I could run the Oakland A's as well as Billy Beane does.
Actually, let me clarify. Given my ego, spiny temperament, intelligence/lack thereof and unfortunate tendency to respond to Fantasy-league trade offers with jerk-isms like "maybe, if you throw in Albert Pujols" or "come on -- do I look like Jim Bowden?," I couldn't run the A's as well as the much-celebrated Beane does. But it's within the realm of faint possibility that I could get the same results. You, too.
|Billy Beane's 'Moneyball' philosophy hasn't paid dividends in the playoffs. (Getty Images)|
Heading into what projects as a fourth straight sub-.500 season, you have to wonder whether, at some point, A's fans would prefer to win dumb rather than lose smart. Could it be time for the A's to start going about their business as thoughtlessly and recklessly as the Astros do?
God, no. Still, that doesn't mean the 2010 season has to be a write-off. The A's are in good shape for the long-term; let's see if we can Save This Franchise!™©® for the year immediately ahead.
Overview: Thanks to "Moneyball" and its overblown aftermath, there's a perception that the A's are the Malcolm Gladwell of Major League Baseball. They're said to have a contrarian organizational mindset; many pundits believe that, intellectually, the team's front-office grunts have more in common with environmental engineers attempting to curb Sweden's reliance on fossil fuels than they do with their counterparts in Pittsburgh or Kansas City.
That's bunk. The A's are merely a baseball team contending with a challenging set of competitive conditions, just like 15 other teams. They are far from alone in trolling for bargains in the marketplace and seeking to exploit its inefficiencies, whether by dredging the non-roster-invite pool for on-base percentage (which Beane invented in two-thousand-aught-one, right after he secured a patent for nylon and colonized Australia) or defense. It's not like the Red Sox sit around on their platinum-encrusted Aeron thrones and say, "Let's pay our players like the princes that they are!" This is bloodsport and this is business.
Thanks to a series of trades -- Matt Holliday, Dan Haren, etc. -- the A's have a veritable superabundance of prospects percolatin' in the upper ranges of their system. That doesn't mean they have to sacrifice next season at the altar of player development, or that they should.
Assets: Holy live-wire bullpen. The A's lack a closer whose entrance music prompts opponents to start packing their gear, but they're flush with versatile strike-throwers, only one of whom (the perpetually underrated Mike Wuertz) clears more than $450,000. Praising them comes with the usual caveat -- relievers are as unstable as boron, blah blah blah -- but few teams in baseball can swarm opposing hitters with as many different looks and limbs from the sixth inning onward. A pen of Bailey/Wuertz/Ziegler/Devine (if healthy)/Kilby/Breslow/Blevins projects as one of the majors' best in 2010. They could deal from this depth, too.
Similarly, the A's are as rich in young starting pitching as the Yankees are in, uh, money. At 25, Dallas Braden is the old grey mare of the group, which includes uncannily-polished-for-their-age sorts like Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson as well as less refined (read: duck!) throwers like Gio Gonzalez. It's folly to project the performance of young, fragile pitchers more than a few minutes into the future, but the A's could have Hudson/Mulder/Zito Mach II within 18 months if everything breaks right.
Liabilities: The A's might be the only team in the majors without a single player who hits above average for his position. Mark Ellis, maybe? Eh. As it stands, the team will have bottom-five offensive producers at first base (despite the annual Daric Barton tease in September), third base, shortstop, left field and right field, and at designated hitter as well if they decide to exile Jack Cust.
Should they choose to start maybe sorta ready prospects at a few of those slots, the A's might score 650 runs next season. That would serve to undermine the confidence of the young starters, as you don't want them thinking that they have to keep the opponent under three runs to win. That's for later in their careers, when they wind up in San Diego.
Non-helpful and semi-realistic suggestions:
1. Attempt to field a functional outfield: To be honest, I can't see how they make this happen, even in the wake of a year in which no regular or semi-regular outfielder slugged over .425. There are no stars on hand and there's reason to doubt the "reliable" guys. For all the talk about Rajai Davis' stone-cold hustle, he's not even all that good at the stuff he's good at. Getting caught stealing 12 times is a pox on the house of a team that scraps for runs.
