As the July 31st trading deadline passed with a flurry of excitement over the last week, it was all quiet on the western front. Specifically, in Oakland. The unusual and abnormal lack of movement was the focus: for a change, the A’s did not trade away their players—veteran starters or minor league prospects. This is surprising news for the organization, because traditionally around this time of the season, the Athletics rid their roster of salaries and stock up on loads of minor leaguers.

The difference this year for Oakland is that they are amazingly not in last place, and surprisingly visible, albeit quite distantly, in the playoff picture. Another reason is that Oakland’s shelves are currently filled with an inventory of broken players, a result of some offseason gambles that, of course, did not pan out.

The Oakland organization only has a meager amount of money, and every year GM Billy Beane basically uses that tiny wad of cash to bet on the potential productivity of old veteran players for the upcoming baseball season.

The difference between Beane and other baseball GMs is that Beane makes giant bets with a small bank account, hoping that he hits the lottery somehow. Sometimes he buys just one almost insignificant scratcher; and other times he can afford a boatload or two of tickets. Either way, because it is Oakland, these gambles end up busting, and ultimately the entire season does, too.

As usual, this past offseason, Beane took some big risks on some aging, oft-injured veterans. And thus, the 2010 season has resulted like many of the years in the past decade for the Athletics: crapping out. The A’s re-signed starter, Justin Duchscherer, to a one-year contract, after he spent the 2009 campaign battling back  hip injuries and, even more seriously, a bout with clinical depression. It wasn’t a large sum, but given that Duke had to get both his body and mind healthy, it was still uncertain if he could resume being their ace again. He began the season in the starting rotation, and within two months was done for the season with hip surgery.

Another long-time Athletic was given another chance to play out this season, at a lofty $12 million. Chavez, who hasn’t been healthy the last four years, is the one player who has remained in Oakland during the Moneyball era, when scores of stars were traded or left as free agents. As the sole survivor—the one that Oakland chose to keep—he was down to his last chance to be relevant again. The A’s even sent Jack Cust to the minors and kept Chavez as the permanent DH. Soon after Duchscherer was injured, Chavez went down, and it seems as though his baseball career has as well.

The biggest surprise, however, was the signing of Ben Sheets, who had just come off of serious, career-threatening elbow surgery. Sheets was given a whopping $10 million for one year, which, for Oakland, is like going into the high-stakes poker room. They banked on him providing some experience and stability; but he, too, flamed out, hurt his arm, had surgery, and is done for the year. The A’s tend to borrow a veteran player for the first half of the season, and if (and when) they are out contention in the division, they deal their recent acquisitions for more young talent. Last year Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera, and Matt Holliday were examples of that philosophy.

This season, Sheets was considered to be trade bait, but after he hurt his arm, he wasn’t even able to be exchanged for any prospects. What a tremendous disappointment that turned out to be.

The Athletics’ have used the disabled list so many times—and currently have so many players on it—that they couldn’t even offer anybody for a potential trade.

Travis Buck and Ryan Sweeney are nice players and all, but they could have been swapped for fresh pitching prospects if they weren’t out for the year with injuries. Even Conor Jackson, who the A’s actually acquired to boost their offense, is injured with no imminent return. The list continues with players who could have been traded away if they weren’t on medical leave already.

It is apparent that Beane and the Athletics’ evaluate talent differently than they used to a few years ago when they annually shopped for long-ball, high-OPS players. But with a roster of small-ballers, it has become clear that the A’s need to gamble in order to compete for a playoff spot. As a result, they have to engage in a “high risk, high reward” approach.

This season, that philosophy has backfired. While they are a scrappy team who can eke out some wins and do some really exciting things, they are too dependent on some big gambles in order for them to be successful for the entire season. Hopefully at the end of the year, Beane will play at the smaller tables and gamble less. Or maybe the A’s will avoid gambling altogether.

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