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A’s Deal Weeks to O’s for Johnson

December 3, 2013

Yesterday morning’s deal was classic Billy BeaneScott Kazmir, a recent reclamation project, could have probably net $12M or so on a one-year deal despite his high risk. Beane doubled down and convinced him to come to Oakland (which despite being a competitive team still requires some degree of convincing) and gave him two years $22M. Kazmir got less than he would’ve on a one-year but has $22M to sit and ruminate over through 2015. Great move. That is what made this evening’s move a bit more perplexing. Beane and the A’s are known as staunch believers (as am I) in the principle that relievers are largely interchangeable and thus not worth spending a ton of money on. That is why Grant Balfour‘s resigning was never considered a possibility even as he pitched what we all knew to be his final game against Detroit in Game Five of the ALDS.

So why did the A’s just go out and get a closer who is set to earn over $10M in arbitration for 2014? The Orioles who were contemplating non-tendering Jim Johnson, instead dealt him to the A’s at the last minute for second baseman Jemile Weeks. Weeks’ tenure with the A’s is well-documented by me, who has not been a fan. After a breakout rookie year in 2011 where he hit .303/.340/.421 for 1.7 WAR in 97 games and 437 trips to the plate, he slumped big time in 2012 before finally spending the majority of 2013 back in Sacramento. His 2011 year, I long argued was an illusion built upon luck. His .350 BABIP fueled his .303 batting average and hid his terrible 4.8% BB%. Sure enough in 2012 with the BABIP down to .256 (a number that was to me indicative of just a bad approach and weakly hit balls as someone with his speed should be able to muster at the very least a league average BABIP catching breaks on infield ground balls others wouldn’t) he slumped to .221/.305/.304 in 511 trips to the plate that were painful as a fan to watch. Apparently that too was the case for the A’s brass as they opted to go with virtually any and everyone else at second base in 2013 with Weeks only seeing eight games and nine plate appearances in Oakland (.111/.111/.111 for what it is worth with five of those nine trips resulting in a strikeout) and putting up a strong but nothing to write home about .271/.376/.369 in 614 plate appearances in Sacramento. To say Weeks will be missed by me is false. I didn’t think he fit well, he had speed but didn’t use it well, couldn’t get on base, wasn’t anything to write home about in the field. I felt psychologically he was all over the place and maybe then a change of scenery will do him well. But despite ridding of a player I felt had little utility, I am still not thrilled with this trade that net the A’s an All Star who finished seventh in Cy Young voting just two years ago.

Johnson comes to the A’s having spent the past two seasons as the Orioles closer. After accumulating 21 saves between 2008 and 2011, the surprising 2012 O’s went with Johnson as closer and he delivered with an MLB-leading 51 saves despite strange for a closer peripherals (5.4 K/9, 2.0 BB/9 and 0.4 HR/9 for a 3.25 FIP to matc his 2.49 ERA). Last year he followed it up with a tied for MLB-best 50 saves, an improved 7.2 K/9 though slightly worse 2.3 BB/9 and 0.6 HR/9 for a 2.94 ERA and 3.45 FIP. For me a more important metric is shutdowns and meltdowns and here Johnson has been stellar the past two years with an MLB leading 86 shutdowns, to just 15 meltdowns. Johnson is undoubtedly good, but did the A’s really need to part with Weeks (who could’ve been dealt elsewhere) to acquire someone so expensive? Is Johnson at $10M really that much better than Balfour potentially on a two-year $20M or so contract? Is Johnson furthermore even really necessary at all when the A’s have been rumored to be chasing Nelson Cruz? Isn’t this also just more money that could’ve been used to bring Tim Hudson (who I still think was the best realistic pitching option) to Oakland? Or even instead signing Phil Hughes to a deal comparable to the one he received from Minnesota (three-years for $24M)? Johnson is good, he makes the A’s better and the A’s win this trade. But as far as value given the A’s limited resources was this the real place to hone in on is what I question.

That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if this move is a precursor to something else. Perhaps it is quintessential Beane. The A’s hold on to the American League’s best closer by several metrics (101 saves the past two seasons, 86 shutdowns) and then when the inevitable injury comes in Spring Training or a team finds out that their closer by committee or Bruce Rendon plan won’t work out for them, the A’s cash in big. Maybe that is in the cards? Who knows. Otherwise this deal is presently a bit of a head-scratcher to me.

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