Since mid-July 2014, the Oakland A’s have been an organization adrift. Through a series of trades, poor signings and curious roster decisions, the A’s have gone from a perennial post-season contender with a strong personality to a lifeless amalgam of a baseball team.
Over the past two years, the A’s have made a series of moves that often feel like moves made for the sake of making them. Rarely have the A’s made a trade to address a specific organizational need. Instead, they have taken the approach of gathering talent – whatever talent might be available, regardless of how well that talent will fit into the overall depth chart. That approach has left the organization top heavy in certain areas and facing gaping holes in others. It also causes a ripple effect that cascades down the organization, often setting back the development of the A’s own homegrown minor league talent.
Take the Danny Valencia deal, for instance. Valencia, for all of his offensive contributions, was one of those players who never addressed an organizational need. His defense was a liability wherever he was put on the field and he wasn’t the kind of veteran leader that young teams carry when they are rebuilding. So trading Valencia certainly made sense. However, the return for Valencia didn’t.
Paul Blackburn, acquired from Seattle for Valencia, is a decent prospect on his own. He will be 23 next season and had a strong year at the Double-A level. He doesn’t have spectacular stuff, but he has three potentially major-league average or slightly better offerings, which isn’t insignificant. Blackburn has a solid frame and has been durable throughout his career. He doesn’t rack up many strikeouts, but he induces a lot of groundballs and doesn’t walk many. In other words, he is your typical Oakland A’s pitching prospect.
The A’s do well with pitchers of Blackburn’s profile, but that is precisely the reason it is a curious decision to add him in a trade. Minor league pitching depth was a real issue in 2013 and 2014, but since the trade deadline in 2015, the A’s have filled that hole, acquiring Sean Manaea, Daniel Mengden, Jharel Cotton, Frankie Montas, Casey Meisner, Zack Erwin and Grant Holmes and drafting several high-round pitchers, including A.J. Puk, Daulton Jefferies and Logan Shore. They have also seen several of their minor leaguers take significant steps forward in their development (Daniel Gossett, Heath Fillmyer and Corey Walter are three that come to mind). In other words, the A’s have plenty of pitching depth.
In particular, the A’s have a significant amount of upper-level, right-handed pitching depth at the moment. All but three (Manaea, Erwin and Puk) of the pitchers mentioned above are right-handed. In addition, the A’s brought back Chris Smith and Ryan Brasier and claimed right-hander Josh Smith this off-season. There is a saying that you can never have too much pitching, but, in reality, that isn’t true. Every time a player is acquired who is slotted for Double-A, Triple-A or the big leagues, it pushes a player who was already in the system down a level. Guys like Gossett, Fillmyer, Walter, Joel Seddon, Ben Bracewell and the entire 2016 Midland RockHounds’ bullpen deserve an opportunity in Triple-A next season. Adding Blackburn and bringing in the two Smiths and Brasier make it much less likely that some of those guys can move up.
When players get bunched in Double-A, it impacts all of the levels below and makes it difficult for any of the players at the level below to develop at a good pace. The A’s have the best farm director in baseball and a terrific minor league staff, but the front office rarely seems to make their own minor league players a priority, instead giving better assignments to those acquired from outside of the organization. The A’s do well from a production perspective with acquisitions, but it often feels like that production comes at the expense of their homegrown talent, which doesn’t always get a chance to spreads its wings. That’s why Ryon Healy’s emergence in 2016 was so significant. He was a player who was forced to repeat a level at the start of 2016 because of outside acquisitions, but he overcame that setback and forced his way onto the big league roster. The psychological impact of Healy’s success on players within the organization shouldn’t be understated, as there was a sense before his rise that it wasn’t likely for a player within the organization to make it to the big leagues as a member of the Oakland A’s.
Now, it is certainly true that teams weren’t lining up around the block to acquire Valencia. Blackburn is likely the best talent they could receive for Valencia, who was a candidate to be non-tendered if he wasn’t dealt. However, acquiring Blackburn didn’t fill any kind of need for the organization. The A’s should have been targeting an outfielder, a left-handed pitcher or a catcher with Double-A experience. An acquisition in any one of those areas would have addressed an actual need and wouldn’t have increased a bottleneck of right-handed pitchers in the upper-levels.
The A’s should be looking for building blocks this off-season, and their quest should start at home. Moving forward, rather than going out and acquiring mediocre veterans who won’t be around long enough to see this team get better and who will block younger talent from reaching the big leagues, the A’s should sign some of their own talent to extensions and make a commitment to build a foundation with what they have in-house.
Start the rotation with extensions for Sonny Gray and Kendall Graveman. Keep Sean Doolittle, who, even if he isn’t going to be the regular closer, is certainly the best left-handed relief option the A’s have anywhere in their system. Sign Marcus Semien to an extension and start exposing Franklin Barreto to centerfield. Get Renato Nunez repetitions in left field so that he can be comfortable at that spot when he gets another chance in the big leagues. Make sure Healy gets plenty of reps at first base this spring, so he isn’t thrown to the wolves when Matt Chapman is ready for big league time. Make an upgrade defensively at second base and play Joey Wendle and Chad Pinder instead of Jed Lowrie. Trade John Axford and Ryan Madson to see if some of the areas of need can be filled and start building a bullpen around Doolittle, Ryan Dull, Liam Hendriks, Montas, Bobby Wahl, Raul Alcantara and Tucker Healy. Let this core group of minor leaguers who have been winning together since 2014 have a chance to bring the same kind of energy to the club that the group from the late 1990s did. Pick a direction and stick to it. Be the Oakland A’s again.