“Revisiting the Rebuild,” Part 4: Closing it out

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“Revisiting the Rebuild,” Part 4 of 4. Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 can be found here, and Part 3 can be found here.

OK, Billy Beane it looks like you won this one. You started a new rebuild before I had a chance to wrap up my four-part series looking at your most recent rebuild.

Bravo, well done sir. In several years when I break down the rebuild you started today with the Trevor Cahill trade I’ll know that I need to get my rear in gear and post before you beat me to the punch and tear the roster apart again.

Oakland’s general manager sent Cahill to the Diamondbacks this afternoon for three prospects and started the seemingly inevitable “San Jose or Bust in 2015” rebuilding effort that was rumored to be on the horizon.

Of course, there’s something sad about coming to the end of one rebuilding effort only to dive immediately into another one but that’s just life in Oakland these days.

At times A’s ownership seems to be doing everything it can to alienate fans so they can move the team out of town and this new rebuild seems strangely familiar with the last one. Didn’t we just do this?  It’s kind of like “Major League” meets “Groundhog Day” which would probably be really funny if it didn’t involve the team I follow.

But the bottom line is I committed to doing a four-part series examining Beane’s most recent rebuild and I’m going to be a man of my word and bang out the last post in my procrastination-stalled saga before Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey are shoved out the door.

Without further ado, here’s “Revisiting the Rebuild” Part 4: Closing it out.

FIRST-ROUND PICKS AND INTERNATIONAL SIGNINGS

Until this current run of lackluster baseball, Oakland’s last playoff drought was from 1993 through 1999. From 1994 through 2000 the A’s drafted No. 2, 5, 10, 11, 2, and 9 in the first round with no pick in 2000.

The current playoff drought has lasted from 2007 through 2011. From 2008 through 2012 the A’s have drafted No. 12, 13, 10, 18 and 11 in the first round.

One drought yielded five Top 10 picks but this run of mediocrity has only landed the A’s in the Top 10 once. In short, the A’s have been bad but they haven’t been bad enough during Beane’s proactive destruction of the club in the wake of 2006’s ALCS appearance.  A Top 10 pick is certainly no guarantee of landing a superstar but it definitely helps your odds of quickly improving your fortunes at the Major League level.

There are some interesting names in Oakland’s minor league system such as Michael Choice, Grant Green and Sonny Gray with some very young international signees with the potential to deliver big but for the moment the farm clubs don’t look flush with a lot of high-ceiling talent.

Baseball America ranked the A’s minor league system 28th out of 30 teams and assistant general manager David Forst recently told Jim Bowden that the franchise has one of the worst farm systems in baseball.

Not exactly a reason to get excited is it? It’s always a bad sign when one of the top baseball publications and a key member of the team’s front office says Oakland’s minor leagues are a barren wasteland. Of course, BA’s list came out back in March so Choice’s huge season and the selection of Gray in this year’s draft may nudge the A’s up the list a little bit, but the bottom line is that the real experts aren’t impressed.

I’m patiently waiting for John Sickels and Kevin Goldstein to post their takes on the A’s system as they make their annual run through the Major Leagues’ top prospects. It should be interesting to get their takes on the kids working their way up through Oakland’s system.

TRADES, FREE AGENCY AND OTHER NOTABLE TRANSACTIONS

It seems like the impacts of Beane’s trades have faded since bringing in decent hauls for Dan Haren and Nick Swisher. The lack of impact prospects brought back in return for established players from the 2006 ALCS club shows in the lowly assessments of the A’s minor league system and the lackluster results of the parent club.

Supplementing the homegrown talent with free agent acquisitions hasn’t gone particularly well either as most of Beane’s top targets have signed elsewhere with little reason to regret passing on settling down in Oakland for several years.

Trading for prospects will always be a gamble so the fact that only some of these kids have panned out so far is just a part of the game. All you can do is find the best deal possible and hope that you chose wisely.

As for free agency, it’s been nice to see the A’s flirt with big names but wildly frustrating to regularly see them fail to seal the deal. At some point, if ownership is serious, it has to overpay to get a big name to come to Oakland the same way the Tigers did several years ago with Magglio Ordonez and Ivan Rodriguez. Make some headlines, generate some fan interest, get the players you think can be a difference maker, go to the playoffs and rake in the cash to keep the cycle going.

The current ownership group has never taken that step and I doubt they ever will which will always leave the A’s empty handed when they venture out into the open market for premium talent.

THE VERDICT

That whole “Blow up the roster after reaching the ALCS and build for the future” thing didn’t work out very well did it?

When you get right down to it the A’s should be reaping the rewards of Beane’s most recent rebuild right now with a fun, talented young team vying for the playoffs for the next several years.  Instead, Oakland’s GM is selling off the pieces of a disappointing sub-.500 club while the franchise slowly sinks into irrelevance in the AL West where the Rangers and Angels are shaping up to be big-money powerhouses.

If there’s one simple, somewhat silly thing I take away from this series it’s that running a small market team is really, really hard.  If you’re Beane and you’re sitting around your office after getting bounced out of the ALCS in 2006 what would you do?

Ownership isn’t going to give you more money to spend anytime soon but the cost of keeping everyone on the roster is going up. You can’t work around your biggest salaries and remain competitive because your farm system is tapped out after several years of promoting the best and trading the rest in an effort to take advantage of a window of opportunity to contend.

So you try to get ahead of the curve and instead of holding onto as many players as possible and suffering a slow decline you decide to proactively cash in your best trades chips for prospects. You’ll lose for several years, move up in the draft and replenish the farm system to build the foundation of a young, cheap contender.

