The Oakland A's have been telegraphing their intentions to strip down their 2011 25-man roster and rebuild for another day. In a 2011 campaign that began with playoff expectations, the A's managed to be competitive only for the first few weeks of the season. Faced with a new world order of an AL West division that features the two-time American League champions and Albert Pujols, the notion of the A's being competitive in 2012 even with their 25-man roster from 2011 intact is fairly absurd.
The A's took their first step in what figures to be an extensive rebuilding process when they traded former All-Star right-hander Trevor Cahill and reliable lefty reliever Craig Breslow to the Arizona Diamondbacks for three prospects.
The A's were faced with a similar situation going into the 2008 season. Coming off of the heels of an ALCS appearance, the 2007 Oakland A's were expected to compete for a playoff berth. Instead, they badly underachieved and finished well out of the playoff picture. That off-season, the A's front office took measure of where they stood both at the major league level and in the minor leagues and determined that a rebuild of the system was in order.
The 2008 rebuild took on many facets. The A's not only were active on the trade market – dealing fan favorites Dan Haren, Nick Swisher and Marco Scutaro – but they also reallocated their resources to different aspects of baseball operations. The team's overseas scouting department received a significant increase in both budget and headcount, and the US-based scouting department added ranks, as well.
In the beginning, the A's 2008 rebuild had the look of another Billy Beane success story. The trades of Haren, Swisher and Scutaro immediately launched a lightly regarded farm system into the ranks of the elite in baseball with the additions of prospects Brett Anderson, Carlos Gonzalez, Gio Gonzalez, Fautino De Los Santos, Aaron Cunningham, Chris Carter, Ryan Sweeney, Graham Godfrey, Greg Smith, Dana Eveland and Kristian Bell. Sweeney, Smith, Carlos Gonzalez and Eveland would have an immediate impact on the A's at the major league level, while Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Carter, Cunningham and Godfrey had solid 2008 minor league campaigns. The A's lost De Los Santos to Tommy John surgery early in the 2008 season but his injury was a small footnote compared to the success that many of the players the A's acquired before the 2008 season were having.
The A's would continue to use the trade market to increase the talent in their farm system during the 2008 regular season when they traded pitchers Joe Blanton and Rich Harden for Adrian Cardenas, Matt Spencer, Josh Outman, Sean Gallagher, Eric Patterson, Matt Murton and Josh Donaldson. Murton would struggle at the big league level for the A's, but the rest of the players acquired in these two trades had strong starts to their A's careers.
The A's increased presence overseas also netted immediate result, as they made worldwide headlines when they signed 16-year-old right-hander Michael Ynoa to a record-breaking bonus. The Dominican was highly coveted by nearly every team in baseball and the A's instantly became big players in the Latin American market with the signing.
Oakland's shift in resources at the US-scouting level also paid dividends in 2008. The team made a trio of above-slot draft signings that June for the first time in several years, bringing in Brett Hunter, Rashun Dixon and Dusty Coleman.
The rebuild seemed to be well on its way when a surprising thing happened after the 2008 season – the A's suddenly changed course, dealing Carlos Gonzalez and Smith as part of a package to acquire veteran outfielder Matt Holliday, who was in the last year of his contract. That was the first of several moves since that time that have chipped away at or blocked the A's promising base of young talent in the hopes of competing for a playoff spot.
Now four years removed from the initial rebuilding plan, the A's are right back where they started when they traded Dan Haren in the winter of 2007. The team hasn't had a winning season since 2006 and the farm system – while not in as bad of shape as it was at the end of the 2007 season – is no longer amongst the elite in baseball.
Carlos Gonzalez has gone on to star for the Colorado Rockies, while the A's have continued to search for a big outfield bat. Holliday never seemed comfortable in Oakland and got off to a slow start with the A's. While he finished his time with Oakland with respectable numbers, he netted the A's a far less prolific package of players than the A's gave up to get him. The star prospect in that deal, Brett Wallace, was traded the following off-season for outfielder Michael Taylor. Taylor had a disappointing first season in the A's system in 2010 and, despite improvements in 2011, hasn't appeared to win the confidence of the A's front office.
