When you're Billy Beane and David Forst, and you're running the Oakland Athletics, you have to get creative.
The A's signed 36-year-old outfielder Rajai Davis to a one-year, $6 million contract, presumably making Davis the team's starting center fielder. This type of move has become the Oakland way ever since the A's dropped the 2014 AL wild-card game to the Kansas City Royals. Sign a mediocre veteran at a relatively low cost and then hope to extract some value -- on the field and then preferably on the trade market.
Davis, the Game 7 almost-hero for the Cleveland Indians, is coming off back-to-back .306 OBP seasons. He did the lead the AL with 43 steals in 2016, but despite his plus-speed, he isn't a good center fielder -- as we saw in Game 7 of the World Series, when he hurt the Indians with two poor plays in the fourth inning, failing to run down Addison Russell's deep fly ball and then making a weak throw when Kris Bryant tagged from third on a shallow fly ball. He's a nice bench player, but a below-average starter, not the type of player who is going to push the A's closer to the playoffs in 2017.
So why sign him?
In a way, it's admirable that the A's don't seem willing to give up on a season, even coming off two 90-loss seasons and playing in what looks like a tough division. Earlier they signed Matt Joyce, hoping to provide more offense to an outfield that ranked 29th in the majors in wOBA in 2016. This strategy has prevented the A's from owning high draft picks -- the strategy that allowed the Cubs and Astros to draft Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman with top-five picks. Oakland selected pitcher A.J. Puk with the sixth overall pick in 2016, the franchise's first pick higher than No. 10 since drafting Barry Zito ninth overall in 1999.
The Davis/Joyce signings come with a plan B, however: If both play well and the A's are out of it in late July, they become trade bait. This is the strategy Beane employed in 2015, when he acquired Ben Zobrist in the offseason and then flipped him for Sean Manaea, who impressed as a rookie, going 7-9 with a 3.86 ERA.
That's one of the few deals that has worked out for Beane and Forst in recent seasons. The Jeff Samardzija trade in the middle of 2014 cost them Russell, and while they later flipped Samardzija for Marcus Semien, Russell is a cornerstone type of shortstop. The Billy Butler signing was a $30 million disaster, with Butler not even making it through the second season of the three-year deal. After a good season in the Oakland bullpen in 2015, Drew Pomeranz was traded for Yonder Alonso. The Padres let Pomeranz start and after he made the All-Star team, flipped him to the Red Sox for pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza. Alonso, meanwhile, posted a .316 OBP with seven home runs. Then there was the Josh Donaldson deal.
Beane did trade catching prospect Jacob Nottingham, who struggled in Double-A for the Brewers, for Khris Davis, which looks like a solid trade, but Davis is a low-OBP slugger who doesn't help much on defense.
What Beane and Forst haven't been able to do is come up with players like he did for those 2012-14 teams. Donaldson was a struggling minor leaguer. Brandon Moss was a minor league free agent. Josh Reddick was acquired on the cheap from the Red Sox. Stephen Vogt was simply purchased from Tampa Bay. The A's need to find those guys -- players with talent who hadn't been given a good opportunity -- rather than veterans with limited upside. (In fact, rather than spending $6 million on Davis, the A's need to find the next Rajai Davis for nothing, like they did back in 2008 when they acquired Davis on waivers from the Giants.)
As for the Indians, the Edwin Encarnacion signing likely squeezed the budget in re-signing Davis, but they'll have Tyler Naquin and Abraham Almonte to play center, with top prospect Bradley Zimmer close to the majors as well.