Obviously the A's won't be offering deals to Holliday, Jason Bay or any of the other mid-to-high-end free-agent outfielders, nor will they assume another team's bad-contract piffle (Pat Burrell, Jose Guillen). The options, then, are to subsist with what they have -- Ryan Sweeney et Al -- or make a deal for a player one year away from free agency, like last year's Holliday acquisition. The candidates are few, unless the A's again break character and make a push for Carl Crawford. Basically, they'll be praying that prospect Chris Carter is ready and that he won't do harm to himself, his teammates or the Coliseum drainage system while unathletically plodding about the spacious outfield terrain.
Here's an uninformed thought: Would the A's dip deep into their prospect fanny pack and make a play for a non-budget-disintegrating outfield megastar -- a Grady Sizemore, a Ryan Braun? It's probably a moot point. Even with the Indians reloading for 2016 and the Brewers wilting in the throes of an organizational pitching drought, neither team can trade its face O' the franchise without sending fans into a fine-we'll-spend-our-disposable-income-on-UFC-instead frenzy.
2. Concede that third base is an organizational blind spot: In his prime, Eric Chavez slew right-handed pitchers for sport and was nigh-Brooksian with the glove. Now, he's a frustration encased in a body cast, especially when you consider the $15 million ($12M for 2010 plus a $3M buyout) he's still owed. Sure, there's a chance Chavez's achy-breaky back, neck, rotator cuffs, obliques, ankles, wrists, quads, ACLs, MCLs, PCLs, LCLs, toes and ears might heal in time for spring training. That, however, assumes rapid-fire advances in torso-transplantation technology.
So it's time to acknowledge the obvious -- that Chavez can't play competitive baseball with impaired motor function -- and set about filling third base with something other than a placeholder. The A's snared an elite third-base prospect, Brett Wallace, when they excommunicated Holliday, but his defense is largely theoretical. He's as likely to be the long-term answer at first base or DH as at third.
I'd make a play for another organization's lapsed prospect. Alex Gordon is rotting away in Kansas City, a pawn in the team's endless game of Punch Selves In Genitalia. Or how about L.A. Anaheim's Brandon Wood, still only 24 and without a place to play if the Angels re-up
3. Find a folksy pitching Yoda to mentor the staff: Anderson, Cahill and the rest already have the most essential tool of the trade -- namely, a God-kissed arm. What they need now, besides experience, is the sort of institutional knowledge (how to charm the umps, where to hide a nail file in the folds of their uniform, etc.) best conveyed by an older, frosty-haired pro hoping for one last spring training.
The problem: Few veteran hurlers in the free-agent pool fit that description. You don't want Randy Johnson anywhere near developing pitchers, unless you hope to breed surliness into their DNA, and the other veterans on the market are either salvage projects (the A's own Justin Duchscherer, Ben Sheets) or costly, unexceptional drones (Jason Marquis, Jarrod Washburn). The Phillies might release Jamie Moyer and swallow the money left on his deal; perhaps he'd be a reasonable fit in Oakland as a mentor and mop-up guy for the eight-batters-and-out ambushes every young staff endures.
4. "Moneyball" away!: Nick Johnson isn't exactly an unknown commodity: he's clunky afield, has paper-mache ligaments and gets on base with metronomic regularity (cue the choir and beam of heavenly light). If the A's are planning a medium-ticket addition at one of the infield corners or DH, Johnson oughta be it. Even if he doesn't rebound in the slugging department, he'll still represent an upgrade over the production the A's have recently enjoyed from those slots. He's getting older, but it's not like he has any speed or flexibility left to lose. So long as he's able to amble down the first-base line after drawing a walk, Johnson will be an asset.
Odds of playing meaningful games next September: 8 to 1. Too optimistic? Last season's half-assed attempt to compete via the Holliday deal and Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra signings ended predictably, but the A's played better than their record would indicate. The standings say they finished at 75-87; their Pythamagorean Doohickey record, which takes into account runs scored and allowed, pegged them as a .500 ballclub.
To massively oversimplify matters, the A's were unlucky -- and these things have a way of righting themselves over time. Too, let's not forget that they don't exactly play in an elite division: the Angels could be gutted by free agency, the Rangers are three starters short of a fungible rotation and the Mariners continue to occupy themselves with huggy-heart moves (Ken Griffey Jr.). The A's could win 85 games. Eighty-five games could be enough.
I'd like to see it happen. I admire Billy Beane. I admire the way the A's adhere to a sane, responsible philosophy even as the losses pile up. I just don't know if their paying customers will for too much longer.