Revisiting the Rebuild, Part 2: First-round draft picks and international signings

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“Revisiting the Rebuild,” Part 2 of 4.  Part 1 can be found here.

When Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane blew up the roster in 2008 shortly removed from the team’s run to the 2006 ALCS he clearly announced that it was time for the franchise to take a step back and rebuild in order to have a legitimate shot at contending in the future.

It seemed that in his eyes the farm system had become relatively barren after several years of contending and the performance of the big league roster was about to head downhill with a payroll moving in the opposite direction, which is a bad combination for a team that operates as a small market franchise.

It was time to trade veterans for prospects, endure several years of losing to move up in the draft and restock the minor league system with players who would hopefully form a new, young, affordable foundation for Oakland’s next great team.

After years of losing the A’s managed to finish at .500 in 2010 thanks to one of baseball’s best young pitching staffs and it looked like the time to rejoin the ranks of the American League’s best teams had finally arrived again. Everything pointed toward a 2011 that, at worst, would have the team playing meaningful games in September. If everything broke right the guys in green and gold might even pop some champagne by the end of the season.

But here we are in September and it’s pretty clear that almost nothing broke right. Worse than that, the A’s appear to have taken a step back and with “Moneyball” set to hit theaters later this month the spotlight is on Beane more than ever and it’s hard for most fans to like the results they see on the field most days.

Which brings us to Part 2 of “Revisiting the Rebuild” with a casual look at Beane’s drafts over the past several years.

If you haven’t noticed, I’m going to frame this entire series as “casual” as often as possible to give myself a little elbow room. With a busy full-time job and a 2-year-old son and a 9-month-old daughter at home there isn’t a lot of free time left to blog. This whole series is being cobbled together during lunch breaks, coffee breaks and those incredibly rare moments when the pint-sized joys of my life aren’t clamoring to be amused, cleaned, clothed or fed.

Did Beane masterfully orchestrate a renaissance in Oakland through the draft or did he cause a complete train wreck? Let’s take a relatively quick look.

PRE-ALCS/LEAD-UP TO THE REBUILD

I’m starting off with a glance at a few of the drafts leading up to the rebuild because I figure if some of these players were on the verge of anything special around 2006/2007 Beane may have been able to stave off the rebuild for a few more years.

If you’re curious about the method to the madness in this post, I’m mainly going to be taking a look at the players Beane drafted in the first round and the supplemental round. The players on the “Coulda had” lists were taken in the first and supplemental rounds after Beane made his selections on draft day.

2003
First round picks: Brad Sullivan, Brian Snyder, Omar Quintanilla (Strike 1, 2, 3, Beane’s out!)

Coulda had: Carlos Quentin, Adam Jones

Other notable A’s draft picks: Andre Ethier, Eric Macha (Notable for sharing DNA with former A’s manager Ken Macha. For some strange reason these kinds of picks always amuse me)

In a nutshell: Definitely some big swings and misses in the first round of this draft and probably one of the reasons Beane decided it was time to tear down the franchise and rebuild. Beane clearly cashed in his biggest chip from this draft (Ethier) for Milton Bradley in a win-now move for 2006. If Beane had held on to Ethier and had better luck with his first-round picks we might not be sitting here examining a frustrating rebuilding effort.

2004
First round picks: Landon Powell, Richie Robnett, Danny Putnam, Huston Street

Coulda had: Gio Gonzalez, Yovanni Gallardo, Hunter Pence, Dustin Pedroia

Other notable A’s draft picks: Kurt Suzuki, Dallas Braden

In a nutshell: Overall this looks like it shaped up as a pretty lean draft in the first round so coming out of it with a closer, a decent starting pitcher and both a starting and backup catcher isn’t all that bad. Looking back, it’s hard to believe the A’s took Putnam ahead of Street. I had to cheat a little bit and stretch into the second round of the draft to flesh out the “Coulda had” list and managed to find some big names. It would have been interesting if the A’s took Street in Putnam’s spot and used the lower pick in the compensation round to grab Gonzalez/Gallardo/Pence/Pedroia. On that note, I will now step away from the keyboard for a moment so I can gently weep.

2005
First round picks: Cliff Pennington, Travis Buck

Coulda had: Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza, Colby Rasmus, Clay Buchholz

Other notable A’s draft picks: Justin Smoak. It would have been nice if they could have signed him but they couldn’t reach a deal and eventually he re-entered the draft and went to the Rangers.

In a nutshell: My guess is that the A’s were starting to look ahead to the day they needed to replace Bobby Crosby which is why they went with Pennington over some of the guys on the “Coulda had” list. Penny’s a solid everyday shortstop which isn’t easy to find but it’s hard not to look at some of the guys who slipped past the A’s and wonder what might have been.

