Depth behind Athletics’ success

Oakland Athletics' Brandon Moss, right, is congratulated by Josh Donaldson (20) after Moss hit a three-run home run. (Ben Margot/AP)
May 23, 2014, 11:04 AM

When the Oakland Athletics lost two fifths of their starting rotation to Tommy John surgery in late March, their chances of winning a third consecutive American League West title took a significant hit. With Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin sidelined, there was no way replacements such as Jesse Chavez could be expected to keep pace.

But entering play Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Athletics own baseball’s best record at 30-17. Thanks to the unexpectedly strong contributions from the likes of former Blue Jay Chavez (2.54 ERA in 56.2 innings) and Drew Pomeranz (0.94 ERA in 28.2 innings), they have overcome the injuries to allow the fewest runs in the American League.

Oakland assistant general manager Farhan Zaidi, a native of Sudbury, ON, recently told Sportsnet that the Athletics’ depth allows them to succeed in the face of injuries.

“Whether it’s fatalistic or not you always think two injuries ahead,” Zaidi says. “You have a five-man rotation, but we always like to have seven or eight starting pitchers that we feel we could put in the mix if we needed to and still be able to compete.

Expecting 200-inning seasons from each starter and 150-game seasons from each everyday player can backfire, which is why the Athletics account for injuries before the year. It’s not always enough to stay competitive, but it’s working so far this year with a 3.5 game lead in the AL West.

“Now we’re already moving ahead to ‘who are the next options if something else happens,’” Zaidi says. “A way that you can at least stay afloat, if not compete, when you have some bad luck like we had this spring.”

It’s a lot easier said than done, though. Every team seeks depth, yet some find themselves without it and falter. Even the defending World Series champions are impressed.

“With the injuries going around baseball right now, depth may win out in the end,” Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen said earlier this year. “You see the A’s are built along those lines and we’re striving for that, too.”

It’s not just the pitching staff, either. Brandon Moss continues to hit for impressive power (10 home runs, .958 OPS). Josh Donaldson is proving last year wasn’t a fluke (10 home runs, .874 OPS) and Derek Norris (.980 OPS) and John Jaso (.841 OPS) are providing manager Bob Melvin with extra offence. Add it up and the Athletics are as well-positioned as any team in baseball to reach the playoffs.

Zaidi, who studied at UC Berkeley and MIT before joining Oakland’s front office, spoke with Sportsnet from the ACC tournament where he is scouting draft prospects. The conversation touches on the Athletics’ early success, their willingness to make trades, and why they value the draft so highly:

What’s the value in having a roster that’s deep one through 25 or one through 40?

From an analytical standpoint, when we project out how the team might do over the course of the season, we build in some injury risk to the model. We don’t expect anybody to play 150-160 games. You might project them to play 130-135 and if they play 150, great. You have to account for the fact that they could play 120 or less. The way we project the team’s performance behooves us a little more than maybe the typical team to build in some depth and to have some alternatives in case you get a little unlucky health-wise.

We had a stretch at the end of the last decade, where we had some bad luck with injuries and it really derailed some seasons where we hoped to be competitive. I think we always try to keep that in the back of our heads.

I don’t think we really view our team as the starting lineup, the starting pitching rotation, and the seven-man bullpen. I think a big part of that is what Bob Melvin has done managing the team. I don’t think he’s just managing the 25 guys who are up at any time. He’s managing a lot of the depth guys at Sacramento. He stays in touch with them. He makes them feel like a part of the team, so when they do come up it’s a pretty seamless transition. I think the way he manages people and manages the organization has helped us a lot. It’s helped mitigate the usual effect of injuries, which are usually the team takes pretty big step back, and we’ve been able to avoid that for the most part.

How does Melvin keep such a large group engaged?

I don’t think you ever eliminate that sense of disappointment (at being demoted). You want more than 25 guys that think they’re big leaguers. If you only have 25 guys that think they’re big leaguers, you’re probably in trouble. Anyone that thinks they’re a big-leaguer and isn’t in the big leagues is naturally going to have some degree of disappointment about it, and that’s why I think the personal side of it and keeping them feeling like they’re in the loop and that the major league staff and the major league manager hasn’t forgotten about them is a big part of that.

SN-OAKLAND-AS-BREAKDOWN

The A’s have made a ton of trades in recent years. Why is it that you don’t mind surrendering talent (for example, the John Jaso and Jed Lowrie trades)?
The graphic above includes players who have at least 80 plate appearances or five games pitched for the 2014 A’s.

Those are the kinds of moves that you have to make, especially in our financial bracket, to continue to improve the team, or at least maintain performance when you get up to a certain level. I think having somebody like Billy (Beane) as a GM, who has the degree of confidence to know ‘I’m trading away this prospect, I’m comfortable with the possibility that he becomes a really good player for someone down the road, because it fills my need now.’

I think it’s human nature to fear being burned in a trade and fear the possibility of looking bad a few years down the road, and it takes a degree of confidence and self-assuredness to focus on what you’re getting rather than what you’re giving up. Billy in his position and with all of the experience he has, he’s a deal-maker like that. He understands that.

We’re pretty particular about players we like, players that we think would work in our system, that have the defensive versatility, that maybe have some platoon splits that we think we can exploit. We tend to be pretty targeted in players that we go out and try to trade for, and when you’re really targeting specific guys, rather than having teams approach you about players, you have to be willing to be aggressive and maybe overpay talent-wise to get the guy that fits your specific need. Having a GM that feels confident to give up value for value has helped us execute that strategy.

Even though the A’s don’t have a roster full of homegrown players, drafted players have led to trade acquisitions. What’s the importance of the draft for you?

I think if you actually look at numbers of players drafted by organizations that are currently in the big leagues, I actually think we’re near the top of that list. I think (scouting director) Eric Kubota and our scouting staff do a great job of identifying future big leaguers and creating a talent pool where we have the option to keep these guys and bring them all the way up to the big leagues or trade them for pieces that either fit our system a little bit better, or fill a specific need. Even if you draft well, the players that you draft don’t necessarily fit your positional needs or even your time frame needs. I think being active in the trade market helps re-align those factors.

I think it’s easy to say this is all making trades, it’s not a drafting and development organization. That’s still the pipeline from which we make trades if we have to. It’s an important part of what we do, and when we have the right player who fits our time frame and there’s a spot for him in the big leagues, he comes in. Sonny Gray and Dan Straily and others have fit that mold and been contributors for us.

I don’t think we’re locked in to one mode of player acquisition. We’re never going to say ‘we have to keep our own players; all of the players we draft have to reach the big leagues with us.’ I don’t think that’s necessarily our focus. The more that happens, the better, but I think we really believe that there are trades out there that are mutually beneficial and we actively seek out those opportunities.”

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