On August 9, the Oakland A’s were 28 games over .500 and sitting atop the AL West with MLB’s best record. Recent additions Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija seemed to guarantee no one could stop them, but Kansas City made it happen with a dramatic win over the A’s in the Wild Card game. Looking back, the chinks in Oakland’s armor were apparent long before the postseason exit. Here is a look at what happened and where the A’s are headed from here.
Anatomy of a collapse
For all the talk about how much the A’s missed Yoenis Cespedes after the Jon Lester deal, the A’s (especially Brandon Moss) put on an impressive display of offense in the Wild Card game. It was the pitching — in fact, Lester himself — that let the team down and led the A’s to a crushing first-round exit. A’s GM Billy Beane had predicted a downturn in pitching ahead for his club, and he turned out to be right. Still, he considered the deadline deal well worth it.
“If we don’t have Jon Lester,” Beane told reporters after the loss to the Royals, “I don’t think we make the playoffs.”
Criticisms about messing the team’s chemistry by trading Cespedes fall flat when looking at the A’s offense several weeks before July 31. After explosive starts from Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson, many of the A’s hitters slowed down in the second half. The pitching staff was also limping toward the finish. Call it baseball’s inevitable regression to the mean or whatever, players rarely play above their abilities for a full season. These factors, along with the surge of the Angels, convinced Beane he needed to add dominant starters like Lester and Samardzija to win enough games for a Wild Card berth.
What he didn’t add was defensive help at catcher and shortstop or a lockdown closer. Between Derek Norris’s inability to stop the Royals running game, Jed Lowrie’s shoddy play at shortstop, and Sean Doolittle’s blown save, it became clear the A’s were a flawed team playing above their heads into August. A lights-out performance by Lester would have obscured these weaknesses once again, but the big lefty fell short.
Future of the A’s
Jon Lester was a very expensive rental. Oakland knew they wouldn’t have Lester beyond this season (he is a free agent), and the price for that two-month rental was Cespedes. Improving the defense behind the plate and at short are going to be priorities for the A’s front office, but the Moneyball limitations remain in place. How do they improve without spending?
Some baseball insiders believe Beane will turn back to dealing. According to Ken Rosenthal, Josh Donaldson and Jeff Samardzija (two of the team’s best remaining pieces) could the be the first to go. After all, A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker may be ready by the All Star break if their recovery from Tommy John surgery goes as planned. Offensively, a healthy Josh Reddick could help an attack led by Moss and Donaldson, should they continue to improve.
Constructing a club on a shoestring budget is never a simple task. Having traded several prospects to add starting pitching, Billy Beane may have neutralized his club’s biggest strength. Trades of players like Donaldson and Samardzija could allow the A’s to rebuild their stock of farm players. After contending with less for so many years, it’s impossible to count the franchise out in 2015.