2006
First round pick: None. Zilch. Zip. Nada. Oakland lost their first-round pick to the Washington Nationals when they signed free agent starting pitcher Esteban Loaiza while going all in on the 2006 season. In case you’re curious, the Nats selected Colton Willems with what would have been Oakland’s pick.

Coulda had: If the A’s had gone with a cheaper option than Loaiza for the rotation and kept their first-round pick they could have selected Daniel Bard, Chris Coghlan, Joba Chamberlain or Chris Perez. Decent players but nothing to lose sleep over.

Other notable A’s draft picks: Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey

In a nutshell: For a year without a first-round pick the A’s didn’t fare all that badly, producing an All-Star starting pitcher and closer.

2007
First round picks: James Simmons, Sean Doolittle, Corey Brown

Coulda had: Rick Porcello. I find it amusing that the A’s had a chance to draft Clayton Mortenson, Josh Donaldson and Trystan Magnuson and passed only to turn around and acquire them later in trades. I guess when you whiff on your picks you try to scoop up some of the guys you missed out on just to see if you can technically say you got something out of the 2007 draft class.

Other notable A’s draft picks: Gary Brown, Collin Cowgill. The notable thing about these picks is that the A’s correctly identified a couple of good young players but apparently couldn’t get them signed. Brown is now one of the Giants’ top prospects and Cowgill is playing in the majors with the Diamondbacks. It makes sense that the A’s were reportedly trying to get him at the trade deadline.

In a nutshell: Nothing to see here folks. At least they won a lot of ballgames in 2006 and finally made it out of the ALDS.

After looking over these drafts I have to say that I understand why the A’s shifted into rebuilding mode. If you’re going to operate like a small market team you need a well-stocked farm system to populate the Major League roster and provide trade chips to augment the big league club.

By 2008 Oakland had burned through its farm system while trying to take advantage of its window of opportunity to make some serious playoff runs. For the most part, Beane had promoted the best and traded the rest leaving the cupboard bare by the time the A’s reached the ALCS and the era of the Big Three finally came to a close in Barry Zito’s walk year.

Beane managed to get one great year out of Frank Thomas and one sane, productive year out of Milton Bradley to help get the A’s over the hump in the ALDS. After that Zito and Thomas were off to greener pastures and manager Ken Macha was shown the door as Beane brought in Bob Geren to run the ballclub.

Oakland’s attempt to defend its AL West title in 2007 ended with a third-place finish and opened the door to a rebuilding effort that seems to remain a work in progress.

POST-ALCS/REBUILD MODE

The high point of the ALCS is in the rear view mirror at this point in this examination of Beane’s drafts and he’s boldly heading into the uncharted waters of a voluntary early rebuild. Here’s what he’s managed to scare up on draft day from 2008 through 2011.

From this point forward I’m adding another layer to the onion with a “Lose more games and ‘win’ the following player?” list for each of the next 4 drafts. Beane stripped the big league team down for parts after 2007 which started a cycle of sub-.500 finishes for the A’s and an improved position in the draft. The point of the “Lose more games” list is to see if Oakland could have done better in the draft if they did worse on the field.

2008
First round pick: Jemile Weeks

Coulda had: Brett Lawrie, Ike Davis, Lonnie Chisenhall

Lose more games and “win” the following player?: Buster Posey (lose more games in 2007 and move ahead of the Giants in the draft)

Other notable A’s draft picks: Tyson Ross

In a nutshell: Don’t get me wrong, I love Weeks but I’d rather have Posey or Lawrie in the middle of Oakland’s lineup for the next several years. Having a good little leadoff hitter is nice but the franchise’s biggest problem is the lack of a big-time RBI man.  It often feels like Weeks spends more time stranded than the cast of Gilligan’s Island.

2009
First round pick: Grant Green

Coulda had: Shelby Miller, Mike Trout

Lose more games and “win” the following player?: Zack Wheeler, Mike Minor (lose more games in 2008 and move ahead of the Braves and Giants in the draft)

Other notable A’s draft picks: Max Stassi, Ian Krol, Stephen Parker

In a nutshell: Color me unimpressed so far, but like any draft it takes several years to make a final call. I have my fingers crossed that Green can make a successful transition from shortstop to center field but I’d take Trout over Green in a heartbeat.

2010
First round pick: Michael Choice

Coulda had: Chris Sale, Gary Brown, TBD

Lose more games and “win” the following player?: Manny Machado (lose more games in 2009 and jump ahead of the Orioles to snag a top-flight shortstop prospect)

Other notable A’s draft picks: Bobby Geren. Yeah, they drafted Bob Geren’s kid. All kidding aside it’s hard to tell whether any of Oakland’s other draft picks will be worth getting excited about.

