Offseason Roundup: Athletics

A look at the Oakland Athletics’ off-season moves.

Under general manager Billy Beane, the A’s have had an interesting odyssey this last decade. When they first won the AL in 2000, they were 3rd in runs scored, and 3rd in runs allowed. By 2003, they 9th in runs scored and 2nd in runs allowed. That was their last postseason appearance until 2006, during which time the team has been substantially rebuilt. This past year they were 9th in runs scored and 3rd in runs allowed. But rather than doing it with the acclaimed “big three” pitchers of Hudson, Mulder and Zito, the statistical wisdom is that in 2006 they did it with stellar defense behind merely decent pitching.

The A’s are a strangely built team, with very few bad players but also very few great players. Even their marquee pitcher Barry Zito seems to be built for the long haul, but in any given game he can be very erratic, as he strikes out a lot of guys but also walks a lot of guys, and consequently throws a lot of pitches, which can lead to short exits. Meanwhile the offense this year consisted of a bunch of solid contributors and Frank Thomas.

Here’s how their off-season is shaping up:

Leaving:

  • Ken Macha, manager (fired)
  • Barry Zito, SP (free agent, unsigned but probably not coming back)
  • Frank Thomas, DH (free agent, to the Blue Jays)
  • Jay Payton, OF (free agent, to the Orioles)
  • D’Angelo Jimenez, 2B (released)
  • Scott Sauerbeck, RP (released)

Arriving:

  • Bob Geren, manager
  • Mike Piazza, C/DH (free agent, 1 year, $8.5M, from the Padres)
  • Erubiel Durazo, DH (free agent, minor league contract)
  • Alan Embree, RP (free agent, 2 years, $5.5M)

(Full free agent data can be found here, and recent A’s transactions here.)

Macha was fired more for political reasons (reportedly he and Beane didn’t get along so well), and Geren’s skills are not known. However, Beane tends to hire managers who will follow his plan and they tend to be relatively faceless characters who push the right buttons and don’t overwork the pitchers. Geren is likely cut from the same cloth.

The big losses are of course Zito and Thomas. Zito is a genuinely good pitcher, and while he has the limitations I mentioned, he’s not going to be easy to replace. Thomas was lightning in a bottle, signed to a one-year deal after a few disappointing years, and the only all-around great hitter in the lineup (Mark Swisher is a good hitter, but until he can consistently bat in the 275-or-better range he’s not going to be a great one), but Toronto plucked Thomas out from the A’s nest.

Thomas will be replaced by Mike Piazza, who had a fine year for the Padres, but isn’t a great bet to repeat it. More likely his 2007 will look a lot like Swisher’s 2006. So he’ll have value, but he won’t truly replace Thomas.

The A’s are well-known competing on a “small market” payroll, but because of that they’re unlikely to bring in any additional impact free agents to replace Zito. The A’s real problem is the lack of impact players: Eric Chavez has never really developed into the star he’d looked like in his youth, and Bobby Crosby is both injury-prone and has not been able to sustain a high batting average (with essentially two full seasons under his belt, he’s a 244 hitter). Swisher, as I said, needs to boost his average to become a star. The rest of the line-up are unlikely to get any better, and some might get worse.

On the pitching side, Dan Haren and Joe Blanton are decent enough pitchers, but have not turned into stars. Haren might yet break through, but Blanton looks doubtful. Esteban Loaiza is another solid contributor. Rich Harden has ace potential, but he’s been through such a morass of injuries lately that it’s hard to know what to expect from him.

The A’s went 93-69 in 2006, winning the AL West by 4 games over Anaheim, but beating their third-order wins projection by about 11 games. That probably means that they got pretty lucky in 2006, and a regression in 2007 is in order. My guess is that they’ll just clear the .500 mark next year, and will be beaten by the Angels and maybe even the Rangers in a fairly weak division.

That said, one thing I haven’t mentioned is Beane’s ability to get good value in trade, and I wouldn’t put it past him to trade for an impact bat or an overlooked but exciting young pitcher. I’m not sure who he’d trade (Loaiza? Bradley? Chavez?), but Beane is one of the craftier GMs in baseball, and he’s certainly got the skills to be able to radically improve the team with a single stroke. So unlike the Giants, who I think have almost no hope for 2007, we won’t truly know where the A’s stand until opening day.

Offseason Roundup: Giants

A look at the San Francisco Giants’ off-season moves.

The baseball offseason has been pretty lively so far, with a number of huge free agent deals being signed, in part because of the new labor contract between the owners and the players’ union. (Labor peace leads to some cost certainty, and therefore to teams being more willing to throw money around, you see.)

I mainly follow three teams these days: The Red Sox (my favorite team), and the Athletics and Giants (the local teams here in the Bay Area). As 2006 draws to a close, enough has happened to warrant looking at what these teams have been doing, and what I think about it.

I chose the Giants as my first stop because, well, I think they’ve had a terrible off-season, and the reasons why are pretty easy to see. I’m certainly not alone in that opinion, as San Jose Mercury News columnist Ann Killion feels much the same way, and has plenty of cutting words for how Giants general manager Brian Sabean has approached a team which really ought to be rebuilding.

