Long live the Oakland Triple-A’s!
That’s the saying I always lived by growing up a Giants fan in the Bay Area. For as long as I can remember, the Oakland A’s have served as an unofficial farm system for the richer teams across Major League Baseball. I know I’m not the only person who’s viewed them this way. They made a whole movie about it. As soon as the Athletics have someone truly special, they pack their bags for bigger paydays somewhere else. Whether it’s Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Reggie Jackson, Josh Donaldson, or any of the other numerous names of players who’ve made a pit stop in Oakland on their way to greener pastures on other teams.
When was the last time the A’s had a legitimate top-level player play for them for the vast majority of their career? I can’t think of one off the top of my head. Long time third baseman, Eric Chavez, maybe? He was great, but made zero All-Star teams, so I’m not sure if he truly qualifies as “elite-level talent.” How far back do we have to go? Mark McGwire? I know a lot of people who believe his best seasons came as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, and we all know why his best seasons came with the Cardinals. The most recent person I can think of is Rickey Henderson. He is best-known for his time as an Athletic, but he played in the ‘90s. I guess it’s fair to say that Oakland hasn’t had a great track record recently when it comes to keeping their best players in town.
I’m not saying the A’s have never had any great players. They’ve had dozens. But keeping those great players for substantial amounts of time? That’s the issue. In fact, if we take a look at every Oakland Athletic since 2000 with at least one thousand plate appearances, the only ones to have made at least two All-Star teams with the green and gold, and not with any other team throughout their careers are:
That’s it. That’s the list. There are several players who made one All-Star team with Oakland and didn’t do so anywhere else (Brandon Moss, Ramon Hernandez, Jed Lowrie), but do you know what happened to those three players as soon as they earned an All-Star bid in Oakland? They were all on different teams the following season. Lowrie was an All-Star in 2018 — the only Athletics’ hitter to earn a bid that season. He played for the Mets in 2019 (9 games). Hernandez earned an All-Star bid for Oakland in 2003, and was a Padre in 2004. Meanwhile Moss was an Athletics’ All-Star in 2014, and promptly joined the Indians. The ONLY other players to have earned All-Star credentials solely in Oakland are players who’ve never had the chance to play for a different team, Matt Chapman and Matt Olson…and BOTH of them are on one-year contracts heading into their second year of arbitration ahead of 2022. Why haven’t the A’s extended these two great young talents?
Ah, but see, if the A’s do that, how are the Blue Jays, Yankees, Orioles, and Red Sox supposed to get their next great players, huh? Didn’t think about that, did ya? Obviously, that’s an exaggeration, but this pattern of uber talent packing their bags and heading across the country after a few good years in Oakland happens so often that it can’t be overlooked. In the mid-2000s, it was the Yankees, Red Sox, and Orioles who claimed the spoils of once great Athletics. Damon had stints with both the Red Sox and Yankees after just one season in the Bay Area. Jason Giambi left the same year Damon did for a bigger payday in the Bronx. The Athletics had an MVP on their hands in Miguel Tejada. He left for Baltimore to make more money. Even Eric Chavez suited up in pinstripes after 13 years in Oakland. Nick Swisher did the same thing, but it only took him four years to get out of Oakland and hit both the Windy City and Big Apple shortly thereafter.
More recently, it seems a new AL East team has become the hotspot for fantastic former Athletics: the Toronto Blue Jays.
Everybody remembers what happened to Josh Donaldson as soon as he was traded. Donaldson headed North of the Border, and won the 2015 AL MVP Award. Donaldson was great in Oakland, but became a superstar his first year in Toronto.
Well, that was probably just unlucky, right? There’s no way something like that could happen again.
Marcus Semien was a great player in Oakland. He finished third in MVP voting in 2019. However, he’s become an ultra-mega star in Toronto. Some people even believe that he deserves the MVP award over Angels pitcher and slugger Shohei Ohtani.
I wouldn’t go that far, but Semien has clearly taken his game up a notch in his first season with Toronto. He was named the starting second baseman for the AL All-Star team, and has played a pivotal role in Toronto’s recent push for a postseason berth.
I just don’t get it. How can so many players leave Oakland and become superstars? What’s even crazier is how the Athletics continue to find incredible talent, and compete, year-after-year, without being able to hold onto any of that talent. I understand the Athletics’ struggles. They don’t have a lot of money, so shipping off their best players and getting something in return before they leave in free agency makes a lot of sense. Of course, this brings up the whole salary cap issue in Major League Baseball. If A’s owner John Fisher isn’t willing to shell out some cash in order to keep his best players around, why is it a bad thing for richer teams to scoop them up? It’s not. Anybody with half a brain in a similar situation would do the same thing. For the A’s, it’s just an unfortunate reality of existence though. If they attempt to keep their best players by offering them competitive contracts, they’d likely lose their surrounding talent and turn themselves into a much less competitive team as a whole.
So, would you rather be competitive, or keep your best guys around? I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’d choose the second option. Obviously, the ultimate goal is to do both, and most teams tend to want to keep their best players around because having good players tends to lead to wins. Unfortunately, things aren’t quite that simple for Oakland. Although I’m sure they’d love to keep their top talent in the Bay Area, doing so sacrifices the salaries of their role players, the second-tier guys, you know, the types of players who’ve helped Oakland reach the postseason each of the last three seasons. Those guys are what keep the A’s churning, not the big name, soon-to-be free agents, so paying one guy a whole lot more while sacrificing the heart and soul of your franchise seems like a fool’s errand.
Oakland’s salary situation works out beautifully for everyone involved. If I’m Toronto, I’m throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the Athletics in order to acquire either Chapman or Olson. Given what we’ve seen throughout the 2010s and early 2020s, there’s a strong possibility that either of them could become the 2022 AL MVP.
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