In a nutshell: Choice looks like he has all the potential in the world to be an absolute monster in the middle of Oakland’s lineup for years to come. The rest of Oakland’s draft looks rather unimpressive which continues a general theme running through this post. Of course, in a few years this could look like a brilliant draft by Beane.  Drafts are just crazy like that.

2011
First round pick: Sonny Gray

Coulda had: Your guess is as good as mine for how some of the kids taken after Gray will pan out. I’ll throw Tyler Beede, Kolten Wong and Dante Bichette Jr. on this list to be consistent with the rest of this post and at least kick some names around.

Lose more games and “win” the following player?: I would love to have seen the A’s grab someone like Anthony Rendon or Bubba Starling but that would have meant seeing them lose a lot more games in 2010 and I have to admit that I was happy that they finished at .500 and I’m really excited about Gray’s potential.

Other notable A’s draft picks: Far too early to tell. Ask me in about a year. I am very interested to see if B.A. Vollmuth can eventually be a long-term solution for Oakland’s void at third base.

In a nutshell: It looks like the A’s are trying to put Gray on the fast track to the majors so it appears that this draft has the potential to pay off fairly quickly for Beane.

COMPARING THE A’S TO SOME OTHER CLUBS

So far Beane’s drafts from 2008 through this year have produced only one noteworthy contributor to the Major League club and that’s Weeks. That’s not a pretty picture when you’ve spent the whole time intentionally operating in premature rebuilding mode with all your hopes pinned on producing homegrown stars.

If I try to be generous and assume that Green, Choice, Gray and Ross will make an impact in the big leagues then the picture gets a little brighter. And if a few more players from the ‘08-’11 draft classes pan out as trade bait/productive roster filler/surprises contributors then you’ll suddenly have a pretty decent haul. But that’s stretching a long ways to put some positive spin on the past several years of drafting.

For the sake of comparing apples to oranges, I thought I’d take a quick look at how some other general managers seem to have done stocking their minor league systems.

GIANTS

How can you avoid taking a glance across the bay at Brian Sabean’s club? They have tons of money, a gorgeous ballpark, a shiny new World Series trophy and the hearts of every fair weather baseball fan in Northern California. It’s natural to sneak a quick look over your fence to see what all the fuss is about at your neighbor’s place.

Here’s what Sabes has gotten out of the draft from 2008 through 2011: Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Eric Surkamp, Zack Wheeler, Brandon Belt, Gary Brown.

For a GM who has a penchant for overpriced veterans that’s a decent return.

RAYS

Tampa Bay general manager Andrew Friedman is dealing with a lot of the same headaches as Beane: Low payroll, low attendance and a shoddy ballpark.

Here’s what he’s pulled together through the draft: OK, I’ll admit that I’m getting way outside my element sifting through Tampa Bay’s draft picks because I don’t get hit with as much hype about their prospects as I do with the A’s and Giants. But for the sake of taking a good-natured jab at Billy Beane I’m sure that there are at least two dozen players I could list that are absolute stud prospects if I had the free time to read the entire Internet.

A better place to look for a general take on the Rays’ minor league system is Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect list for 2011. Tampa Bay has 7 players on the list compared to 2 for the A’s and 2 for the Giants.

There have been some flimsy rumors flying around that the Cubs might want Beane to be their next GM but if I’m owner Tom Ricketts I’d rather set my sights on Friedman. He’s younger than Beane and he’s shown the ability to build a surprise contender in the tough AL East which is a pretty neat trick.

RED SOX

Sure, they’re the new Evil Empire with a gazillion dollar payroll and they could take draft day off and still field a team full of All-Stars because they’re one of the wealthiest teams in baseball. But they also have a lot of homegrown talent on their roster and Theo Epstein is sitting in the office that could have been Beane’s so why not look at his handywork in the draft?

Here’s Boston’s notable picks: Once again, I have to admit that I’m out of my element on this one and my vision is starting to blur from scanning over page after page of draft picks for this post. A real prospect hound could probably add at least a half dozen names to the notable picks list. All I know is Beane should have jumped at this job when he had a chance because if he did he’d be too busy polishing his World Series rings right now to ever worry about rebuilding a team through the draft.

For the sake of comparison, Baseball America has 3 of Boston’s prospects on their Top 100 list which edges the A’s.

INTERNATIONAL SIGNINGS

The draft is certainly the main spot for Beane to find amateur talent to replenish the farm system, but the international market is another place to look for young talent. There was a time when international signees such as Miguel Tejada out of the Dominican Republic and Ramon Hernandez out of Venezuela helped fuel playoff runs.

