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How to turn a non-contender into the Oakland A’s in a few easy steps

Maybe they’re not easy steps, but you should still follow them.

Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros
[whispers to date]
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

In 2014, the A’s sent five players to the All-Star Game and carried a 7-3 lead into the eighth inning of the American League Wild-Card Game. They went to the bathroom, and everything was on fire when they came out, including the cat. They were 68-94 the next year, and 69-93 the year after that. They had flown too close to the sun on wings made of Brett Lawrie, and they were doomed for the next several years.

In 2018, the A’s might be the most exciting team in baseball.

A lot can happen in four seasons, we know that. Consider that the teams that did make it to the ALCS in 2014 might not combine for 100 wins this year. Still, it’s always remarkable to see a team completely reverse their record in a single offseason, especially when they don’t spend a lot of money to get there.

It’s time, in your best David Byrne voice, to wonder, well, how did we get here? It wasn’t just by letting the days go by. The A’s built a contender with roughly 828 trades and signings, and when they win, they do it in a way that makes other owners jealous. They’re having their low-payroll cake and eating it too, and if you want your team to follow suit, here are some lessons for you:

Trade your closer, dummy

This is a simple truism, and it’s not like the A’s invented it. The Royals traded Kelvin Herrera early in the trade season this year, and the Rangers followed suit with Keona Kela shortly after.

When the A’s did it, though, Sean Doolittle was both under contract for several years at below-market prices and a fan favorite. It’s very, very tempting to keep a reliever like that, even if there are shiny prospects being offered. The low cost will make a team think it’s the kind of luxury they deserve. They need to treat themselves.

Instead the A’s took Doolittle and turned him into one of the best pitching prospects in baseball and — more on Blake Treinen in a minute — their new closer. They’re as good in the present, and they’re better equipped for the future. How does a team feel confident enough to do this? Well, you just have to ...

Trust your people

The smart people whispering in your ear, that is. This A’s team wasn’t built by Brad Pitt during a three-act arc. There’s a team of smart people working to improve every baseball team, and the people making decisions have to believe that their smart people are smarter than the other smart people. Blake Treinen is a great example.

Personally, I call him Tri-Nen because he’s like three Robb Nens stapled together, ha ha, is this thing on?

The A’s took a freakish, high-velocity sinker and trusted that their smart people could work with it. They did. They did the same with the dinger-mashing potential of Mark Canha, the patient foundation of Nick Martini, and the dinger-mashing reality of Khris Davis. They said, yes, this [unique skill] is something to build on. We just have to make sure our smart people build on it. Which they did.

We’re a decade into everyone misunderstanding Moneyball, but here’s the purest proof that it wasn’t just about stats. No one looking at Treinen’s K/BB was giddy about him. No one looking just at Davis’ OBP was convinced he was the answer.

And when one of those smart people says, “Signing Jonathan Lucroy is a good idea,” you listen to them, too. Because maybe they’re right. If they aren’t, well, hope that the other good ideas from the smart people paid off.

(Full disclosure: I was a huge fan of the Lucroy signing. I am not one of the smart people. Why are you even here right now?)

Spend money on fifth starters with promise

If the trade-your-closer thing is old hat, if that’s the playbook that every bad team is expected to follow, then try this one: Always sign a fifth-starter with a high ceiling.

Sometimes this is a good idea because you can always trade the starter at the deadline. Get a couple good months and see if a contending team will bite. But in the A’s case, this was a good idea because prodigal son Trevor Cahill is helping them win baseball games exactly when they need to.

There are different kinds of fifth starters and minor-league free agents, but an overwhelming majority have a scouting report that reads something like ...

Has a solid arm. Will keep you in ballgames for the most part. Doesn’t throw that hard, but knows how to pitch.

These are the scouting reports that should interest teams that are already contending, especially if they have young pitchers who are ready to break through. A team like the A’s, coming off a dismal season, needs someone with a higher ceiling than that. Here, pick one of the minor-league free agent archetypes:

  • A pitcher with a freaky sinker and intermittent effectiveness whose biggest problem has been health
  • A high-velocity monster who misses bats when he’s in the zone ... which isn’t often enough
  • A lefty with great minor-league numbers but stuff that won’t translate to the majors unless his command greatly improves
  • A proven veteran who would have secured a hefty contract if he were healthy, but who bounced around because of injuries
  • Bartolo Colon

There are others, but the A’s went with the first one, taking a chance on Cahill’s wonder-sinker. In a season with a lot of uncertainty in their rotation, the risk paid off.

When you get a chance to draft Nolan Arenado, do it

Another way to title this section is “Get lucky as hell,” but that unfairly dismisses some of the skill involved. There were 24 teams that passed on Matt Chapman. You can give a pass to the Phillies, who drafted Aaron Nola, and at least a couple other teams who are still happy with their selection, but the idea that a third baseman with this kind of spidey-sense and power could slip that far is absurd. He’s just about the perfect two-way player, and he’s helping the A’s win more baseball games than Alex Jackson is helping the Mariners.

A less fatalistic way to explain this is “Draft better than the other teams,” which is another obvious truism. My favorite part of Moneyball was the part with Matt Cain. Still, the A’s jumped on Chapman, just like they jumped on Chad Pinder, long after other teams had passed. The A’s are improbably built on a blockchain of transactions and micro-transactions and trades and subtrades, but they still used the draft better than a lot of teams. Chapman is proof of that, even if there sure are a lot of misses around him.

There’s more to the A’s than all this. They had to do their due diligence when trading Ben Zobrist at the trade deadline (Sean Manaea). They had to scramble and pick up a fifth starter on the fly (Edwin Jackson). They had to spend a teensy bit of money (Yusmeiro Petit, Lucroy, Cahill), and they had to have the depth to help weather the storms created by the shots that didn’t go in the goal (Lucroy, Matt Joyce, Jake Smolinski, Brett Anderson, Santiago Casilla, Chris Hatcher, look, they can’t hit on every wild idea).

Add it up, and they have a surprise contender. Your team could, too, if they would follow these rules. The A’s were a non-entity last year, and now they’re challenging the powerhouse Astros, who needed years and years of tippy-top draft picks to get here. All it takes is [waves arms] all that. Your team should do all that.

Just know that it doesn’t always have to work, but it sure looks like it’s working this time. And, boy, is it fun to watch.