I'm sure most of you have seen that Ben Zobrist is the newest member of the Oakland Athletics. There was little warning before the trade was announced but, in hindsight, this seems like an obvious move by one of the most active general managers in the game, Billy Beane. The A's gained a 3-4 win player in Zobrist at a very reasonable price and declared to the baseball world their intention to compete for the playoffs in 2015.
On the surface, the organizational philosophies exhibited this offseason by the Mariners and the Athletics could not be more different. The Mariners have cautiously and conservatively built a roster that is projected to be one of the best in the American League and looks to be poised to contend for the long term. They've held onto all of their valuable prospects while adding a number of pieces that pushed them more than a few wins past where they ended last season. Jack Zduriencik has been committed to building a long-term winning ball club and he's putting the final pieces in place this offseason.
On the other hand, the Athletics have thrown caution to the wind and boldly overhauled their roster in just a few months. Five of their seven All-Stars from last year are gone.
In their place are a number of marginal upgrades that may not look like much individually, but together make up the deepest roster in the American League. The A's are projected to accumulate the third highest WAR total next year and are projected to win 84 games, good for second in the AL West and fifth in the league.
Despite their vastly different offseasons, there is an underlying core value that both the Mariners and Athletics have made evident: a commitment to certainty.
Our existence on this earth is marked by uncertainty. We are guaranteed nothing. Yet, we strive to find some assurance that we're able to affect the future—that we're able to predict what may happen tomorrow. In philosophy, certainty is perfect knowledge that has total security from error. While this is impossible in practice, we still attempt to find security in an unpredictable world.
In baseball terms, certainty could be seen as the pursuit of known quantities. In a sport where tiny fluctuations in performance can be the difference between success and failure, a general manager has to pursue avenues that give him the best predictability for the future. This isn't revolutionary thinking, it's pragmatic and realistic. Every decision a GM makes is a bet against the potential risk involved. Where it gets interesting is the different avenues they take to reduce that risk.
Last year, the Athletics sped out to take the lead in the AL West by the end of April. They were atop the division for 140 days during the season. By the end of August, they had surrendered the division lead to the Angels and would end up losing the Wild Card game to the Royals. It was a massive, disappointing collapse that few could have foreseen. It's hard to pinpoint the root of the collapse but the acquisitions during this offseason give us some clues.
Billy Beane is hedging his bets by building the deepest roster in baseball. There are no superstars left, just above average players at every position and a backup who can step in and provide league average or better performance if needed. He has built a roster that is flexible and competitive while also cutting payroll. If something goes wrong in left field, stick Zobrist out there while Brett Lawrie or Marcus Semien take over at second. There are now twelve players on the A's roster who are projected to be worth over 2.0 WAR according to the Steamer/600 projection system. Billy Beane saw his team full of All-Stars collapse down the stretch last year and has tried to build his team to account for every possibility in 2015.
The problem with Beane's approach is the razor thin margin for success in the majors. By acquiring a large number of above average but not superstar players, Beane is betting that all of them are able to continue their above average performance. The difference between an above average and average season is so thin that if enough of them have an off year or get injured, the whole plan could fall apart. If everything does go wrong for the A's, their roster is built so that they could potentially sell off a number of assets at the trade deadline. Even in failure, Beane has his bets hedged.
Up the coast in Seattle, Jack Zduriencik has taken another road to try and secure some certainty. He's betting everything on players that he's drafted—players who he's known for years and has seen develop under his organizations' care. He also traded away an uncertain asset in Michael Saunders and replaced him with two veteran players who have a long track record of above average performance (against certain handed pitchers). The biggest splash the organization made this offseason was signing Nelson Cruz, a proven power hitter. These moves show that Jack Z finds certainty in a long history—either a history of relationship with the organization or a history of major league performance.
The Mariners are not built to withstand a number of things going wrong. If Dustin Ackley or Logan Morrison fail to continue their developmental gains from last year, the Mariners have few options to replace them. Their shallow roster could be their downfall. But Zduriencik is betting that his guys will be able to stay on the field and that the young core will continue to take steps forward.
These two approaches are two sides of the same coin. Because the future is so unpredictable, general managers are forced to attempt to reduce the risk of collapse by any means possible. For Billy Beane and the Athletics, that means hedging their bets with a deep roster full of above average players. For Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners, that means betting on known quantities who have a long track record of success, either at the major league level or in the organization's system.
Neither approach is guaranteed to succeed. After all, if someone found a way to guarantee success, there would be no point in playing the games, right? Pursuing certainty is a fool's errand but we'd be fools to ignore the risk inherent in an unpredictable game. This season might show us who the bigger fool is, Billy Beane or Jack Zduriencik.