Here’s a look at the kids Beane has brought into the fold from abroad since 2008:

Michael Ynoa (2008) — The teen pitching phenom out of the Dominican Republic has seemingly been injured since signing with the A’s for $3.2 million. In other words, he’s fit right in. He’s still just a teenager and he’s on the road to recovery from Tommy John surgery so it’ll be a while before he has a chance to start working his way through the system.

Renato Nunez (2010) — The third baseman out of Venezuela is just 17 and has spent this season working on his game in the Dominican Summer League. According to Baseball America many scouts viewed Nunez as the top hitter available out of Venezuela in 2010 and his $2.2 million contract shows that the A’s believe the hype.

Vicmal De La Cruz (2010) — The 17-year-old Venezuelan outfielder is also honing his game in the Dominican Summer League. The kid reportedly has some of the “best all-around tools” seen in the players available in the 2010 international signing class and the A’s decided to pony up $800,000 to see if he can develop into a star.

Seong-Min Kim (2011) — The young Korean catcher signed with Oakland for $510,000 and is supposed to have a lot of power potential.

Say all you want about the A’s being cheap, but they’ve shelled out a decent amount of dough for these kids and it’s the right move. Oakland has to explore every avenue available to them to find potential stars and they’ve made aggressive investments on the international market.

If just one of these players turns into a star the A’s will end up with an amazing player for less than the cost of a free agent utility infielder. A bit of a gamble, but one worth taking when you’re on a tight budget facing an uphill battle to compete with the big boys.

The only frustrating thing for A’s fans who are tired of losing is that these kids won’t be coming to save the day anytime soon.

ONE MORE THING

A minor thing that I think has hurt the A’s in the draft is the lack of free agent compensation picks they’ve had over the years. When the A’s were regularly making playoff runs they held on to pending free agents just to get the draft picks and managed to use those to select Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton and Huston Street.

Players such as Jermaine Dye, Erubiel Durazo, Octavio Dotel, Eric Chavez, Bobby Crosby and Ben Sheets were all guys who could have had brought back a draft pick if they ended their A’s careers on productive notes but they all limped out of town leaving Beane with nothing to show for his investment.

I’m not going to pretend that the road to postseason glory is paved with free agent compensation picks but every extra pick helps, especially if you’re a small market team banking on your farm system to keep you afloat in the standings.

THE VERDICT

“Moneyball” the movie is almost here which means it’s time for Oakland’s closeup and the main thing people see right now is a losing team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2006.

The A’s last postseason drought lasted from 1993 through 1999 and the drafts from ‘93 through 2000 produced some of the following players: Ben Grieve, Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Scott Spiezio, Mark Bellhorn, Kevin Gregg, Tim Hudson, Eric Byrnes, Ryan Ludwick and Rich Harden.

Clearly, there are a lot of key members of A’s playoff teams listed above. Even the guys on that list who didn’t contribute to any playoff runs in Oakland at least developed into productive Major Leaguers.

Only time will tell whether the players drafted by Beane during the current postseason dry spell will make a similar impact in Oakland as the last wave of playoff drought selections but I can definitely say that an initial look at Beane’s effort to restock the minor league system doesn’t generate a lot of excitement for fans looking for immediate results.

To a great degree, the draft is one big crap shoot. Anyone who’s spent any time collecting baseball cards over the years can easily recall a ton of cards hyping No. 1 draft picks, top prospects or rated rookies who never really amounted to anything. Beane isn’t the first general manager to occasionally go down swinging in the draft and he certainly won’t be the last, it’s just the nature of the game.

There are probably at least as many wildly disappointing flameouts like Brien Taylor and Todd Van Poppel for every can’t-miss kid who actually pans out after being drafted in the first round.

If I had to make a call on whether Beane has succeeded or failed in the draft and international phase of the rebuild I’d have to say that almost everything is riding on the shoulders of Green, Choice and Gray.   No pressure, guys.

That promising young trio looks like the best of the bunch right now and Beane appears to be making every effort to put them on the fast track to the big leagues.

I can’t wait to see if they can rise to the challenge and bring some excitement and top-tier talent to a big league club that desperately needs it. If they thrive and some more prospects start to follow in their footsteps Beane will look like a genius again.

But if Green never regains any of the power he flashed in Stockton, Choice never gets a decent handle on his strikeouts and Gray follows a long, sad line of young pitchers to the surgeon’s table Oakland won’t be left with much to show for years of misery.

In a sport with no clock like baseball sometimes the hardest thing to do is be patient.  But that’s all A’s fans can do as they anxiously wait to see whether Beane picked wisely on draft day during the rebuild.

Coming up next: Part 3 of “Revisiting the Rebuild,” Trades, free agency and other notable transactions. Was Beane spinning his wheels with all his deals or did he strike some gold with his moves?

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