Other things haven't gone according to plan, either. Anderson has been plagued with elbow problems the past two seasons and is out for another six-to-nine months after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Ynoa has only nine career professional innings pitched and has already had Tommy John surgery. Sweeney has never developed the power the A's thought he would and has had myriad injury problems that have hurt his development. De Los Santos took two years to recover from his elbow surgery and had to be converted to a reliever. Cunningham's lack of plate discipline was exposed by AL pitching and he was dealt in a minor trade with San Diego. Carter has dominated the minor leagues, but has struggled at the major league level in limited opportunities. Patterson, Gallagher, Eveland and Murton were disappointments. Donaldson has been blocked by Kurt Suzuki. Spencer was traded. Outman missed more than a year after elbow surgery. Cardenas has been a good hitter, but is a man without a true defensive position. And so on.
All of this history is well known to A's fans, but it serves as a reminder that not all rebuilding plans go, well, according to plan. The A's have determined that they want to be good in three years, which is the timeframe they are pointing to for their migration to a new ballpark in San Jose. Putting aside the fact that major league baseball has yet to approve the A's right to move to San Jose, there are several other potential pitfalls with this plan, as the 2008 rebuild has demonstrated.
There is an old saying that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. In trading Trevor Cahill for Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill and Ryan Cook, the A's are betting on the two birds in the bush. More specifically, they are betting that Parker will bring them as much value in the starting rotation in three years as Cahill would have, with the added bonus that they will be paying less for Parker's services in three years than they would be paying Cahill, who signed a long-term contract extension with Oakland that took him past his free agency years during the 2011 season.
From a talent perspective, betting that Parker can equal Cahill's value is a fair one. Since being drafted seventh overall in 2007, Parker has been one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. He is the same age roughly as Cahill (who was taken in the 2006 draft) and likely would have had similar big league time by now were it not for an elbow injury that resulted in Tommy John surgery in 2009 that cost him a year and a half. Parker should see significant time with Oakland in 2012 and should be a "veteran" by 2014 in the same sense that Cahill is a veteran now.
Whether Parker will be as good as Cahill has been in his short career remains to be seen. Unlike Cahill, who has a starter's build and no injury history, Parker is undersized and is coming off of a major injury. His command took a bit of hit in 2011, although that is typically part of the recovery from Tommy John surgery. And, in general, young players are always a risk not to perform to expectations once they reach the big league level. Hence, the bird in the hand being worth more than those two in the bush. For the A's three-year plan to work, they will need Parker to be a number two or three starter – something that Cahill already has been at the big league level.
The other two players the A's received from Arizona in the Cahill trade are nice secondary pieces, but neither is expected to be a star at the big league level. Cowgill's scouting report is similar to the one that followed Cunningham to Oakland, although Cowgill is significantly older than Cunningham was in 2008 and Cowgill is a bit more polished at the plate and in the field than Cunningham was back then. Cook is a solid relief arm, but the A's have shown over the years the ability to create bullpens with relative ease.
The A's haven't been shy in hinting that this trade is the first of what will be perhaps several to come. Everyone is expecting the team to deal closer Andrew Bailey and it is likely that starter Gio Gonzalez will be dealt, as well. These moves are not dissimilar to what the A's endeavored before and during the 2008 season. That movement seemed to have the A's on track for greatness at the end of the 2008 campaign, but the unpredictable nature of counting on the development of young players, coupled with the organization's decision to deviate from the rebuilding plan with the acquisition of several veteran players (starting with the Matt Holliday trade) conspired to derail the A's rebuilding efforts.
There are several teams around baseball that are seemingly always in the middle of a new rebuilding plan. For the A's to avoid becoming the next Pittsburgh Pirates or Baltimore Orioles, they will need to be committed to the process for more than just one year and they will have to give their younger players a true evaluation at the major league level. Quick fixes aren't going to get the team in the same stratosphere as the Angels or Rangers in three years, five years or 10 years time.