Friday, August 1, 2014

Beane Proves It's Always Wins Over Shirseys in Oakland

Why was it so hard hearing that Yoenis Cespedes was gone, shipped off in another Billy Beane trade? The most obvious reason is that he was the clean-up hitter on the team with the best record in baseball, a man with electrifying power and blazing speed. On an emotional level, Cespedes was raw hope. In what seemed to be the bleakest-of-bleak offseasons in 2012, Cespedes was a reason to come to ballgames and to tune-in.

For fans that weathered the long winter that was 2007-2011, Cespedes was one of the main ties left to the magical 2012 team. It's nice to be 20+ games over .500 and leading the division. It was pure, intoxicating magic to win on the last day of the season -- at home -- against a team that tormented you with big stars and a big payroll and in a year when you were supposed to be a joke.

In life, we love people who are flawed. Our relationships are often pock-marked with personality deficits and laced with odd character quirks. However, we care deeply for the people we keep close and regularly paper-over or simply ignore faults. If you anonymize Cespedes, removing the hulking physique, the captivating and terrifying refugee story and the impressive YouTube tape, you get an outfielder who has a 2.1 WAR in 2014 and is batting .256 with 17 home runs.

Cespedes is also 28 years old and posted his highest WAR at 2.9 in 2012. He is making $10.5 million and signed for one more year. He was virtually guaranteed to leave either before or immediately upon conclusion of his contract, not because the A's couldn't afford him, but because they do not give long-term contracts to players who statistically should be in decline based on their age.

The thing about Yoenis Cespedes was that, at least prior to this year, he was the A's most-marketable player. Much of his name recognition was built on his titanic Home Run Derby performance at Citi Field in New York in 2013. The bat-flip GIF when he won the title was widely circulated. Literally no one in the national media -- ESPN's Chris Berman in particular -- could say his name, but he became a recognizable brand that night. Cespedes repeated this year, but really will anyone remember who won the Home Run Derby in twenty years? Probably not. You play to win the last game of the season, not to hoist the "Gillette Home Run Derby" trophy.

As lovable as Cespedes was, and as tantalizing as his potential was, he never truly became the 5+ tool player he was billed as being. Painful as it may be, he simply isn't Mike Trout (2014 WAR of 5.6). This is not an even comparison, but as amazing as the basketball players in the AND1 mixtapes are, they are exhibitionists and not NBA-caliber players and a similar argument could be made -- to a far lesser degree -- with Cespedes. Hitting designed meatballs in the Home Run Derby doesn't advance the goal of a winning a championship, and making 300-foot balloon throws isn't necessary when you take better outfield routes.

Beane and the A's worship at the church of Sabermetrics and Cespedes was expendable. They traded him for a pitcher -- albeit an expensive rental -- with a WAR of 4.6 whose previous years WAR's (08-14) are all stellar with a low of 3.1 (2012) and a high of 6.2 (2009). Lester will be too expensive and too old (31) for the A's to even consider re-signing. But, it doesn't matter. They flipped a good outfielder with a ton of unrealized promise and a slightly-less expiring contract for a power pitcher who is having a bigger positive impact for his team this season and whose intangibles include two World Series titles and a 2.11 postseason ERA. (Duly noted that Cespedes hit very well in two ALDS series. His postseason sample size is still smaller than Lester's.)

The Cespedes trade is a strange coda to the years when Beane flips serviceable, borderline stars for prospects and waves the white flag mid-season. On July 9, 2009 the A's were 49-42 and fives games out of the lead. They traded Rich Harden (5-1, 2.34 ERA) for a seemingly unremarkable haul that happened to include Josh Donaldson. Beane didn't think he had the horses to win and he sold high on a pitcher with shaky medicals and an outsized (based on his performance) contract. Now, he thinks he does have what it takes to win and he again sold high. The reality is if Beane really felt Cespedes was as good as he is perceived, he wouldn't have moved him.

The short-term losers in all of this are we the fans who can't help but fall in love with ballplayers. Now the Cespedes shirsey/jersey can be added to the collection of former A's. (I have one, too.) The other losers in this are the fans of teams with MLB front offices who lack the guts to do what the A's did and, instead, award huge contracts to declining ballplayers based on past performance. The Phillies (Howard) and Angels (Pujols, Hamilton) come to mind.

The A's front office plays for wins and they don't care about moving merchandise in the team store. If you asked Billy Beane what jersey to get, he would tell you to save your money. After all, those championship DVD sets can be pricy.

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