Flags fly forever.
We hear this axiom repeated often. You could call it the baseball version of Al Davis’ famous battle cry, “Just win, baby!” Championships endure, we’re told. Teams on the brink of contention should always push their chips to the center of the table, they say.
But raising a flag is difficult. And so some teams are content to be merely good enough to contend — especially when that roster is cost-efficient.
For a long time, the Oakland Athletics have been such a club. But this year is different. This year, it seems, Oakland should go for the jugular.
Here is a list of the players the A’s have acquired in the week leading up to the July 31 nonwaiver trading deadline the past five years: Clayton Mortensen, Shane Peterson, Brett Wallace, Brandon Allen, Jordan Norberto, George Kottaras and Alberto Callaspo. You can be excused if any of those names feel unfamiliar.
The time has come for Oakland to take a different approach. As of June 23, the A’s sit comfortably atop the American League West and have the best record in baseball. Armed with their best roster in years, the A’s have incentive to pursue a big move and make a run to the pennant as likely as possible.
Under the two-team wild-card system, teams can be hesitant to make a big trade. If they don’t win their division, they may have mortgaged their future for just one game.
But the A’s can’t feel weighed down by such concern. Oakland is the only team with odds better than 90 percent to reach the playoffs (per FanGraphs’ playoff odds) and one of two teams with 75 percent or better odds to win their division. They are one of two teams with at least a five-game lead in their division. While no lead is ever safe, Oakland can feel reasonably confident that it will be playing in October. If the A’s strengthened a few of the roster’s weaker areas, they could feel even more confident.
Position wRC+ Rank
C 143 2
1B 89 23
2B 67 25
SS 90 14
3B 138 1
RF 85 22
CF 117 8
LF 157 1
DH 108 10 (AL only)
Areas to improve
I say weaker areas because the team doesn’t have a whole lot of actual weaknesses. The biggest weakness, as you can see in the chart to the right, is at second base. It’s the only position where the A’s are more than 15 percent below average according to wRC+. Neither Eric Sogard nor Nick Punto should be starting on a team of this caliber. Sogard actually shouldn’t be starting for any team, as his defense is not good enough to make up for an atrocious 46 wRC+ — the second-lowest mark in the game among the 258 players with at least 150 plate appearances this year.
Luckily, there should be a number of second basemen on the market. Ben Zobrist and Luis Valbuena are likely available. As we approach the trading deadline, Chase Utley and Daniel Murphy, among others, might also appear on the block.
The team could also go for the grand slam and try to acquire Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. A few weeks ago, the Rockies looked promising. On May 20, they were 26-20 and just two games back of the San Francisco Giants for the National League West lead. But they have been dreadful ever since and have likely exited the playoff hunt.
Billy Beane and Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd have been frequent trade partners over the years, the Carlos Gonzalez trade being just one example. If Beane were to dangle shortstop prospect Addison Russell and a bunch (read: at least five) of lower-level prospects, perhaps the Rockies could be talked into trading their star. It’s an incredibly unlikely scenario — as the A’s have never had a contract the size of Tulo’s deal — but if anyone could pull it off, it’s Beane, who has less than $13 million committed to the 2015 payroll. In such a scenario, Jed Lowrie would slide over to second and solve that issue.
While first base might seem like a problem area as well, the A’s firmed up at first with the acquisition of Kyle Blanks, who is the perfect complement to Brandon Moss in a platoon. Moss has been pulled into right field this month with OF Josh Reddick on the disabled list, leaving first base in less capable hands. Reddick could return the lineup as early as Tuesday. Once he does, the A’s should be solid at the corners.
But Reddick’s return won’t cure all ills. In fact, the injured right fielder represents the other problem spot for the offense.
No one can question Reddick’s stellar defense, but with Craig Gentry in tow, Reddick needs to do more with the bat and hasn’t thus far. However, he has contributed in the past at a great rate. Most important, he has two relatively cheap years left in arbitration. As such, he represents a great trade chip.
The Twins aren’t out of the playoff chase by any means, but given that Josh Willingham is set for free agency after this season, perhaps they could be persuaded into a Reddick-Willingham swap. A Reddick-Byron Buxton-Oswaldo Arcia outfield could be pretty sexy next season for Minnesota, and with Willingham hitting 68 points better than Reddick in wRC+, such a deal could be win-win for the A’s and Twins.
Finally, the A’s probably need another starter. It’s a lesser priority than improving the offense, and given that the team has fewer tradable assets than usual, it probably won’t be in the market for David Price or Jeff Samardzija.
Fortunately, Oakland doesn’t have to aim so high. Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray, Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz have all posted xFIPs of 3.61 or better and are all a solid bet to march on at the same pace. Tommy Milone and Dan Straily, however, have posted xFIPs of 4.59 and 4.42, respectively. Both marks are well below the 3.95 AL average. Milone’s mark is actually fifth worst out of 95 qualified pitchers, so finding a superior option shouldn’t be too difficult.
As it stands, the A’s will be an imposing foe come October. But the team and GM that made Moneyball famous now have their best chance to cash in. Securing upgrades at one or more positions, particularly second base, could put Oakland in a position to stomp through the postseason and raise a World Series flag for the first time in 25 years.
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