I think in a perfect world that grand plan would be panning out today with Cisco Field in Fremont on the verge of opening. If you’re Beane and you’re trying to draw it all out ahead of time, guys like Chris Carter, Michael Taylor and maybe even Adrian Cardenas are established position players by now. Michael Ynoa is an amazing young stud in the rotation alongside Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and a healthy Brett Anderson and Josh Outman.

With a new ballpark in Fremont about to open you can lock most of your homegrown talent up with long-term contracts and you have the new revenue stream and venue to attract frontline free agents to supplement your young core of players.

But that didn’t work out. Cisco Field in Fremont never got off the ground, most of the promising position players acquired in trades have yet to develop and the injury bug took a big bite out of the careers of Ynoa, Anderson and Outman.

So now it’s back to the drawing board to start the uphill climb all over again with the hope that at the end of the journey there’s a shiny new ballpark waiting in San Jose to welcome a green-and-gold clad group of amazing young players.

It didn’t work the first time and it’s hard not to be a pessimist and say it won’t work a second time. I may not like the seemingly neverending rebuilding process but I get it. I got it after the ALCS in 2006  and bought into the plan, being patient for several years only to end up right back in the same spot.

Once again we’re being told to sit tight and hang on for a new ballpark because that’ll take care of everything.

But will it?

LOOKING AHEAD

To say the least, I have my doubts about a lot of things related to the new rebuild that Beane kicked off with the Cahill trade and here they are:

1. Is Beane the right man to lead the charge?

He’s been in the GM hot seat for a long time, long enough for all the tricks of “Moneyball” to be snapped up by smarter, richer teams. At one time the A’s were ahead of the pack and now they appear to be woefully behind it. Unless Beane has some new tricks up his sleeve and a genuine passion for another rebuild it may be a good time for the A’s and Beane to go separate ways.

A change of scenery may do everyone some good. Personally, I can see Beane being a great fit to run the Dodgers when they finally get a new ownership group.

2. A’s ownership.

There’s no getting around the issue that ownership appears to be a major problem for this team. It feels like all Lew Wolff has done is alienate fans and the city of Oakland with his single-minded quest to move to San Jose and John Fisher has been a ghost since ponying a lot of the money to buy the A’s. These guys seem to spend just enough to look like they’re kind of trying but never enough to really go for it or jeopardize getting a revenue sharing check from Major League Baseball.

My gut tells me this owning the A’s has always been nothing more than an investment opportunity that has nothing to do with a passion for winning baseball. If Wolff and Fisher hold on to the team in Oakland they’ll keep spending down enough to always pocket some revenue sharing cash. If they sell the team they know that the club’s value has gone up since they bought it and they’ll walk away with piles of cash. If they move to San Jose they’ll reap the profits but I seriously doubt if they’ll go crazy like the Marlins and embark on a spending frenzy.

The biggest problem with the A’s isn’t the lack of fans at games, it isn’t the Coliseum, it isn’t the front office or the players on the field. It’s ownership. If the same ownership group is running the A’s if/when they move to San Jose I don’t have a lot of faith that there will be a major turnaround in the team’s fortunes in the standings.

3. I’m worried that a new ballpark won’t be enough.

Sure, a new home will bring in more money but the powerhouse teams in the American League such as the Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers and Angels are fueled by big money regional TV deals. If you think player salaries are out of control now just wait and see what they’re like in 2015 when the A’s hope to be setting up shop in San Jose.

A move from Oakland to San Jose will probably shift the A’s from being a small market team to being a midsized market team which still may not being enough to allow them to compete with the big boys in several years.

I understand that with the Rangers coming off of back-to-back World Series appearances and the Angels lavishing $254 milliion on Albert Pujols that it seems like a good time to go into hiding for a few years but I’m not sold on the idea that the competitive landscape will get any easier in 2015 when the A’s are finally ready to pull their head out of the sand and attempt to be competitive.

4. The new collective bargaining agreement isn’t exactly a love letter to small market teams.

Until the A’s are in a new ballpark with more revenue they’re going to have to limp along as a small market franchise and the new CBA seems to work against the small fries of the baseball world. In the past, teams like the A’s could try and outspend other clubs in the draft and the international market but it looks like that kind of action will be restricted which will hamstring Oakland’s effort to build up its farm system on the way to San Jose.

5. There’s a major difference between a prospect and a young Major League star.

We’ve already seen how young pitcher’s arms can explode and position player’s development can stall. Trading guys like Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey for prospects may seem like a great idea but a few years down the road there may be very little to show for it.  The Tim Hudson trade drives that point home.  Dan Meyer?  Juan Cruz?  Charles Thomas?  Not exactly future candidates for A’s number retirement are they?

A’s fans are being sold on the idea that another rebuild will allow the team to open a new ballpark in San Jose with a bang but there’s just as good of a chance that they’ll limp into the new venue with a bunch of disappointing young players.

If Beane and Co. really think they’ll be watching a first pitch thrown out in the South Bay in just 3 years why not consider holding on to Cahill, Gonzalez and Bailey who are all good young players fans across the Bay Area can rally behind?  If someone offers you a blockbuster deal, go for it.  But why move them just for the sake of getting unproven, cheaper players back in return?

Like I said before, I understand what the A’s are trying to do and why they’re trying to do it.  I’m even patient enough and curious enough to be oddly entertained while watching it all play out.  Out if “Revisiting the Rebuild” teaches us anything (aside from the fact that I procrastinate a lot before finally writing like I get paid per word) it’s that the best laid plans have a knack for blowing up in your face when you’re dealing with unpredictable young players.

Draft and trade wisely and you’re a genius. Catch a few bad breaks and you’re worse off than when you started which is exactly where the A’s are at right now.

Hopefully if I ever write a “Revisiting the Rebuild II” there’ll be a happier ending.

Follow me on Twitter @JunkballBlogger.

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