In defense of Billy Beane and the A's

From Tuesday's chat:

    mike (williamsburg va)

    I am curious - if Beane had stepped down last May and Amaro took over the A's and then proceeded to make the exact same deals, how do you think the choices would have been viewed?

I get asked that question a lot. Do writers and analysts like myself defend Billy Beane's transactions simply because he's Billy Beane?

Well, I hope not. I try to be as impartial as possible. I liked last season's trades for Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester because the A's looked like a sure thing to win the division but had to be concerned about riding Sonny Gray (in his first full season in the majors), Scott Kazmir (hadn't pitched many innings in recent years) and Jesse Chavez (converted reliever). It seemed like the right idea to upgrade the rotation and add a guy like Lester who had a good postseason history.

Yes, things didn't work out, but not because Samardzija and Lester didn't pitch well. The offense imploded the final two months, the A's collapsed and they blew a big division lead, but even then if Bob Melvin doesn't leave in Lester too long in the wild-card game, who knows what would have happened the rest of the postseason.

I guess I would make this point: Beane knows more about this stuff then those of us sitting at our keyboards. Plus, there's this list to consider:

Teams to make the playoffs the past three seasons

Detroit Tigers

Oakland A's

St. Louis Cardinals

And digging a little deeper:

Wins the past three seasons

A's: 278

Cardinals: 275

Tigers: 271

Run differential the past three seasons

A's: 398

Cardinals: 320

Tigers: 280

So, yes, maybe it is fair to give Beane some benefit of the doubt.

Anyway, that gets us to this offseason and from afar it looks like Beane has torn apart his playoff team, losing Lester, Luke Gregerson and Jed Lowrie via free agency and trading Samardzija, Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss. Those players combined for 16.1 Wins Above Replacement with the A's in 2014, and of course they would have had Samardzija for an entire season. That's lot of wins for Beane to find.

The A's know this. But listen to what assistant GM David Forst told FanGraphs' Eno Sarris at the winter meetings:

I think Billy has articulated in a couple of places that we knew that just bringing back the current team, assuming the losses of Lester, and Gregerson, and Lowrie and some of those guys that we didn’t have an opportunity to sign -- bringing back that team wasn’t going to work. The Angels were obviously 11 games better than us and the Mariners were right on our tail, and poised to get better. Just bringing back our group and just supplementing it with little pieces, wasn’t going to give us a chance to compete, and was also going to leave us further down the path of having an older, more injury-prone club, frankly.

We decided very early on that we needed to take a similar route that we did in 2011, in November in December, and work hard on increasing our depth, getting younger and getting healthier.

Have the A's replaced the departed talent? Here are the projected WAR numbers via FanGraphs for the major league-ready players Beane has acquired:

Chris Bassitt: -0.2

Billy Butler: 1.4

Ike Davis: 2.0

Kendall Graveman: -0.1

Brett Lawrie: 3.8

Sean Nolin: -0.2

Marcus Semien: 2.1

Joey Wendle: No projection, but could contribute

That adds up to 8.6 WAR, which is not 16.1 WAR. The Steamer projection system used at FanGraphs doesn't like the young pitchers the A's acquired from the Blue Jays and White Sox, but Beane is also hoping to acquire quality via quantity. He doesn't have to hit on each of Bassitt, Graveman and Nolin. If one turns into a solid rotation starter, that's a plus; maybe he gets lucky and two of them develop. Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, coming off Tommy John surgeries, may also be able to contribute at some point. Drew Pomeranz may thrive with a full season in the rotation. They can platoon at catcher/first base/DH/left field to provide a sum greater than the individual parts.

That gets to the larger picture on what the A's are doing. In this age of parity -- in the American League, you can make the argument that every team is "going for it" in 2015, as even the Twins and Astros have made some free-agent signings -- depth becomes vitally important.

Who stays healthy and who doesn't is often the deciding factor when teams appear to be of even strength. Maybe you have five good starters, but you may need six, seven or eight by season's end. Do you have a deep bench? And only the Indians hit with the platoon advantage more often than the A's in 2014, as Melvin mixes and matches his lineups. Beane is building depth on his 40-man roster while also acquiring inexpensive talent that will be under team control into the future. It's what the A's have to do, constantly recycling their talent to bring in new, less expensive talent.

It's interesting to note the list of A's players who received MVP votes during these playoff seasons:

2014: Donaldson (8th)

2013: Donaldson (4th), Coco Crisp (15th with three points)

2012: Yoenis Cespedes (10th), Josh Reddick (16th)

While fielding arguably the best team in baseball over the past three seasons (yes, minus playoff results), the A's have done so without a lot of star power.

The A's have been built on depth, versatility and rotation depth. That's Billy Beane's plan for 2015. Also, Oakland's estimated payroll currently sits around $67 million, about $15 million less than 2014, so don't be surprised if the A's have another move or two coming.

The A's won't be the favorite to win the AL West in 2015 but I'm not going to dismiss their chances.