While I was skeptical about whether the A's were rebuilding or not after the trade of SP Dan Haren (86/89), they removed all doubt yesterday by trading OF/1B Nick Swisher (80/84) to the White Sox for OF Ryan Sweeney (62/81), SP Gio Gonzalez (68/89), and P Fautino de los Santos (59/86). Chicago went in to the off-season hunting for a center fielder, and they now have one. Meanwhile, Oakland continued to bolster their farm system.
White Sox GM Kenny Williams vowed that he would not sit idle after last year's disappointing season, and he certainly has not. Their offense left much to be desired in 2007, but adding SS Orlando Cabrera (79) and Nick Swisher should do wonders. The White Sox will be better, but I am not convinced they can compete with the Indians, and they certainly do not look as good as the new-and-improved Detroit Tigers.
As for the A's, this move was clearly made with an eye towards the future. Sweeney and Gonzalez are both highly regarded prospects, though I am not completely sold on Sweeney. He looks like a good player to me, not a great one. However, Gio is the real deal, as his 185 strikeouts in AA attest to. Nobody had more strikeouts than Gonzalez in the minors last year, and he is a rare talent that may be able to make the jump from AA to the majors and taste some success. Finally, de los Santos should not be overlooked. Last year, he piled up 153 strikeouts in only 122.1 innings pitched, with a meager .163 batting average against. It is quite easy to tell that the guy is flat-out hard to hit, and at 21 years old (he will turn 22 in a little over a month), he also has age on his side.
Nick Swisher is just entering his prime and may get a little better, but this deal clearly favors the A's. It does make the White Sox better now, but they are still far from competing against the Tigers and Indians. More importantly, only one of the three players the A's received has to reach their projected peak for the deal to be fair. Even in the unpredictable world of baseball prospects, hitting on one out of three with three guys who have played in AA or higher are relatively safe odds.
Billy Beane continues to show why he is one of the best GMs in baseball. He is proactive instead of reactive, which is one of the biggest reasons Oakland has maintained a high level of success with limited resources. I am convinced Beane understands the market value of players better than anyone else in the game, and ruthlessly uses it to his advantage. He understands that players are vastly underpaid before they hit free agency, so he squeezes those quality years out of ballplayers to get more talent than he pays for.
However, all GMs understand this inefficiency, especially others that operate lower revenue teams. What really sets apart Billy Beane is how well he understands the value of his own players to other teams. This free agent market was devoid of really good starters. Not surprisingly, Beane starts shopping around Haren and Joe Blanton (86/89). Both of these players are still well within Oakland's budget for the next couple years, but Beane understands that the demand for pitchers of their caliber this year far outweighs the supply. That, in addition with the viable threat to walk away from any deal, gives Beane tremendous leverage in these deals, as evidenced by the monster package of prospects he received from the D'Backs in the Haren trade.
The same basic thing happened again with the Swisher trade. The White Sox were actively looking for a center fielder. They zeroed in on Torii Hunter (78), but he signed with the Angels. Soon after, Andruw Jones (72) and Aaron Rowand (84) were off the market as well. Even a creative option like Kosuke Fukudome (76) had signed with the Cubs. All of this activity, coupled with Swisher's affordable contract, gave Beane tremendous leverage against the White Sox in this trade, and once again it shows with the package the A's received.
Oakland will likely suffer through another tough season in 2008, but their future has never been brighter. A new ballpark is on the horizon, perhaps as early as 2011, and with it should come increased revenue. By then, many of the prospects included in the Haren and Swisher deals should have asserted themselves in the majors, and perhaps may even be hitting arbitration years. This may be the first generation of A's players since the late 80s/early 90s that Oakland can seriously think about locking up to long-term contracts. Now, considering Beane already figures out how to get the higher ground in deals even when teams know he eventually cannot sign a player, imagine how much more effective he can be with the threat of legitimately retaining a player through all of their most productive years. The prospects Beane and the A's have acquired this off-season could be with the team for a very long time. Then again, maybe they too will have inflated worth to other teams some day, and Billy will find himself with incredible bargaining power in some trade, and the A's will just get better and better. Any team that is perpetually "rebuilding" should take a look at Billy Beane and how his seemingly magical touch works. It is all about foresight instead of hindsight, and understanding how the market impacts leverage in deals.