What’s Wrong With The A’s?

I can’t really improve on the title of Rob Neyer’s article on the Oakland Athletics’ downward spiral. Neyer rebuts Columnist Monte Poole’s contention that Oakland GM Billy Beane’s decision to let shortstop Miguel Tejada walk after 2003 and sign third baseman Eric Chavez to a 6-year deal after 2004 is a big part of the reason.

Neyer fails to mention a point which bolsters his case: In 2003, the A’s had Jermaine Dye signed to a big deal which didn’t expire until after 2004. Tejada was a free agent after 2003, but the A’s cash flow – never noted for its voluminous flow – didn’t have space to sign a big free agent until after 2004, when Dye’s deal was up. Chavez’ contract status dovetailed nicely with Dye’s departure, but Tejada’s did not.

Nonetheless, I myself can’t shake the feeling that there’s something awry with Billy Beane’s strategy of running the A’s. The great A’s teams of the turn of the millennium were primarily driven by some great players drafted by the previous administration (Giambi, Tejada, Chavez, Hudson, Mulder). Beane did a fine job filling in the gaps around those players, but as they departed, Beane has largely replaced them with more good gap-fillers, rather than franchise players. While he’s had some bad luck in this regard, the A’s draft record under Beane does not look particularly strong.

Beane’s strategy in a broad sense has been described as looking to exploit inefficiencies in the “market” for baseball players. To be fair to Beane, the market has gotten a lot more efficient over the last decade (a point I believe he’s made himself) as the rest of the league as adopted and adapted his strengths. However, I think the inefficiencies he’s tried to exploit have gone from major facets (on-base percentage), to secondary skills (team defense), to relatively minor factors (signing Jason Giambi cheaply in the hopes that he’s not quite done). In the meantime, the A’s lineup features a number of fairly pedestrian hitters who are markedly devoid of power – a skill which is arguably overvalued, but which is still quite important. Guys like Jack Cust and Kurt Suzuki are nice complementary players, but they’re not guys to center your team around.

While the A’s have had plenty of bad fortune, I think Neyer goes a little wrong in pointing out that the Red Sox and Dodgers have made plenty of mistakes and they’re doing okay. One thing that a high payroll buys a team is more flexibility to cover for their mistakes (not infinite flexibility, but more). The Red Sox and Dodgers have that, the A’s have less such flexibility than almost any team in the Majors.

“What about the Rays? They traded Edwin Jackson for Matt Joyce!” says Neyer. Yeah, but the Rays look a lot like the team that Beane was piloting back in 1999-2000. Can they keep it up without one of the larger payrolls in baseball? It’s too soon to tell.

As for the A’s, given their financial situation it’s hard to say what they should be doing differently other than having a little good luck for a change. But somehow they’re on a downhill slide, while the Minnesota Twins – who have been a comparable team in many ways throughout the decade – continue to remain contenders, in a genrally stronger division. So the task shouldn’t be insurmountable.

Maybe it is just a matter of luck.