On September 30, 2014, at around 9:00 p.m. ET, it appeared as though the Oakland A’s were going to be headed to the ALDS for the third straight season. They had fallen in the previous two year’s American League Divisional Series (to the Detroit Tigers each time), but with the acquisitions of Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel at the 2014 trade deadline, the team showed they were all-in, truly going for it with a monster rotation built for a deep playoff run. The team had their newly-acquired ace (Lester) on the mound and a 7-3 lead over the Kansas City Royals after seven innings in the one-game AL wild card playoff.
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That same day, the Tampa Bay Rays were watching from home. They had made the 2013 ALDS thanks to a 92-win season, but they had fallen off that mark in 2014, finishing the year with 15 fewer wins. It was the team’s lowest win total since 2007, after which they had exorcised the “Devil” and, it seemed, their losing ways. The team was, like the A’s, active at trade deadline but they had been sellers, moving their ace Cy Young winner David Price in exchange for a mix of prospects and big leaguers. And things would get worse: as soon as the season ended their much-respected and oft-quoted manager, Joe Maddon, took advantage of a contract opt-out and before the newly opened bottle of Merlot had properly breathed, had jilted us for the well-heeled Chicago Cubs.
At that moment, the A’s and Rays, the major league’s separated-at-birth scrappy small budget twins, seemed headed in very different directions.
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Of course, five innings and about 100 steals later, the Royals walked off on the A’s in that 2014 AL wild card match-up, grabbing the spot in the ALDS that was seemingly in hand for the A’s and, just to rub salt in the Oakland wound, making a run to the World Series. Meanwhile, the Rays continued to, well, do things. They traded away the presumed future face of the franchise, Wil Myers, in a deal that netted them Steven Souza Jr. It appeared as though the Rays were a bit lost, while the A’s, despite their devastating Wild Card game defeat, seemed bound to be contenders for the foreseeable future.
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As they say in the movie business, hard cut to July 19, 2017. As the A’s and Rays match up for the third and final game of their mid-season series, it is the Rays who are contenders and the A’s who seem a bit lost, currently ten games under .500 and 21 games off their division lead. So what happened?
The 2014 AL wild card game certainly had its impact on the A’s franchise, but the trade of Josh Donaldson (an attempted sell-high move that was supposed to net the club a Donaldson-ready replacement in Brett Lawrie along with two pitchers and a high ranking shortstop prospect) may have had the biggest impact. The then-28-year-old “bringer of rain” went on to win the 2015 AL MVP with Toronto, while Lawrie is now out of baseball and the other pieces of the deal have not (yet) been impact players. It was a brutal move for Oakland, and one from which they have not fully recovered. Indeed, the usually level-headed Billy Beane is now expressing his frustration publicly.
As for the Rays, they have been patient in their quasi-rebuild. Steven Souza is finally showing what the Rays saw as his potential when they traded away young Wil Myers for him during the 2015 season. Their trust in Chris Archer has paid off, as he has turned into one of the most reliable arms in the American League. They have created an all-around deep team that is capable of handling the grueling AL East schedule, and they are beginning to generate some serious buzz once again.
Media narratives like to present winning and losing as the predictable outcomes of successful or failed strategies, but more realistically, a winning baseball season grows out of some mix of smart moves and plain dumb luck. The line between teams that disappoint and teams that delight are far blurrier than most of us will admit — a few marginal players enjoying career years can create a unexpected division winner and a few hard luck injuries can derail a talent-laden pre-season favorite.
These lines get blurriest when we look at our small market A’s and Rays. The deep-pocketed teams can often overcome poor planning or bad luck by signing free agent replacements, or trading off prospects with the knowledge that they can purchase talent down the road. If a big signing doesn’t yield dividends, oh well. The $37 million that the Red Sox will be paying Pablo Sandoval not to play for them in 2018 and 2019 will have little impact on their roster moving forward, but such a failed signing would be devastating to the teams on the Bays (hello, Billy Bulter!), forcing them to forgo free agent upgrades and trade away expensive arb-eligible players.
The A’s are in many ways the west coast spirit animal of the Rays. The two teams share common philosophies, payroll limits, and stadium sagas (we have catwalks, they have backed up sewage flooding their clubhouses. Choose your poison.) Seeing what has happened to them in the past three seasons can be a bit terrifying to Rays fans, but seeing what Tampa Bay has been able to do to become competitive in 2017 can give hope to Oakland fans.