It’s the midpoint of the 2017 season, and the Oakland Athletics find themselves in a familiar position – last place in the AL West. After finishing in the basement in both 2015 and 2016, fans were optimistic that 2017 would be different. Not because it was likely, but because that’s the definition of a fan.
The Houston Astros, on the other hand, once a punching bag for the A’s, find themselves in a quite unfamiliar position. With a sparkling 60-29 record, the Astros are just half a game back from having the best record in all of the baseball. They lead the second place Angels in the AL West by 16.5 games. Even better, fangraphs.com predicts that the Astros have a 100% likelihood of making the postseason. In fact, many analysts (and fans) are projecting that the Astros will play in the World Series.
A’s fans who have only casually followed the Astros may be wondering how this could have happened; after all, the A’s bested the Astros 15 games to four in the ‘Stros first year in the division. However, this year, the Astros lead the A’s 10-2 in the season series.
The short answer is that the Astros did a complete rebuild and allowed their young players to develop in the big league setting. They traded high-performing veterans for talented young prospects (as the A’s so often do), and then held onto those prospects as they developed (as the A’s do not often do).
With the Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, and Josh Reddick trades, and Stephen Vogt getting DFA’d, in everybody’s mind, the thought of trading players like Sonny Gray, Yonder Alonso, and Jed Lowrie hurts. But it would hurt less if fans knew that the A’s were ready to go all in on the players they keep. At this point, any time one of the young players starts doing well, the thought of that player being traded creeps into the back of every A’s fan’s mind.
A’s management also has a history of making conflicting moves. After Donaldson was traded, it appeared as if the team was in rebuilding mode. Then Oakland signed veteran Billy Butler to a relatively large contract, which didn’t pan out. The A’s often seem to do the rebuild halfway, remaining competitive but not able to get past the ALCS .
Though David Forst has said “That total rebuild is not something we really believe in, and not something Billy or I want to do”, here are five reasons why the A’s must rebuild now.
Oakland A’s Must Rebuild Now
How Low Can Attendance Go?
Last year, the A’s ranked 28th in attendance, with an average of 19,351 fans per game. This season, new A’s President Dave Kaval brought an air of excitement and change to the team, adding new amenities to the Coliseum – a food truck plaza, a renovated bar, a new kid’s zone, and more. Even better, he promised that the A’s will stay in Oakland.
Unfortunately, despite Kaval’s best efforts, attendance at the Coliseum has actually decreased this season, to 18,498 fans per game, and the A’s now rank 29th out of 30 teams. From the looks of the crowd during most games, that is likely the paid attendance, not gate attendance. This shows that: 1. Fans want to see a better product on the field, not just cosmetic improvements; and 2. With attendance so low, how much will it really fall in the “tanking” years that will be inevitable with a total rebuild? The boon of attendance that will occur with a future winning team has to outweigh the decrease that will happen in the interim; the A’s really don’t have much to lose.
Potential Trading Chips are Strong
Athletics trade rumors this season have centered around three players: Gray, Alonso, and Lowrie. Gray, in particular, is getting quite a bit of attention. Though it would feel like a gut punch to lose Sonny, the time to trade him is now. Few strong starting pitchers are expected to be available, increasing Sonny’s trade value. He also had a quite down year in 2016 and took some time to get back to himself this season. There is no guarantee that he will stay healthy and continue to pitch at his current level. If the A’s wait, his value may drop.
Alonso is having a career season; he recently made his first All-Star game appearance and has hit 20 home runs in just half a season, well above his previous high of nine in an entire season. However, Yonder’s home runs haven’t been enough to keep the team competitive, and there is no guarantee that this year is not a fluke.
Lastly, Lowrie has his highest batting average since 2013. More importantly, he is taking playing time away from top prospect Franklin Barreto, who needs consistent time at second base to settle into the bigs and further develop his skills.
A Strong Young Core is Emerging
The team is rife with young rookies and strong prospects, including third baseman Matt Chapman, infielder/DH Ryon Healy, second baseman Barreto, outfielder Jaycob Brugman, catcher Bruce Maxwell, and versatile players Matt Olson and Chad Pinder. Pitchers Sean Manaea and Jharel Cotton continue to settle in, and there are more strong arms developing in the minor league system, including Frankie Montas and A.J. Puk. For fans, even when young guys are developing and making mistakes, they show flashes of brilliance and their unpredictable nature can make for a more entertaining game.
The A’s Must Peak When the New Stadium Opens
Though a new stadium is sure to bring enthusiasm and increased attendance initially, that increase will not be sustainable without a competitive team (as we saw with the decrease in attendance despite cosmetic updates to the Coliseum). If the A’s can get the timing right and field a strong team right as the excitement of the new stadium reaches its nadir, they are in for quite a payday with an influx of new fans and the return of once-bitter fans, as well as a level of excitement that might push the team over the hump to a World Series appearance.
Fans are Looking For Players to Hold On To
The blow of losing a favorite player would be significantly softened if fans had the assurance of hanging onto the new, younger guys that are replacing them. The team must hang on to players long-term if they wish to heal long-time fans of their attachment issues and their skepticism of management. Equally important is bringing in young fans and retaining them as A’s fans for life. As much as A’s fans would probably hate to admit it, the Giants loyalty to their most beloved players in the form of long-term contracts has definitely been a winning formula in terms of keeping fans (and World Series titles). Granted, the A’s don’t currently have the money to do that. However, they do have the money to afford young rookies, and hopefully the opening of the new stadium will provide them with the capital to hang onto those players in the future. Fans might even start investing in jerseys with actual player names on them.
Although it goes against Billy Beane and David Forst’s philosophy, the time for an A’s rebuild is now. The “Moneyball” strategy was effective until other teams learned how to use the same system. It’s time for the A’s to try something new if they wish to remain relevant. Fans will also have to be flexible and patient in the case of a total rebuild, but having a clear plan in mind will allow that patience and trust to develop, just as time on the field with a secure spot on the team will allow young players to develop. The time to rebuild is now.