Since 2002, the Oakland A's have produced exactly one corner outfielder who has established himself as an everyday player and middle-of-the-line-up threat for the A's – Nick Swisher, who hit 80 homers during his three-plus seasons with the team. Oakland traded Swisher before the 2008 season and since that time, the team has made a series of trades, including their most recent trade for outfielder David DeJesus, in an attempt to fill the void Swisher left in the middle of the A's line-up. Will the DeJesus trade finally break the trend, or will the A's look back on trading Vince Mazzaro and Justin Marks with regret?
Looking At The Trade From A Historical Context
Dating back to January 2008 when the Oakland A's traded Nick Swisher for pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Fautino De Los Santos and outfielder Ryan Sweeney, the A's have made the following deals in which they acquired major league outfielders:
1) Sent Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin to the Chicago Cubs for Sean Gallagher, Josh Donaldson, Eric Patterson and Matt Murton
It is fair to say that in this trade, Murton was not the centerpiece, although the A's were hopeful that he would provide a good right-handed platoon for Sweeney in right field. That never materialized, as Murton struggled with the A's and wound-up spending more time in Triple-A than in the big leagues with Oakland. He was eventually traded to Colorado and is now a record-holder in Japan for most number of hits in a single season.
2) Acquired Matt Holliday from the Colorado Rockies for Huston Street, Carlos Gonzalez and Greg Smith
While Holliday had the most success with Oakland of any outfielder the A's have had since Swisher, this is a trade the A's will regret for a long time. From the moment the trade was made, the storyline that circulated through the media was that Holliday was acquired only so the A's could flip him to another team. Consequently, fans never took to Holliday, who seemed like a mercenary and never did much to dispel the notion that he wasn't going to be around long. When he and the team got off to a poor start to the 2009 season, there was a sense that the A's would be stuck trading him for whatever they could get. They eventually dealt him to the Cardinals for Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen and Shane Peterson, a package that wasn't nearly equivalent to what they gave up to get Holliday for those three-plus months.
Hairtson was acquired two weeks before the A's traded Holliday to St. Louis and Hairston was expected to take over as the A's everyday left-fielder after Holliday was gone. Hairston had been struggling with injuries that season, but was playing well, as he had an 891 OPS for San Diego at the time of the deal. He continued to battle injuries with Oakland and managed only a 653 OPS and seven homers in 60 games for the A's. He would be traded back to San Diego the following off-season as part of the Kevin Kouzmanoff trade. Of the three pitchers the A's gave up, Gallagher was the arm that was the most highly regarded at the time of the deal. However, it has been Webb who has shined, growing into a solid major league reliever. In 84.2 innings over the past two seasons for San Diego, Webb has a 3.19 ERA and only four homers allowed. Italiano appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough at the start of the 2010 season, but he struggled during the second half of the year and was removed from the Padres' 40-man roster this off-season. He still has late-inning potential if he stays healthy, however.
Fox's main position wasn't the outfield, but he did play some left field, as well as catch and DH. Oakland envisioned Fox, who had hit 11 homers in 216 at-bats for the Cubs in 2009, giving the A's a middle-of-the-order presence, especially against left-handers. Miles was acquired as part of a money shed by the Cubs and he was eventually flipped to the Cincinnati Reds for another bad contract (Wily Taveras) and Adam Rosales. Fox never got on-track with Oakland, batting only .214 with two homers in 98 at-bats before he was traded to Baltimore for Ross Wolfe. Gray, who had pitched well for the A's in a relief role in 2009, wound-up being limited by a groin injury in 2010 and was let go by the Cubs this off-season. Spencer had a decent season in Double-A, hitting 17 homers, while Morla put up good strike-out numbers in relief for High-A Peoria.
5) Acquired Conor Jackson from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Sam Demel
Jackson was picked up by the A's in mid-June with the hope that he could help ignite the Oakland offense as the team tried to make a push for the division title. Once a fixture in the middle of the Arizona line-up, Jackson had been limited by injuries in 2009 and 2010, but was supposedly healthy at the time of the trade. He managed to be healthy enough to play in only 18 games, and he posted a 678 OPS in 57 at-bats. Jackson remains with the A's and, for the moment, is a candidate to get at-bats in the outfield, especially against left-handed pitching. Demel was promoted from Triple-A right to the Arizona bullpen after the trade and while his ERA was 5.35, the D-Backs were excited about what they saw from the TCU alum and he is expected to play a big role in the D-Backs' bullpen next season.
