There have been two distinct eras of accomplishment since Billy Beane took over as the A's general manager after the 1997 season. The first ran from 2000-06 and was led by a parade of fairly big stars, nationally known names such as Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, the Big Three, Milton Bradley, Jermaine Dye and Frank Thomas.
The second is ongoing, having started with the magically stunning 2012 season and, recent acquisitions notwithstanding, it's been fueled by a dramatically different approach to roster composition.
Star power? Hardly. The A's of the past three seasons have been largely anonymous to baseball fans around the country. The lone exception? Yoenis Cespedes, and even he didn't get a ton of run on the national scene until he bashed his way to last year's Home Run Derby title. His performance in Oakland's truncated playoff run last fall boosted his profile, his ungodly throw in Anaheim this year served as a dramatic reminder of his prodigious talent, and the successful defense of his Derby title just a couple of weeks ago cemented his status as the first bona-fide, no-doubt-about-it star in green and gold since Bob Melvin came aboard as manager and started erasing the haunting memories of Bob Geren listing all the positives he'd just seen in yet another desultory 7-3 loss in front of 6,433 people at whatever the Coliseum was being called on that particular midsummer night.
Other than Cespedes, the A's were 24 versions of the same guy: selfless, versatile, hard-working, scrappy and quietly, efficiently, consistently productive. Sure, Josh Reddick has had his moments that merit a few seconds on the major cable highlight shows. Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp, too. But for the most part, were any casual fan not associated with the Bay Area in some way asked to name an Athletic, they'd likely have started and ended with the ridiculously gifted Cespedes.
The past few weeks have changed things, of course. Sending six guys to the All-Star Game will do that. So will trading for established rock stars such as Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester. But increased name recognition aside, the hallmarks of this version of the A's — selfless, versatile, hard-working, scrappy, etc. — is the reason this version is less mercurial than the 2000-06 version, and the reason the loss of Cespedes via the Lester trade might very well turn out to be much ado about nothing.
These A's are working on a streak of 14 consecutive winning months. The great teams of the early Beane days were prone to highs and lows because they were the opposite of versatile. They lacked depth. If someone in a significant role went down, there was nobody there to plug and play.
These A's are the product of Beane's hard-earned lessons. Coco Crisp goes down for a bit? No problem. Outfielders galore are ready to step up — an infielder or two, too. A catcher goes down? A first baseman? A starting pitcher? A closer? Throw a handful of sunflower seeds into the dugout and two quality backups for every spot will get hit.
It's a team in every sense of the word, on and off the field, and nobody is irreplaceable. So go ahead and miss Cespedes' spectacular displays of athleticism, but rest assured that whatever end result those feats got done, there's a guy or three still on the team who can get the same job done.