More than a decade ago, the Oakland A's found themselves pacing baseball with a progressive approach to scouting and data analysis leading to a unlikely run of four-straight postseason berths. And while some believe a best-selling book led to the outbreak of such information, inner circles are sure a shift to an analytics-driven approach was inevitable. Regardless, teams with bigger budgets and more power in baseball's geo-political climate soon nullified whatever advantage Oakland's front office had.
Cut to the offseason of 2004. Oakland was coming off a 91-win season where the team had failed to make the playoffs for the first time in five years. Instead of reloading to continue the run of contention, the A's realized their lack of depth in the minors would make their success unsustainable. With the post-2003 defections of former MVP Miguel Tejada and closer Keith Foulke, it was impossible to label any player as ‘untradeable,' and thus came two trades that set the precedent for a line of thinking that has impacted today's A's roster tremendously nine years later.
In December of ‘04, the A's moved two of their most valuable pieces in a span of three days, trading two players and receiving six in return. Tim Hudson was dealt to the Atlanta Braves for three young players (Juan Cruz, Dan Meyer and Charles Thomas) that went on to have little impact in Oakland, though Cruz and Meyer found some success with other teams after leaving the A's.
Two days later, with baseball still in shock, lefty Mark Mulder was moved to the St. Louis Cardinals for a group of players that became a barometer of the A's future success, signified by the way they played or how well trades they were involved in worked out.
The Mulder trade ended up bringing back significantly more return than the Hudson deal. The three players the A's received from St. Louis were righty reliever Kiko Calero, a 19-year-old first base prospect from Southern California named Daric Barton and a promising young starter named Dan Haren.
Calero became a pivotal late-inning reliever for the A's playoff run in 2006, when he appeared in 70 games with a 3.41 ERA. He struggled with injuries the next season, before being released, and bounced around before joining the Marlins to have another good season in 2009.
Barton offered plenty of promise and became one of the most talked about players in the A's system as a minor leaguer. The A's believed Barton had the chance to be their first star first baseman since Jason Giambi and forecast that he would develop power to pair with his great eye. Barton fit the high on-base archetype that became so popular at the time.
While Barton didn't quite live up to that billing, his patient approach did translate to the major leagues for a short time. In 2010, he led the American League with 110 walks and played very well defensively leaving some to believe he would win a Gold Glove some day. His 5.0 WAR was far and away the best on the team. That success only last one season, however.
However, because Barton hit just 10 home runs while playing a position where power always seems to be the emphasis, he has always had critics. Over the past few years, Barton has battled injuries and has also continued to try to find ways to hit more home runs, but his adjustments became detrimental. His swing became long and looped, which bled into his approach and ability to get deep into counts. He struggled in 2011 and hit just .212/.325/.267 in 67 games. He went down to the minors to work on things, but his season ended early after a shoulder injury forced him to go under the knife. It's unclear how long he played in pain, but there's a good chance it went on for a majority of the summer before shutting it down.
Despite his 2011 season, Barton was still given an opportunity at the start of the 2012 season to show he could return to being the player he was in 2010 – the team's most valuable, according to the metrics. He was thrust into an unclear position battle with Brandon Allen and Kila Ka'aihue. There wasn't room for three left-handed hitting first baseman and the position battle couldn't be straightened out in spring training because of Barton's return from the shoulder surgery that forced him to miss the first two weeks of the regular season.
When the smoke cleared, not much had changed for Barton in 2012. He played in 46 games, compiling a 630 OPS before the A's elected to give outfielder Brandon Moss, and later Chris Carter, a shot at first base. That duo platooned at a tremendous level, combining for 34 home runs over the final four months.
Barton comes into spring training this year out of options and fighting for a spot on the roster. While he is likely to get another opportunity with the A's or another team at the major league level at some point, for as long as he was labeled as the next big prospect, he hasn't yet lived up to the expectations created by the on-base craze of the times.
Where Barton arguably didn't live up to expectations, Haren shined as the prize of the deal. He went on to pitch very well for the A's, starting the All-Star game in 2007 and becoming one of the most durable pitchers in the game. But after Haren allowed just 76 earned runs in 222.2 innings in 2007, the A's elected to move him while his value was at its peak, much like they did with Hudson and Mulder. It was with this trade with the Diamondbacks where Haren's value defined the A's for the next few seasons.
Arizona got a very good pitcher in Haren (reliever Connor Robertson was also involved sent to the D-Backs), but the A's came away with youngsters Greg Smith, Aaron Cunningham, Dana Eveland, Brett Anderson, Chris Carter and Carlos Gonzalez.
The deal was a major boon for the A's, who were able to restock their major league rotation with Smith and Eveland while adding some future stars they could build around going forward. Smith and Eveland were effective starters for the A's for much of the 2008 season, but neither were able to duplicate that success in future seasons. Smith was traded after the 2008 campaign and Eveland was let go shortly thereafter. Cunningham was a top prospect for several years, but he failed to stick with Oakland in a few stints in the big leagues. He was traded to San Diego before the 2010 season along with Scott Hairston in a deal that netted the A's current middle infielder Eric Sogard and former third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff.
Carter, like Cunnigham, spent several years as a top prospect with the A's, but he failed to stick with Oakland in his first two big league stints in 2010 and 2011. Carter finally broke through in 2012, however, putting together a productive half season in helping to guide the A's to the post-season. Carter was traded this off-season along with prospects Brad Peacock and Max Stassi for infielder Jed Lowrie and reliever Fernando Rodriguez.
