Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 2/14/12

Even before the theatrical release of Moneyball, Billy Beane‘s actions as Athletics general manager were beginning to come under the microscope more often. This is just what happens to a general manager when his team doesn’t win, and Beane’s hasn’t reached the playoffs (nor sported a winning record) since the 2006 season. Now, the microscope falls upon his latest move: the signing of Cuban wunderkind Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million deal, even with a full outfield of Seth Smith, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Colin Cowgill and Jonny Gomes in tow. Although there are plenty of risks with the signing of a player like Cespedes, marginalizing players like Smith (much less Gomes or Cowgill) is not high on the list. Not when the Athletics so desperately need elite talent.

The post-2006 Athletics have been defined by a severe lack of elite talent, particularly on the position player side. Only nine position players have even reached 4.0 WAR overall since 2007, and only one player has posted a 5 WAR season in that stretch:

We talk a lot about winning on a budget here at FanGraphs — the concept of “$/WAR” is a big one, and especially when we talk about the Oakland Athletics, a team that has a restrictive budget due to a bad stadium and a less-than-ideal revenue stream. The A’s — and the Rays and other small-market teams — need to have a low $/WAR to win, not because $/WAR is the end-all be-all of baseball franchises but because there’s a strict upper limit on the “$” part of the expression.

The “WAR” part — which, ideally, means real wins — has to come from somewhere, and that’s where the need for elite talent comes from. Even in their down years, the Athletics have done a fine job of producing good, affordable pitching — Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill, Dan Haren, and Brett Anderson are (or were) all solid pitchers when healthy. They’ve also done an admirable job of getting something out of cheap players like Mark Ellis and Ryan Sweeney and Cliff Pennington. Without the elite talent to buttress the team, though, the A’s have just been adding a bunch of spare parts into 70-win teams.

Seth Smith would be a fine piece on many teams. A team can make the playoffs with him as the seventh or eighth best position player if they have an Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, or Matt Kemp type (or two) around as well. He’s a good bargain. The Athletics didn’t have to give up much to get him.

But the Athletics desperately need a star. The easiest way (at least mathematically) to get that $/WAR down is by increasing the “WAR” part, and it takes elite talent to make the kind of dent the A’s need to get back to respectability. Here’s where Yoenis Cespedes comes in. There’s uncertainty, there’s risk, but there’s also extreme potential. Kevin Goldstein called him the 20th-best prospect in the game today, and he has the tools to become an elite outfielder. The A’s had to take a risk on Cespedes — he’s the only free agent talent of his kind they can afford to bring into the organization.

The A’s still need more beyond Cespedes to compete with teams like the Rangers and Angels. He may turn out to bust, or he may turn out to be average. But the Athletics rarely get a chance to infuse their organization with talent unless it’s through the draft or unless they have to give away talent of their own. This time, they jumped, and if that means Seth Smith is relegated to the bench and the outfield is crowded for a few years, so be it.

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