MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

A's can still contend now, even while building for future

Donaldson trade reminiscent of 2011 moves, but Beane could add big name to strong core

A's can still contend now, even while building for future

Three years ago, Billy Beane rebuilt the A's. He didn't use those exact words, but that was the bottom line.

In three separate deals, Beane traded away three former All-Star pitchers -- Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey -- for a bunch of younger players.

At the time, the A's had just gone 74-88 and finished 22 games out of first place in the American League West. Beane believed his team might be a year or two from being good enough to contend, and that it was time to take a step back and upgrade the organizational depth.

Does any of this ring a bell?

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Part of Beane's genius -- and there's plenty of it -- has been his ability to see his teams for what they actually are instead of what he'd hope and pray they are. When the A's got to Spring Training in 2012, there were zero expectations. When it ended, they were optimistic about the future.

"I think we've got the makings of the best pitching staff in the league," Beane said.

Beane didn't know if the future was now. He thought the A's might be better than he originally thought in 2012, but he knew they had a chance to be really good in '13 or '14. In that way, the trades that brought Oakland Josh Reddick, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Collin Cowgill and others worked out perfectly.

Maybe you remember how that rebuilding project worked out. The A's improved by 20 games and won the AL West.

So here we are again with Beane doing a similar dance. This time, some of the really sharp cats -- that would be me -- aren't fooled.

Beane on blockbuster trade

In dealing away his best player, third baseman Josh Donaldson, Beane acquired four players, including three youngsters. It smacks of one of those trades from three years ago. Beane seems willing to take a step back in 2015 to replenish a depleted Minor League system.

Beane is not finished. He also seems willing to trade his best pitcher, Jeff Samardzija, for the right package of prospects.

Here's betting he will.

And Brandon Moss, who has hit 76 home runs the last three seasons and helped Oakland to three straight postseason appearances, could end up in some conversations as well.

But the A's can still contend.

That's the part of this story that is easy to overlook. First of all, Beane isn't done dealing. Don't be surprised if he acquires a big name.

Justin Upton? Yes, that's one possibility.

Jay Bruce? He's another one that could make some sense.

Alexei Ramirez? Perfect fit.

General managers throw trade scenarios at Beane because they know he'll consider anything.

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For now, though, Beane's pressing need is shortstop. At this point, he may not even know who'll end up in the job.

But strip all the uncertainty away, and this isn't a team being rebuilt. Not with Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, A.J. Griffin and Parker at the top of the rotation. Not with Coco Crisp and Reddick still in the outfield and Moss at first base.

Back to three years ago. Beane may have dropped a hint about his real expectations when he won a bidding war for Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and signed veteran starter Bartolo Colon. General managers in a rebuilding mode probably have something else in mind when they make deals like that.

On the other hand, the A's do operate differently than most other teams. They embrace the fact that they don't have deep pockets and that sometimes they have to make tough decisions.

Beane has almost always been willing to make moves a year early than a year late. He has been so successful that it's easy to lose sight of his remarkable work. To average 93 victories the last three seasons with a bottom five payroll is a tribute to smarts and guts.

Smarts and guts may be what's on display again this offseason. It had to be painful for Beane to trade Donaldson, a guy who deserved to be high on every AL MVP Award ballot the last two seasons.

Like Moss and Jesse Chavez and others, he represents what the A's do best: Seeing things in players that some other organizations might not.

Beane simply is too competitive to give up on a season. Here's betting he hasn't given up on 2015.

It's impossible to know what the A's will look like on Opening Day. It would be a huge mistake to count them out.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.