There will be a lot more of this in 2008. No, I'm not talking about Nick Swisher batting at the Coliseum. I'm referring to the empty seats. Even if Billy Beane is approaching rebuilding correctly--gathering a large cluster of young, cheap talent that can come of age together--it's bound to hurt the near-term attendance figures. Very few people go to a major league game because the home team has a top-five minor league system.
Now some may be (and someare) asking, how did it come to this? How did the A's let their farm system dry up so badly that they were forced to rip apart a team that made it to the ALCS just 15 months ago? Well, the most obvious answer is this: this is the way the system is supposed to work. Teams that are good for long periods of time are going to eventually have their talent dry up from having low draft picks year after year.
The A's haven't had a pick in the top half of the first round since Barry Zito was chosen with the ninth pick in 1999. Any pick beyond the 15th pick has historically had about a 75% chance of never amounting to much more than a replacement-level player. Even if you're really smart about your drafts and you can figure out how to reduce those odds of failure from 75% to about 66%, your draft pick is still going to flop two times out of three. Eventually, you're going to have a run of three or four years when your picks don't work out, and you run out of talent.
Since Zito was chosen, the A's have had 19 picks (excluding 2007: too soon to judge) in the first and supplemental rounds. Of those 19, seven have had careers that can be considered above MLB replacement level: Swisher, Joe Blanton, Mark Teahen, Bobby Crosby, Jeremy Bonderman, Huston Street, and Travis Buck. That's a 63% failure rate: a pretty good percentage, actually.
So if there's a suggestion out there that the A's don't draft well, or don't develop their talent well, the evidence seems to suggest the contrary: on the whole, the A's draft and develop talent better than the average team.
It's when you start breaking down the whole into its constituent parts that you can find room to quibble. The A's draft and development program has its strengths and weaknesses. The A's are good at finding and developing players in those areas where statistical results are good predictors of future performance, namely corner outfielder/first basemen types, and pitching. As Moneyball spelled out, they've figured out how to beat the odds (somewhat) there. But at positions where athletic tools are an important part of the job description, the A's tend to make as many, or more, mistakes as anyone.
The next time the A's draft and develop a star centerfielder or shortstop or second baseman will be the first time. Part of the reason the pipeline has dried up at this point in time is that the A's spent high draft picks in recent years to find players in these positions--specifically Richie Robnett (cf), Cliff Pennington (ss), and Brian Snyder (2b/3b)--and they have all pretty much flopped.
This leads to an interesting dilemma if you're the A's. If you know you suck at one thing--drafting players at the up-the-middle positions, and you're good at something else--finding value in pitching and the corner positions--how should you approach things? Should you try to learn from your mistakes and pick better next time, or do you stick with what works for you, and figure you can trade for players to fill your holes later?
In their return for Dan Haren and Nick Swisher, the A's seem to have opted to stick with what they know. They got nine players back: five pitchers, three corner outfielders, and one first baseman. No shortstops, no second basemen, and no pure centerfielders. (Although all three outfielders are said to be able to play some CF, all three are considered to be more natural fits in the corners.)
Haren and Swisher were their two most valuable trading chips, and they used them to get players we can be fairly confident given the A's history that the A's have evaluated accurately. As it stands today, the A's farm system is much more talented than it was before the trades, but on the other hand, it's more talented in the same areas it was talented before, and it's still empty in the areas where it has been the emptiest. It will be interesting to see if now that the A's have filled their coffers with their strengths, if they change direction a bit and start diving more into their weaknesses.