So how, if at all, is the David DeJesus deal similar to the five deals described above? From strictly a numbers perspective, it is like the Jackson, Hairston and Holliday deals in that the A's are sending young, cost-controlled players to a team in return for one veteran player. In the case of Holliday and DeJesus, the one player the A's received is in the final year of his contract. Of course, there is a big difference in how Holliday and DeJesus will be perceived on the open market, so while the common perception after the Holliday deal was that the A's would definitely not retain him past 2009, the consensus is not so clear-cut with DeJesus, who, even if he has a big year, will be far more affordable than Holliday.
The DeJesus deal is also similar to the previous five deals in that young pitching is the carrot that the A's have dangled to get their target. With the exception of the inclusion of Carlos Gonzalez in the Holliday deal, the "main trade chip" in each of those other deals was a young arm. The majority of those young pitchers have been relievers. Mazzaro and Marks join only Gallagher, Smith and Morla as starters traded in these deals (although both Morla and Gallagher have pitched primarily as relievers since the trades).
Another commonality between DeJesus and a few of the other outfielders the A's have acquired in these deals is his injury history. Like Jackson and Hairtson, DeJesus is coming off of a major injury that cost him significant time on the DL. DeJesus missed the final two months of the 2010 season with a thumb injury that he sustained crashing into an outfield wall. He has had stints of at least 11 missed games due to injury five times during his eight-year big league career with injuries that have ranged from the thumb ligament tear to a strained shoulder to ankle and hamstring issues. He has played in more than 140 games only twice in his career. The A's will have to hope that DeJesus can buck the recent trend of A's acquisitions who have a significant injury history succumbing to injuries while with Oakland.
What makes this deal stand-out from the other five is that the A's made a trade for an American League hitter. Unlike with Murton, Holliday, Hairston, Fox and Jackson, DeJesus will be remaining in a league that he is familiar with and has had success in. The A's have a track record for DeJesus in terms of how he matches up with the other teams in the AL, something that was missing with the other trade targets. In addition, DeJesus is not being acquired for his power, but, rather, for his overall game and approach at the plate. DeJesus' value as a player is tied to his defense, contact skills and on-base abilities rather than his power. Holliday was an all-around good player, but Murton and Fox had all of their value tied to their power and Jackson's value is tied in his approach at the plate and not with his glove. DeJesus can also play centerfield, unlike the other trade targets.
Lastly, unlike Murton, Holliday, Hairston, Fox and Jackson, DeJesus is a top-of-the-order hitter rather than a slot three-through-five bat. When he is at his best, DeJesus drives the ball from gap-to-gap and sets up run-scoring situations rather than being the one who cashes in those situations. However, the A's already have a number of table-setters in their line-up, so DeJesus may end-up batting in a traditional RBI spot in the order regardless. (After all, before he got hurt, Ryan Sweeney was being used as a number three hitter at times this season and he has a career SLG of .386.)
Does This Trade Make The A's Better?
This brings us to an interesting question: does this trade make sense for the A's as their roster is currently constructed?
At this moment, the A's have eight outfielders on their 40-man roster: DeJesus, Travis Buck, Chris Carter, Coco Crisp, Rajai Davis, Jackson, Sweeney and Jack Cust. Of that group, four are capable of playing in center (Crisp, Davis, DeJesus and Sweeney); four are left-handed hitters (Buck, Sweeney, DeJesus and Cust), three are right-handed hitters (Carter, Jackson and Davis) and one is a switch-hitter (Crisp). Only two have traditional "corner outfield power" (Cust and Carter), while the rest are contact hitters with varying degrees of on-base skills. Crisp, Davis, Sweeney and DeJesus are plus defenders, Cust and Carter are below average, and Buck and Jackson are average, but limited to the corners. All but Carter and Cust have significant track records of being injured and Sweeney and DeJesus are both coming off of surgeries that ended their seasons early.
Assuming that all eight of these players remain on the 40-man roster on Opening Day (which probably isn't a fair assumption), it is likely that the A's will go with a starting outfield of Sweeney in left, Crisp in center, DeJesus in right and Cust at DH with Jackson and Davis filling against left-handed starters and Carter starting the year in Triple-A playing everyday. Should the A's move in that direction, they will need to deal Buck, who is out of options next season.
Would that be an effective outfield/DH situation? Assuming that the group stays healthy (again, probably not a fair assumption), the A's will be looking at an outfield with a lot of speed and good leather and the ability to hit for a high average. There would be some interesting platoon options, as well. Jackson and Davis have been significantly better against left-handed pitching in their careers, while Cust, DeJesus and Sweeney have performed much better against right-handed pitching. But there still isn't much pop in that grouping as the only hitter who is likely to reach 20 homeruns is Cust (with Carter waiting in the wings in Triple-A).
