Anthony Castrovince

Big-picture view of A's quite amazing

Despite painful knockout punch, Oakland club a perennial contender

Big-picture view of A's quite amazing

If we can remove ourselves from the reality of the way it ended, we can take a moment to reflect on the A-mazement of a ballclub ranking 29th, 27th and 25th the last three years in Opening Day payroll making the postseason in each of those years.

If Oakland fans can divorce themselves from the disappointment of Tuesday night's Wild Card result in Kansas City, maybe they'll take comfort in the way a club that lost two-fifths of its starting rotation in Spring Training somehow stayed ahead of the curve in the season's first half and ran out to the best record in baseball for a significant percentage of the season.

But of course, it's not that easy. Not for the A's or their fans.

What transpired these past six weeks, when that best record in baseball morphed into the fifth-best record in the AL and a quick exit from the postseason stage, will be the lingering memory. What happened Tuesday night, when a 7-3 lead went to waste and an extra-innings loss to the Royals truly felt like a microcosm of the overall second-half slide, will provide a persistent sting.

And all of this, we can be certain, is going to lead to much discussion and dissection on the part of those otherwise forward-thinking members of the Oakland front office.

Billy Beane once said his stuff doesn't work in the playoffs (only he didn't use the word "stuff"), and what he meant is that no matter how much you plan or prognosticate or put your ballclub in the best position to succeed, October is a total crapshoot. Things change in a hurry.

Tuesday night, we saw a great example of that.

  Date   Result Highlights
  Sept. 30   KC 9, OAK 8 video

What Beane could not have envisioned, though, was how quickly things would turn in this regular season, too. Only now, with the benefit of hindsight, do the decisions to go all-in on Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel look truly dubious. At the time those deals went down, even if you questioned the decision to give up a future asset like Addison Russell and a prime-time piece like Yoenis Cespedes, you had to respect Beane's sense of urgency, his will to win and, above all else, his guts.

The trades did not deliver the anticipated OAK-tober prize. That hurts. And while Samardzija is under control for another year, the pending free agency of Lester and the second-half sag of the offense will cast a cloud of concern over the A's as they approach the offseason.

Remember, though, how they got to this point in the first place. How they defied all reasonable projection and prediction to become AL elite these last few seasons. The A's put together a blend of platoons to thwart matchups, fly-ball tendencies to counter shifts and ego-free attitudes to create clubhouse cohesion. For the bulk of this season, it worked beautifully, and you'd better believe there were other clubs jotting down notes along the way. I spoke to several scouts in the first half who praised the A's for having the most craftily, most smartly constructed roster in the game. The skill it took to get to that point will continue to serve the A's well moving forward in an ever-changing game.

I don't think it's crazy to suggest, as many (including some opponents) have, that the midseason moves affected the unique culture the A's had worked so hard to create. You run that risk with any drastic shakeup. Having said that, though, I think there was enough lingering uncertainty about the second-half prospects for the rotation (with the 2013 innings totals of Sonny Gray, Jesse Chavez and Scott Kazmir inspiring questions about how well they'd hold up) to inspire aggression from Beane.

Moving Cespedes at a time when run production is at such a premium might qualify as overly aggressive. That's certainly easy to assert at the moment, because a decline in run production is a big reason why the A's fell so far in the standings in such a short amount of time.

Still, you saw them generate plenty of offense in that Wild Card Game, didn't you? Had the bullpen preserved things late in the game and later in the game, we'd be talking about the A's opportunity to rewrite the story of their 2014 season, beginning with the Division Series against the Angels.

That's the ultimate lesson here. The path is never linear, the target is never stable. Baseball organizations are always looking for "inefficiencies" that can be exploited, and it's no secret that Beane and his crew often tend to be the ones to find them first.

Ultimately, October is not the only crapshoot. Baseball itself is a crapshoot. It might be easy for some to bash Oakland right now for failing to meet their World Series expectations, and I get that. The last six weeks were puzzling, to say the least.

But if we look at things through a wider frame, the fact that this club could even realistically entertain such expectations is still pretty remarkable.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for 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.