MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

A's consistent competitive spirit is admirable

A's consistent competitive spirit is admirable

In the last 20 months, the Oakland A's have traded the guy who would go on to win the American League MVP Award (Josh Donaldson) and kept the guy who could win the AL Cy Young Award (Sonny Gray). They've traded prospects for Jeff Samardzija and traded Samardzija for prospects. They shipped Scott Kazmir and Ben Zobrist off at the Trade Deadline and Brett Lawrie for young bodies in the offseason. But they also spent aggressively on their bullpen and made trades for Khris Davis, Jed Lowrie, Yonder Alonso and Chris Coghlan.

So you could say the signals have been mixed. But the message is consistent: The A's aim to be competitive every single season.

The Billy Beane regime might retool. It might make unpopular swaps involving popular players -- the Donaldson deal is an instant all-timer, and Addison Russell's departure is also regrettable -- but there is never talk of a five-year plan or limited window. At a time when multiple Major League clubs are in a clear rebuild, Oakland can only be accused to trying to make the most of its limited financial resources.

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Nobody is sure when or if those resources will significantly expand with a new ballpark. And so the A's live in the here and now as best they can.

"We don't really have the ability to sort of plan three, four years out and do a full rebuild," general manager David Forst said. "That said, I'm not sure Billy or I would really want to do that. I don't know that ownership would go for it, and I don't think our fans want it. And with the structure with the playoffs and the Wild Card system, teams have proven that if you can go into the Trade Deadline at .500, you can do something and give yourself a chance to win 85-86 games, you can play in the coin-flip game."

Or you can be three games under .500 going into the Trade Deadline and wind up walking away with the darn division, as the Rangers did last season.

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None of the above is meant to point to Oakland as an AL West favorite. The A's have their challenges. But where once this game demanded teams draw a line and decide whether they're going for it with gusto or merely building for a brighter future, the expanded postseason format, as well as the game's increasing reliance on young talent and flexible rosters, has made the playing field appreciably more level.

You can build a ballclub with internal projections for a win total in the low-to-mid-80s and still feel a little frisky.

Now realistically, how frisky should these A's feel?

Not that anybody's taking Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections as gospel in the wake of them famously selling the World Series champion Royals short, but they've only got the 2016 A's down for 75 wins. And that's especially notable coming from the same site that viewed the 2015 installment of the A's, which only won 68 games, as more akin to an 80-win team via "third-order winning percentage" (based on underlying statistics and strength of schedule). FanGraphs, meanwhile, pegs Oakland for 79 wins.

In other words, even the most highly cited public nerd notations see these A's as a sub-.500 team.

This is understandable on a squad whose two highest-paid players (Coco Crisp and Billy Butler) were both negative contributors in the Wins Above Replacement tally last year and whose No. 2 starter (Rich Hill) was recently with the Long Island Ducks and has made just four big league starts in the last six seasons. The primary reason BP felt the A's were better than their 68 wins indicated was a bullpen that routinely turned close leads into close losses, and the jury is out on the changes made in that 'pen (in: Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, Marc Rzepczynski, John Axford and a healthy Sean Doolittle; out: Edward Mujica, Drew Pomeranz, Dan Otero, Evan Scribner, Fernando Abad).

That said, remember how different the rosters of August and September can look than those in April and May. Oakland plans to be flexible -- and yes, frisky -- and one that has ignored the temptation to endure multiple 90-loss seasons in the name of reaping multiple high Draft picks.

"The front office here is always going to put a team on the field that they believe can compete and win," Gray said. "That's important to players."

If the A's are going to win, manager Bob Melvin's going to have to maximize the platoon advantage and his bench depth as he did in the three-year run of postseason appearances from 2012-14. One big benefit of the Davis acquisition, beyond his pure power, is that it alters Crisp's role from overpaid, underperforming regular to overqualified (and, yes, still overpaid) bench player, whose oft-injured body might benefit from increased rest. The 97-win Cubs, who used Coghlan at five positions last season, can attest to the value of his versatility.

For the first time in recent memory, the greatest strength of Oakland's system is upper-level bats. The organization hasn't lost sight of building around pitching, but six of its top seven prospects on MLBPipeline.com's Top 30 list (Franklin Barreto, Matt Olson, Sean Manaea, Richie Martin, Matt Chapman, Renato Nunez and Chad Pinder) are position players, and some of those players could have impact on the Major League squad as soon as this season.

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"This is a group of position players we feel better about than just about anybody since the mid-to-late '90s with Miguel Tejada, Ben Grieve, Eric Chavez and Ramon Hernandez," Forst said. "You're not talking about guys in low [Class] A ball. It's important for us to have guys come up together and have a group of young cost-controlled players together at the same time so we can hopefully put some superstars around them."

As far as the mound is concerned, the A's have a ton of questions and competition beyond Gray and Hill. But left-hander Manaea, the key arm acquired in last summer's Zobrist trade, came as advertised in a sharp outing against the Rockies the other day, and he will be in the mix before long. The early hope is that Jarrod Parker and Jesse Hahn stay healthy enough to reach the potential they've shown in the past, and that Kendall Graveman and Chris Bassitt have grown from a sometimes-bumpy, sometimes-encouraging rookie year.

You can't pick Oakland to win 95 games. But you can't pick the A's to lose 95, either. Their 94-loss showing last year marked the first time since 1997 that they won less than 74. This, despite routinely carrying one of the lowest payrolls in the game.

With a 19-35 record in one-run games last year, the A's showing was more about poor luck than poor effort. Here again in 2016, especially with Gray still aboard, the effort is still an earnest one. And that effort is commendable.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.