Now, I’m not a big proponent of the concept of the success cycle concept in baseball: I don’t think it’s true that teams should be either contending or rebuilding. I think it’s more true that teams should be either contending or not contending. Contending teams may have the luxury of also being able to build for the future while they contend, but non-contending teams should be focusing on working their way back into contention, and be honest with themselves when they don’t have any real chance of contending and not spend resources on that fool’s errand.

After a half-decade of success (including a World Series appearance, losing to the Angels in 2002), the Giants are now a non-contending team. In 2006 they went 76-85, 11-1/2 games back in a relatively weak division. In 2005 they finished 75-87, 7 games back in an even weaker division. With a roster of old players, more than half their quality players up for free agency, and not much help coming from the farm system, this is a team which should not be considering contending in 2007. That means they should be signing inexpensive warm bodies with upside to fill the Major League roster rather than spending big bucks on old free agents, giving what prospects they have a long, hard look, and restocking the farm system with young players. This is a hard road to take, and it requires discipline on the part of both the GM and the owner, because it implies a loss of revenue due to the public stance of not contending. The advantage is that it will help the team contend sooner, and build a team whose quality players will be around longer.

The Giants have one big problem, though: Barry Bonds is nearly at the end of his career, but in the next year or two he’s likely to pass Hank Aaron for the career home run record. Bonds is still a good player and can help a good team, and despite his, uh, controversies, he’s likely to be a draw at the gate while he pursues the record.

Here’s how the Giants’ off-season has progressed:

Leaving:

  • Felipe Alou, manager (retired)
  • Jason Schmidt, SP (free agent, to the Dodgers)
  • Moises Alou, RF (free agent, to the Mets)
  • Steve Finley, CF (free agent)
  • Shea Hillenbrand, 1B (free agent)
  • Jamey Wright, SP (free agent)
  • Todd Greene, C (free agent)
  • Mike Stanton, RP (free agent, to the Reds)

Arriving:

  • Bruce Bochy, manager (from the Padres)
  • Rich Aurilia, 3B (free agent, from the Reds)
  • Ryan Klesko, 1B (free agent, from the Padres)
  • Bengie Molina, C (free agent, from the Blue Jays)
  • Dave Roberts, CF (free agent, from the Padres)

Returning:

  • Barry Bonds, LF (free agent, 1 year, $16M)
  • Ray Durham, 2B (free agent, 2 years, $14M)
  • Pedro Feliz, 3B (free agent, 1 year, $5.1M)
  • Steve Kline, RP (free agent, 2 years, $3.5M)

(Full free agent data can be found here, and recent Giants transactions here.)

The Bonds Factor aside, amidst all their free agents only Jason Schmidt seemed likely to reward a large contract, and even he was risky. Instead they brought back Bonds and Durham, re-signed OBP sinkhole Feliz, and brought in some other aging free agents. Their alternative was to let them all go, collect a bunch of draft picks in compensation, and re-stock the farm system. But instead they re-stocked for another run at, well, third place, I guess.

To be fair, the Giants have two unique problems: Bringing back Barry Bonds might well be worth at the gate the money they’ll be paying him – unless he gets hurt or collapses, that is. Moreover, had the Giants not shown an effort to contend in 2007, he might have signed elsewhere. The other is that they’re the one team in baseball paying off a privately-financed stadium, so they have bills to pay that other teams just don’t. But though throwing in the towel in December might clobber them financially, continuing to gray the team – metaphorically speaking – might merely delay that for a year or so.

Swapping Felipe Alou for Bruce Bochy as manager is probably a no-op. Both of them are in my mental “not bad, but not distinguished either” bucket as far as Major League managers go. Managers are rarely worth many games in the standings, though.

Realistically? The Giants will probably struggle to reach 75 wins in 2007, and that might cost Brian Sabean his job. Which might be a good thing for the franchise, although I think owner Peter Magowan bears some responsibility for the team’s current direction. The Giants probably should have said goodbye to Bonds (or at least shown a willingness to do so, and thus possibly signed him for a low price) and started rebuilding now, because this team is likely to be even worse in 2007 than it was in 2006.

In sum, the Giants are on the brink of a complete collapse, and soon they’ll need to look at themselves and make the moves that the Detroit Tigers made 4 years ago, rebuilding from scratch even if they don’t have much to rebuild with. While the Tigers seem an improbable success story, they’re preceded by the Indians and Braves of the late 80s/early 90s in adopting this philosophy, and are merely the latest example of the object lesson: If you’re not a contender, don’t try to contend. You’ll be better off in the long run.

It’s The Long Dark Time

The Cardinals won the World Series, thus making my uncle Mike and my friend David happy. They also became the World Series winner with the worst regular-season record in history (beating out the 1987 Twins), although they’re only the second-worst team to ever make it to the Series (behind the 1973 Mets).