The two best players in the package the A's received from Arizona were undoubtedly Anderson and Gonzalez. Anderson remains the only player from the deal still with Oakland and one could make the argument that an Anderson-for-Haren deal would have been pretty fair. Anderson has been hampered by injuries during his four-year major league career, but when he has been healthy, he has been one of the best left-handed pitchers in the American League. He is scheduled to be the A's Opening Day starter this season, health-permitting.
A Gonzalez-for-Haren deal would also have been a fair one, in retrospect, although the A's haven't been the beneficiary of Gonzalez's emergence as an All-Star caliber outfielder. Gonzalez struggled in his rookie season with Oakland in 2008. Before the 2009 season, the A's used Gonzalez as the main trade chip in a brash deal with the Colorado Rockies that landed the A's All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday, who was a pending free agent (Huston Street and Smith were the other two in the deal).
Armed with a talented – albeit incredibly young – pitching staff, the A's front office believed they were an established power hitter away from competing for the 2009 AL West division title. The A's went all-in for 2009, and it turned out to be the defining move of their struggles over the ensuing three seasons.
Holliday started slowly in his new league with a 648 OPS in April but began to turn things around in a significant way as the season progressed. In May he reached base at a .416-clip and hit five home runs. Despite his increased production, the A's finished the first half of the season 12 games below .500. With Holliday set to test free agency at the end of the season, the A's decided at the trade deadline to deal him and get value while they still could.
Holliday went on to have a great finish to the season with the Cardinals, hitting .353/.419/.604 before the Cardinals were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs. Holliday's production still leaves A's fans to wonder if they missed out on the most talented player the A's have had since Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. After the season, the Cardinals extended Holliday's contract to the tune of seven years, $120 million. Although injuries have limited Holliday at times the past two seasons, he has helped the Cardinals win the World Series in 2011 and reach Game 7 of the NLCS in 2012.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez has turned out to become a great player for the Rockies in his own right. Coors Field fits his talents like a glove and he is one of the National League's most feared hitters, especially in his home ballpark. In his second big league season in 2010, he hit .336/.376/.598 with 34 homers and 26 stolen bases. He has also won a pair of Gold Gloves for his work in the outfield.
As with most Colorado stars, Gonzalez' home-and-road splits are pretty significant, but that doesn't diminish his value to the Rockies. He's hit .353/.413/.641 with 62 homers in 255 games at Coors Field. His overall career numbers dip significantly, but his 874 OPS still makes him one of the game's more dynamic players.
Since 2009, the A's have been unable to replace the production that they would have received from Gonzalez or Holliday. The A's finished .500 or below in five-straight seasons before 2012's unexpected division title (they finished 81-81 in 2010). What has hurt the A's the most is that they have haven't been able to replace the production of Gonzalez with the players they received for Holliday.
Mortensen only pitched in the A's organization for two seasons, making just seven appearances of little consequence. He was traded to Colorado prior to 2011 for Ethan Hollingsworth, who was then traded to Kansas City for Ka'aihue, who was let go via minor league free agency this off-season.
Brett Wallace didn't spend much time in Oakland, either. The corner infielder started off well in Sacramento at the plate, but struggled defensively and didn't appear to fit well enough at first or third base to warrant the standing of a building block-type player. After 2009, where he split time between Triple-A Memphis and Sacramento, the A's elected to move Wallace for another potential impact bat in prospect Michael Taylor.
Taylor's minor league numbers at that point had him pegged as a sure thing. He possessed all the physical tools to make him a hot commodity. With his Bay Area ties (he went to Stanford) and being a corner outfielder with lots of power potential, he seemed like an ideal fit for a team in desperate need of a power bat in the outfield. But like Barton, Cunningham and Carter, Taylor has yet to develop into the major league player the organization projected him to be. In his first year with the A's organization, Taylor's power numbers dropped. He has had two solid seasons at the Triple-A level since that time, but he hasn't done enough in his limited time in the majors to warrant a longer look. With the A's recent outfield additions, there doesn't seem to be any room for Taylor in the long term.
Peterson was something of a forgotten man in the Holliday deal until this past year. The outfielder/first-baseman spent most of the 2009-2011 seasons at the Double-A level and began the 2012 campaign back there, as well. He finally received a significant opportunity at the Triple-A level midway through the 2012 season and he took advantage, hitting .389 in 38 games. Peterson was added to the 40-man roster for the first time this off-season and he is having a great spring at the plate in his first big league camp. In his first 15 spring games, Peterson has helped pace the A's with a .471/.486/.765 slash line.
Given the nature of spring training, it's tough to judge the merits of bloated stat lines from hitters. Often, pitchers begin their spring training appearances by throwing mostly fastballs and the occasional secondary pitch, while the rest of their repertoires aren't used until late in camp.
But Peterson's stats with Sacramento last year raised some eyebrows within the organization. However, with the A's carrying five starting outfielders on their projected 25-man roster (Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Young and Seth Smith), there currently isn't a spot for Peterson with the A's. An injury could change all of that, and Peterson has certainly positioned himself this spring for an opportunity to get the call to the big leagues should someone go down.
Although the Mulder deal was completed almost nine years ago, it is still impacting the A's roster. While Barton is the only player still with the A's who was involved directly in that deal, Anderson, Sogard, Lowrie, Rodriguez, Peterson and Taylor are all with the organization because of deals that resulted from that original trade. Given the A's propensity to make deals involving their younger players, it wouldn't be surprising to see the tree from this trade grow even more branches.