In the coming days we will take a closer look at the three players the A's acquired for Bailey and Sweeney. But who the A's acquired from the Red Sox is really only part of the story, especially as it pertains to the A's 2012 major league season – and perhaps several major league seasons beyond 2012.
The A's have repeatedly intimated this off-season that their goal is to rebuild their roster with an eye on being competitive in three seasons, the timetable they have set for their new stadium to be built. That timetable may be overly ambitious, given that construction of a stadium cannot even begin until Major League Baseball grants the A's permission to move to San Jose, the objections raised by the San Francisco Giants are addressed, the lawsuits seeking to block the move are dismissed or settled, the A's and City of San Jose obtain all necessary financing for the stadium and infrastructure, and all other governmental hurdles are overcome. Given these hurdles, the A's will be extremely lucky to be playing in a new stadium at the start of the 2015 season.
However, even if the A's are able to work through all of those hurdles to move into a new stadium in San Jose three years from now, does the way they are going about setting up the team to move into that new venue make sense?
Many have pointed to the Cleveland Indians' opening of Jacobs Field as the model the A's are trying emulate. Bad for more years than they'd care to remember, the Indians managed to assemble a strong group of young talent that would have instant success on the field and would win the American League pennant in the second year of the stadium's existence. The Indians' combination of beautiful new stadium and exiting young team led to a then-major league record of 455 straight sellouts from 1995 through 2001. Of course, since that time, several other teams moving into new stadiums have tried to follow the Indians' lead, but none have been able to replicate the level of success seen in Cleveland, save maybe the Seattle Mariners and Safeco Field.
The Indians opened Jacobs Field in 1994 with a starting line-up that featured only one player over the age of 30 – DH Eddie Murray. Some of the other names in the Cleveland line-up were Albert Belle (27), Jim Thome (23), Manny Ramirez (22), Kenny Lofton (27), Sandy Alomar (28) and Omar Vizquel (27). Their pitching staff was far less distinguished, with aging right-handers Jack Morris and Dennis Martinez leading the way. The Indians would finish second in the strike-shortened season.
As it stands today, the A's have a good chance of building a pitching staff at least equal to – if not better than – the one that Cleveland rolled out in 1994, but there is no chance that their starting line-up will be as explosive or dynamic as the Tribe was that season and in the seasons that followed. Now perhaps it isn't fair to make the A's measure up to a team that featured at least four position players who could arguably be in the Hall of Fame. But given that the Texas Rangers currently have a roster that harkens back to those mid-1990s Cleveland teams and the Los Angeles Angels will have Albert Pujols and Mike Trout in the middle of their order for the next seven years, it is fair to assume that any team the A's roll out three years from now will have to be top-notch.
Perhaps a better team to measure the future A's against is an A's team from the past. The 1999 Oakland A's squad was a team that emerged from nearly a decade of futility to challenge for the division title with an exciting young roster that would be the start of eight years of sustained success. Those A's squads would eventually be defined by their pitching staffs, specifically the starting rotation led by the "Big Three" of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. But it was the A's offense that would jump-start that dynasty.
By 1999, Jason Giambi was one of the best hitters in the American League and future stars Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez were starting to evolve into the elite hitters they would eventually become. Catcher Ramon Hernandez was also getting his feet wet in the big leagues and 1998 AL Rookie of the Year Ben Grieve was a young player who appeared poised for a productive career, although he would eventually fall short of those early expectations.
As it currently stands, the A's don't appear to be in a strong position to have a "1999-like" roster assembled in three years. Through the three trades the A's have made this off-season, they have compiled a promising group of young arms, but they have received little in return on the offensive-side of the ledger. Collin Cowgill and Josh Reddick project to be role players more than super-stars. Both Derek Norris and Miles Head are promising minor league hitters, but neither are slam-dunks to be stars at the major league level.
They say that great pitching wins championships and there has never been an A's team since they moved to Oakland that has found sustained success without a standout pitching staff. However, the most successful Oakland A's teams (and there have been several) have always been defined by a marquee offensive player or players. There would have been no early 1970s domination without Reggie Jackson, no Billy Ball in 1981 without Rickey Henderson, no 1988-1992 run without the Bash Brothers and no early 2000s success without Jason Giambi first and Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez after he left.
The current A's organization – from the big leagues on down – currently lacks a player who could be that defining offensive leader. A's 2010 first-round pick Michael Choice may have the best opportunity from a skill-set perspective to be a star position player in the big leagues, but to expect him to be posting a 900+ OPS three years from now the way that Giambi did in 1999 is a stretch given that Choice hasn't yet played above A-ball. Jemile Weeks is a solid young player who could be an All-Star in three years, but he profiles as an igniter on a good team and not an offensive centerpiece. Grant Green is another solid prospect, but he, too, profiles more as a productive complimentary piece in a strong line-up than the guy that the offensive revolves around. And all three of those players were already part of the organization before this rebuilding began.
The A's could be planning to acquire that offensive centerpiece via free agency or a big trade right before they move into that new stadium, but that is a dangerous strategy. Free agency is unpredictable at best, even with a new stadium and lots of money to spend. The trade market is equally unpredictable. More and more teams are signing their young offensive stars to contracts that take them past their free agency years and few of those players are coming on the trade market. Even if the perfect target comes available on the trade market, there is no guarantee that the A's will have the package that the other team requires to part with that player.
The path the A's are embarking on this off-season is a dangerous one, at best. Developing productive major league players is no easy task and putting together a cohesive team of stars that will come together to create a dynasty, of sorts, is even more difficult. The current A's are a good example of that difficulty. Despite graduating several All-Star major leaguers over the past four years, the A's found themselves at the end of the 2011 season finishing up their fifth straight non-winning season. The A's thought several times during the past five years that they were ready to compete, only to find that they were still lacking some of the key ingredients to be successful.
The A's will argue that they had no alternative other than to tear down their current roster and start over. They certainly weren't going to be the favorites for the AL West next season even with Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey, but it isn't clear that trading those three has brought them any closer to being the favorites in the AL West three years from now. And given that all three of those players could have been members of the A's in 2015, it is fair to surmise that the A's made themselves even less likely to be a playoff team in 2015.
It is also important to remember that the 1994 Indians and the 1999 A's and even the current young and exciting Tampa Bay Rays were hardly products of set three-year rebuilding plans. With the players the A's already had in their farm system and the new players that they have acquired this off-season, it is possible that everything will come together perfectly in a three-year timespan and bring the A's a playoff contender in 2015. But it is hardly a safe bet.