Congratulations to them! They did just about everything right, and took advantage of several mistakes by the Detroit Tigers. Despite this, it was a good series with 3 of the 5 games decided by 1 or 2 runs. The Cards’ surprisingly strong pitching kept them in position to take advantage of Detroit’s errors.

And now it’s the “long dark time”, as Syd likes to say. T.S. puts it succinctly as well.

I just say: Four months ’til spring training!

World Series Preview

I was chatting with Subrata yesterday about this weeks’ World Series, where his Detroit Tigers face the St. Louis Cardinals for the third time in history. I think the Tigers are pretty clearly the favorites, but I think the Cardinals can win if they accomplish two things:

  1. Their front three pitchers – Carpenter, Suppan and Weaver – pitch well.
  2. Their hitters beyond Pujols and Edmonds can manage to hit Detroit’s pitching.

Suppan has been on a tear for the last 3 months, and Weaver has been decent while pitching for the Cardinals, and good in the playoffs in particular. But neither are sure things. Both men need to continue to dominate for the Cardinals to have a real chance.

I think if that happens and the Cardinals’ legion of also-ran hitters (plus Scott Rolen and his bum shoulder) can step it up, then they should win. Otherwise, I think the best they can hope for is a close series that anyone could win.

But really, the Tigers have better pitching and better hitting (no surprise, since the Cardinals I think had the world regular-season record of any World Series team in decades – maybe ever), and they play one more game at home (the dubious “home field advantage” which barely exists in baseball), so it’s quite possible that they’ll just dismantle the Cardinals (like the Red Sox did to a much better Cardinals team in 2004).

Mainly, though, I think it will be a fun series. Which, when your team isn’t in it, is what we all wish for anyway, right?

My Boring Day

Today was less than exciting:

  1. Go to dentist. Get two cavities filled. At least he’s a really good dentist, and getting my teeth zapped by a laser is still a novelty.
  2. Lunch. Tried a new deli that opened nearby. It’s not bad.
  3. Get to work late (no duh). Have 2-1/2 hours of meetings.
  4. Writing bi-weekly status report.
  5. It’s that review time of the year, so worked on my self-review. I hate writing these things.
  6. First night of ultimate frisbee for the season!

Okay, frisbee was fun – I made two defensive plays! – but otherwise the day was blah. Tomorrow won’t be much better:

  1. Have to finish review stuff.
  2. Another meeting.
  3. Leaving early to take Blackjack and Roulette to the vet, as Blackjack has a cold and it’s time for their annual check-up anyway.

The poor guy is sniffling and sneezing and spending a lot of time either sleeping or looking like he’s nearly asleep. Hopefully some kitty-drugs will get him fixed up right quick. At least he’s still eating and drinking, ad if he weren’t then I’d be really worried.

Fortunately the weekend starts tomorrow. We might go up to Borderlands Books so I can pick up my copy of Zima Blue!

Also: The Cardinals beat the Mets to advance to the World Series, where they’ll face the Tigers. I was rooting for the Cardinals because, well, the Mets aren’t as bad as the Yankees but I still root against New York teams (sorry Peter David). I think that if both teams’ starters are on top of their game then this could be a very exciting, low-scoring World Series. That assumes that the likes of the Jeffs Weaver and Suppan can continue pitching as well as they have been. Still, if you’re gonna step up your game, it may as well be in the playoffs. I predict Tigers in 6, though.

Baseball Playoffs: Division Series

It’s been a good couple of days of playoff baseball: Yesterday the A’s broke with 6 years of frustration to advance to the American League Championship Series by sweeping the Twins. It was a convincing series, although as Laurel said, the Twins virtually handed the series to the A’s. The two teams were nearly identical in the regular season, being adjact to each other in the AL standings in runs scored, runs allowed, and defensive efficiency, and their raw stats in the three games were not far apart. But the A’s capitalized and the Twins didn’t, so the A’s are going to the ALCS.

Even better, today the Tigers knocked off the Hated Yankees to advance to the ALCS themselves. This was a rather different series, featuring the two best defenses in the AL, and the best offense (the Yankees) and perhaps the best pitching (the Tigers). The Yankees won the first one, narrowly lost the second one, and then got completely crush in the last two. Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman pitched outstanding games and the Yankees just folded.

Any season in which the Yankees lose – especially in humiliating fashion – is a good season for this Red Sox fan.

In the National League, the Mets finished a sweep of the Dodgers today, which should surprise no one, since the Mets were clearly the class of the NL. The Cardinals-Padres series is a little more interesting, though the Cards have the edge at this point. A Mets-Cards NLCS might be pretty exciting, since both teams are based more on hitting than pitching, but with the Cards featuring Chris Carpenter and the Mets missing Pedro Martinez, the Cards might actually have an edge there.

Looking at the numbers, my bet is that we’ll see a Tigers-Mets World Series, and possibly a Tigers championship. Although honestly I think the A’s are almost as likely to win as those other two teams. Right now, the Playoff Odds Report given the Mets a 31% chance of winning it all, Oakland a 28% chance, Detroit a 27% chance, and the other 14% divided between the Cards and Padres.

But with the Yankees out of it, it oughta be fun whichever way it goes.