This trade does have another benefit in that it allows the A's to ease Carter into the everyday major league line-up. While he looked much more comfortable at the plate in the big leagues after his initial 0-for-33 skid this season, he still is developing as a hitter. In addition, Carter is still learning how to play in the outfield after spending most of his career at first base. He was set to play for los Tiburones de La Guaira this winter in Venezuela, but his arrival has been delayed and he has yet to debut, cutting into the possible number of games he will have to work in the outfield before spring training.
To get DeJesus, the A's are taking the risk that giving up potential for only one year of production will be worthwhile. Both Mazzaro and Marks are starters who possess above-average stuff, but who have yet to have the numbers match that potential. Mazzaro, of course, has major league experience and he has had periods of success in the big leagues. However, despite a hard, sinking fastball that can touch 95 and an above-average breaking ball, Mazzaro has been hit hard at times throughout his career and he has never had a great swing-and-miss pitch. Still, at only 24-years-old, there is a lot of potential for Mazzaro to settle in as a number three starter in the big leagues. He has also been durable since signing with the A's out of high school in 2005, something that has its own value, especially as it relates to young pitching.
The A's had clearly grown frustrated with Mazzaro's development in 2010. After getting off to a good start when called up to the big leagues, Mazzaro eventually started to struggle and went 0-6 with a 5.60 ERA to finish the year and saw his ERA rise from 2.86 to 4.27. He was inconsistent with his location and struggled to get himself back on-track during starts when he hit a rough patch. Despite spending much of the year in the A's rotation, Mazzaro was sent down to Triple-A in September and, after making a start in the playoffs for the River Cats, he returned to Oakland only as a reliever in the season's final weeks.
With the likely addition of Japanese star Hisashi Iwakuma to an already stacked and young Oakland rotation, Mazzaro wasn't likely to break camp in the A's rotation even if he had stayed in the organization. Of course, that assumes no injuries to Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Braden and Iwakuma, but even if one of those guys were to have gone down, Mazzaro would have had some steep competition for the open rotation spot in Bobby Cramer, Josh Outman, Clayton Mortensen and Tyson Ross. The A's are also usually good at finding fifth-starter types on the minor league free agent market, so they figure to add to that fifth-starter depth later this off-season. Given all of that, Mazzaro's departure isn't likely to have a major impact on the 2011 A's. However, given the quality of his stuff and his age, his loss could be felt in the future.
Oakland's front office got only a year to evaluate Marks on a professional level and he was impacted by a groin injury for much of that year. He lost the entire 2009 short-season and the fall Instructional League season after having surgery on that groin and then had to shake off the rust from his injury layoff at the start of the 2010 season. Marks also missed time at the end of the year with groin discomfort. When he was pitching, Marks showed that he had strike-out stuff, whiffing 136 batters in 129.1 innings. However, like Mazzaro, he struggled with the consistency of his location and with the big inning. Scouts who saw him pitch liked what they saw in terms of Marks' potential, so despite the mediocre first year numbers, Marks could have a solid future ahead of him.
In terms of value to the 2011 Oakland A's, DeJesus' addition will most likely out-weigh the loss of Mazzaro and Marks. But given that DeJesus is only signed through 2011, the long-term value edge skews in the Royals' favor. Although the Royals have a stacked farm system with a number of premium arms, young pitching is hard to find and having Mazzaro and Marks in house gives the Royals even more ammunition as they look to build a staff similar to the A's current rotation.
DeJesus is a nice player, but, as the A's roster is currently constructed, he seems an odd fit, as the things he does well are the things that the A's current outfielders already do well, and his weaknesses are the same as the weaknesses of his new teammates. It remains to be seen what the A's will ultimately do with their roster this off-season, so final judgment on how DeJesus fits into the A's roster will need to be reserved for Opening Day.
In addition, the A's have now used two trade chips that could possibly been used in a different trade for a more impactful bat, although it is entirely possible that the Royals assessment of Mazzaro's potential, in particular, was more positive than some of the other teams who have players available this winter and DeJesus was the best player the A's were going to get for him. Without being in the negotiations, it is hard to make a judgment in that area.
In the end, this feels a bit like a story we have read before: the A's trade young pitchers for established major league outfielder who has had strong past performances, but isn't a bona fide star and is coming off of injury. The A's have to be hoping that the end of this version of the story is different than the previous iterations.