The Oakland A's are going to the playoffs for a third straight season, despite having a September in which their offense fared worse than a hypothetical team of nine BJ Uptons. They managed to pitch just well enough to right a skid that started after the trade deadline, when they held the best record in baseball. The passing of the deadline marked the start of a nosedive for the A's, as well as a left turn in the team's philosophy.
Thanks to Brad Pitt and a history of relinquishing their best players, Oakland has earned a reputation for looking at market inefficiencies as necessary for survival, rather than small quirks on the margins of the game. Billy Beane & Co. are notorious for following up successful seasons by shipping off players who might become too expensive for them, like when they traded three all-star pitchers and Kurt Suzuki in 2012.
Oakland's trick has been replacing those stars with prospects or undervalued players. It's a frustrating mantra, but they make a habit of positive regeneration. The team's miserly owners and iffy long-term stadium security force them to play phoenix and keep burning themselves to stay alive. Their longevity despite obvious disadvantages is a testament to their keen scouting abilities. Bartolo Colon gave them 18 wins in 2013 at age 40 and Josh Donaldson, for whom the A's traded two players now out of baseball, has rounded into a superstar in the last two years.
But this year, they flipped Yoenis Cespedes, he himself an uncharacteristically splashy signing, for Jon Lester and also sent out their best prospect, Addison Russell, for Jeff Samardzija. The A's looked like World Series favorites at the time, and management felt it was the right time to go all in on a World Series bid. But the A's offense went limp without Cespedes' bat and they almost went from World Series favorite to vestigial also-rans in two months flat.
Such midseason talent-grabs are a baseball tradition. Floundering teams trade their stars for prospects so that they can align everyone's peak. Contenders sacrifice the future for a better shot at the World Series trophy. It's a convenient bit of symbiosis between tiers. With the opening of the new wild card slot, more teams are technically contenders, which means big trades like this are more common. But it doesn't always work, and punting on the future is sometimes riskier than rolling the dice unfortified in October.
The Giants traded for Hunter Pence to boost their offense in 2012, but it was journeyman 36-year-old Marco Scutaro who pushed them over the top. The Phillies chased more titles after 2008, but ended up mortgaging too much of their future. In fact, the only major late acquisition of the past ten years who played a big role in a World Series win was Jeff Weaver with the 2006 Cardinals. That particular team barely squeaked into the playoffs with Weaver hemorrhaging runs in the regular season, but he tightened up in the playoffs and played the role the Cardinals had envisioned.
The Weaver case exposes some truths about the entropic nature of baseball. Weaver was good, then he was bad, then he was good again. On a short timeline, like half a season, you can't necessarily differentiate fluke from process. Making a late season trade is a bet that a player will conform to multiple year averages for a few months. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
Oakland may have made a crucial blunder by getting rid of Cespedes, but we don't know yet. His replacement, Lester, will start the one-off game against Kansas City on Tuesday. The two new pitchers Oakland hitched their wagon to have been good, and Beane is betting on the rotation-first strategy that anchored the past two San Francisco championship teams. Regardless of outcome, baseball can't be understood in the short-term, which is what makes calculated gambles like the A's trades so fascinating. Lester's value hinges on just one game; a stark illustration of the stakes. The gamble's payout remains uncertain.
Thus far, Beane has made a career out of mining the uncertainty of his sport. With his current roster, he's trying to harness that uncertainty, and control the inherent unpredictability of baseball.