Should A’s stand for Awful?

You won’t have to search too hard to find the Athletics’ Class AAA team in 2012.

It’ll be in Oakland; soon to be coming, perhaps, to San Jose.

This week the Athletics continued their offseason of purging talent, trading away their third All-Star pitcher — all young and soon to be expensive — of the last two years. Closer Andrew Bailey followed Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill to points elsewhere, bringing in return a team of prospects only Baseball America could love.

Branch Rickey famously said he’d rather trade a player a year too early than a year too late; the Athletics clearly would rather trade a player a year before he makes big money than a year after.

The spate of moves has been about as welcome to A’s fans as Jack Buck’s voice proclaiming in disbelief, “I dont’t believe what I just saw,” after Kirk Gibson’s 1988 home run; today cue up A’s fans saying in equal confusion, “I don’t believe who Billy Beane just traded.”

“They’re quitting,” wrote Monte Poole of the Bay Area News Group, “backing away from the 2012 season so early and so emphatically that even Pete Rose, the disgraced hit king, has to scratch his head and wonder, once again, what is the definition of ‘integrity of the game.’ ”

Poole is right when he says the A’s are “packing it in for 2012.” It looks so bad even Pirates fans are feeling sorry for A’s fans today.

But is it good business to stockpile a disproportionate amount of future value for overrated current value? Is it an acceptable business model in baseball to ask your fans to endure 90 losses this year for the prospect of 90 wins in a year to be named later?

Let’s start by not overselling the departed, and understanding that the potential value the A’s received is even greater than that which they had. All of the pitchers the A’s dealt were flawed in some way:

  • Bailey has been on the disabled list each of the last two years and has pitched just 90.2 innings in that span after pitching almost that many (83.1) in 2009 alone.
  • Cahill’s salary is going up — from $440,000 in 2011 to $3.5 million in 2012 — just as his ERA does likewise (2.97 in 2010 to 4.16). Cahill has a 3.91 career ERA, a low strikeout rate, and a lot of skeptics; he had an AL-best .224 average against on balls put in play in 2010, but he was just 31st at .291 in 2011. There’s many who think Cahill’s 2010 is an outlier.
  • Gonzalez is wild and throws lots of pitches. He’s walked nearly a batter every other inning in his major league career, and in his two full seasons as a starter, he ranks in the top 11 in pitches per inning and total pitches per season. He’s no stranger to getting traded — only 26, this is the fourth time Gonzalez has been dealt. If you want to pick on Billy Beane for making a bad trade involving a Gonzalez, forget Gio and go right to Rockies outfielder Carlos, whom Beane dealt with Huston Street to Colorado for a half season of Matt Holliday.

The A’s collected prospects in return for the three pitchers; they have so many the A’s should no longer stand for Athletics but Apprentices.

Problem is, the A’s can say they’re building for the future, but will they have any fans left to root for them when they get there?

Unfortunately, they don’t have that many of them now. The A’s have been 12th or worse in attendance in the 14-team American League annually since 2006, the year they won their last division title. They’ve been 11th or worse 14 of the last 19 years and haven’t been better than sixth since 1992; their long-term GPS is pointed, apparently, toward San Jose.

Wrote Poole: “The A’s have made a series of dramatic moves over the past 20 days, effectively demolishing any pretense of trying to win and simultaneously sending the message that until they get the trade they really want — trading Oakland for San Jose — they’ll just keep making a mockery of the game.”

Perhaps so, but the A’s will have to work a lot harder than dumping pitchers for prospects to make “a mockery of the game.” Any fan of a team once owned by Charlie Finley surely knows that.

Old-time A’s fans know this winter’s purge isn’t the worst in the team’s history. The 1914 A’s won the AL pennant (finishing fifth in attendance of eight teams with 346,641 fans, or more than 1.1 million less than they drew in 2011), then dumped Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Home Run Baker and Eddie Collins.

In 1915, they won 43 games (56 less than 1914), finished 58.5 games out of first and drew 146,223 fans (1,976 a game). They were last, and went on to finish last eight years in a row, winning but 36 games in 1919. That’s making a mockery of the game.

The modern-day A’s won’t hit those lows. Their current roster is full of prospects, even if many next summer, like a returned Christmas present, won’t look as good as they did before they were opened. Kurt Suzuki hit the most home runs last year of anyone returning with 14, Brandon McCarthy won the most games (nine) and Brian Fuentes saved the most (12).

It will be easier to sell the idea of JaMarcus Russell as an NFL quarterback to Oakland fans than it will be the idea the A’s are contenders in 2012.

The bigger questions are where the A’s are going, and who will be cheering them? Are they going to be the Pirates or the Royals, and languish for two decades, or the Rays, and rise in the near future? There’s at least a chance it could be the latter, even if it’s not this year, and that’s not too awful.

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