stars, promote our rookies, fill out the remaining spaces with a bunch of scrubs, and win 95 games before losing Game 5 of the ALDS.  It’s kind of our thing, and it’s all we know.

This year might be different though, and the way it might be different is just about perfectly personified in a single trade from last offseason: Seth Smith for Luke Gregerson.

On the surface, Oakland lost this trade, and it lost hard.  A reliable lefty slugger is almost always going to be more valuable than a relief pitcher, particularly where that relief pitcher is not named Mariano Rivera (or Sean Doolittle, apparently, but that’s a different post).  This particular reliable lefty slugger has made good on the conventional logic – since the trade, Smith has thrown up a .285/.391/.507 slash line, in Petco Park mind you, good for 2.9 bWAR with a half season left to go.  That’s an All-Star type season, even with his defense dragging his offense down, particularly notable since Oakland could stash him at DH and not have to worry about his defense at all.

Gregerson, despite his initial hiccups, is putting together a heck of a season, with a 160 ERA+ and a K:BB ratio of almost 6 to 1.  No matter how awesome he’s been, however, there’s a limit to how much a relief pitcher can contribute to a team, and he’s only stacked up 1.0 bWAR thus far.  That’s a third of what Smith has given the Padres, making this appear to be one of the more one-sided trades we’ve seen in Oakland in the Beane era.

It’s not, though.  I’d make that trade again.  I’d make it twice.  I’d make it three times, and throw in the giant Rickey head from the Hall of Fame Racing Mascots to sweeten the pot.

Smith, as great as he’s been for San Diego, would be wasted in Oakland.  Our lefty slugger needs are taken care of with John Jaso, Brandon Moss, and to a lesser extent Stephen Vogt, all of whom are more valuable defensively than Smith, and we certainly have no shortage of outfielders.

Our reliable set-up men, in contrast, have been in much shorter supply.  As much of a strength as our bullpen was supposed to be coming into this season, there is no non-Doolittle I trust more in that bullpen than Gregerson.  While his objective value has been far less than Smith’s, his subjective value to this team, and the role he plays in it, has been far greater than Smith’s would have been.

And that’s why this season feels different to me.  A bad team – like San Diego, incidentally – needs to collect as much value as it possibly can, wherever it can get it.  They can’t afford to lose out on an All-Star type season like the one they’re getting from Seth Smith.  A great team, in contrast, can afford to tweak – to sacrifice the greater value in order to plug the lesser value into the area of greater need.  This is how weaknesses are replaced with balance.  This is how championship teams are built.

Probably.  Let’s revisit this in ALDS Game 5.

50-30, 1st Place in the American League West and Best Record in Baseball

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