Last week I used this space to talk about the three-way deal that sent Mike Morse to the Mariners, John Jaso to the Athletics and a pair of pitchers to the Nationals. A quick recap: on paper, the Nationals "won" this trade - they traded a piece they didn't need for a pair with upside; the Mariners may have upgraded talent-wise, but did so in a way that leaves them with an unbalanced roster, unsuited to their current situation; and the A's traded too much for what they got back.
I felt I should add a few more words about the Athletics part in the deal, because it is pretty much the opposite of the Mariners. On paper, giving up AJ Cole and Blake Treinen for John Jaso is too much. However, looking at their roster and organization construction, there is a level of sensibility here. Unlike, Seattle, Oakland is a contender. They won 94 games last year and the American League West. Their Pythagorean record lines up pretty closely with that - they were a 92-win team.
The A's had a very good season with terrible, miserable production from the catcher position. It was simply awful, really. The .262 OBP they got out of the position was the worst in baseball; the .325 SLG was third poorest. Kurt Suzuki, at an Ausmusian .218/.250/.286 was the biggest offender. His OBP had fallen each year since 2008, and he managed to waste 278 plate appearances before being jettisoned to the Nationals (apparently a favored trading partner) in early August. Derek Norris, acquired along with Cole in the Gio Gonzalez deal in the offseason, was called up in June. For what it's worth, he hit better than Suzuki. A .201/.276/.349 line isn't so bad from a 23-year old catcher, but it's tough to take as a contender. Perennial backup George Kottaras acquired at mideason from the Brewers, provided a bit of pop, hitting .212/.280/.471. Still, his defense is considered below average, and he's now 30.
Clearly, catcher was a position the Athletics needed to upgrade if they plan to keep pace with the Angels and Rangers. Enter Jaso, a player so obviously out of the Billy Beane style that it was only surprising he didn't ended an Oakland Athletic earlier. Jaso, who is average at best defensively and had shown little power before 2012, has excellent plate discipline. Jon Maddon hit him leadoff occassionally in 2010, a rarity for a player of so little speed. In over 1000 big league plate appearances, he has a .359 OBP. That's ninety-seven points higher than the Oakland catchers had, as a group, the previous year. He's walked in 13.4% of his career plate appearances. A's catchers in 2012? 6.6%.
The catcher market in 2012 is pretty lean. The market for catchers who can get on base? Almost non-existent. So, despite Jaso's flaws, Beane identified a player who was a pretty significant upgrade for his team. I wrote in the previous column that Jaso wasn't "enough" of an upgrade over George Kottaras. I think I was wrong about that. What is "enough"? If Jaso is only one win better, and the A's beat the Rangers by one game for the wild card spot, is that enough?
Is that one win worth the potential that A.J. Cole presents? A strong argument can be made that yes, he does. Cole is still a high-risk guy. Going beyond TINSTAAPP, Cole was very, very bad in the California League. There may be reasons for that - reasons which I discussed last week. The fact remains that the A's are operating with a low payroll while trying to win in 2013. Giving up on a high-risk like Cole at more for more of a sure think like Jaso, who clearly improves the roster today probably makes Billy Beane cringe, but he's operating with less room for error.
Cole and Treinen for Jaso might not make sense in a vacuum as a straight-up talent swap. But, like the Mariners, the A's are not operating in a vacuum, and their specific set of circumstances make this a sensible move.