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.

Red Sox Days

These past two evenings have been taken up with two trips to Oakland to see my Boston Red Sox in their only trip to the area this year.

Monday night we took my friend Joar and his wife Karin to their first baseball game since they moved here from Sweden a couple of years ago. We’d meant to go last year, but it never happened (mainly, I think, due to my own sloth). I don’t think either of them are really sports people, but obviously they’ve heard about the game and Joar’s seen my own enthusiasm for it on display plenty.

I explained the basics of how baseball works, which is a bigger challenge than I’d expected: What innings are, what outs are, the fielders and the batting line-up, how balls and strikes work, what foul balls and home runs are, and how outs are actually made. That doesn’t even get to things like stolen bases or double plays or pitching changes or any of that. Never mind the Seventh Inning Stretch.

All this was much easier once the game began and I could point out how the umpire indicates balls and strikes, where the foul lines are, how the runners move around the bases, etc. It really brought home how I take the play of the game for granted, having absorbed it mostly through watching a whole bunch of games as a teenager.

I think they enjoyed the game more than they’d expected, especially Karin who was watching the game quite intently as it progressed – which is saying something because it was a pretty mediocre game, as the A’s clubbed the Sox’ pitching into submission and rolled to an 8-2 victory. But we had great seats in the second deck behind home plate (and Joar nearly got his head taken off by a foul ball, but it was deflected at the last second), and it was a fairly warm night. We even saw the Red Sox pick off not one but two runners from first base in the same inning, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.

Next I’ll try to get them to a Giants game, hopefully for a weekend day game so they can appreciate Pac Bell Park.

Debbi and I went back last night for the second game of the series, which was considerably less fun, because the temperature was in the 40s and the wind was in the 20-30 MPH range, so it was goddamned freezing, even with the extra layers we wore. Hot cocoa and Irish coffee only staved off the chill for a few minutes.

Which is too bad because it was quite a good game: Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka melted down in the first inning (and went on the DL today), but Justin Masterson held the A’s scoreless for 4 innings, and the Sox came back to tie it 5-5. Finally we got too cold and left in the middle of the 8th, and the game was still going on by the time we got home and went to bed. I learned this morning that the A’s won 6-5 in 12 innings, so I’m rather glad we didn’t stay to the bitter end.

Of course, the Sox saved the best for today’s day game, which is a bummer, but at least they won one. I’m just sorry I wasn’t able to see it.

And even more sorry they won’t be back for another visit later in the summer. Darn the unbalanced schedule anyway!

A Tale of Two Weekends

The days have been just flying by, lately! I realized this weekend that I never wrote an entry about last weekend, partly because I’d been busy catching up on posting photos from my Dad’s visit!

The bittersweet part of last weekend was going to two Red Sox/Athletics games, which I’d been excited about since this is a rare year in which my Red Sox visited Oakland twice in the same season. Unfortunately, we ended up seeing two games of a three-game sweep by the A’s, with the Sox losing 8-3 on Friday, and then 3-0 on Saturday. The Saturday game was almost very exciting as Justin Duchscherer came two baserunners away from pitching a perfect game. But he hit Jason Varitek leading off the 6th, and David Ortiz singled in the 7th. Huston Street replaced Duchscherer for the 9th, and that was it. Bummer. On television we watched the A’s finish the sweep by winning 6-3 on Sunday. Alas.

On the bright side, the Sox have gone 4-2 since then, and they still have the second-best record in the American League (behind the Rays, who seem to finally be capitalizing on their substantial talent base).

Sunday we also had Subrata and Susan over for the day. We hadn’t heard from them for a few days and we’d figured they might be going stir crazy waiting for their child to arrive. (As I wrote over this past weekend, he arrived last Thursday.) We met at The Counter for lunch and then came back and played Magic (Subrata and me) and dominoes (all four of us) for the afternoon, winding up having dinner at Marie Callender’s.

The Magic session was interesting, my second time really playing Shadowmoor. We played a sealed deck game. Subrata had two viable builds from his cards, while I thought I had three or even four, but part-way through one game I realized I just didn’t have the right mix of stuff to make a white-blue deck work; it kept wanting to be write-green. So I did that instead and it worked quite well, better than the black-red deck did. The red-green version might have worked, too, but I didn’t try that. Anyway, it does feel like Shadowmoor is a slower format than Lorwyn or Time Spiral were. But since I enjoy creature-based decks, that’s not really a bad thing.

This weekend as I said we went to the hospital to visit Subrata, Susan and Ajay on Friday evening. Saturday we went out and did some shopping, including buying a new cat bush (half-height cat tree) for the downstairs. Even though it’s nearly identical to the old one, the cats still had to sniff it all over. But it seems to have passed muster!

I also went by a sale at Illusive Comics, an area store which I hadn’t visited before. (Well, I might have visited them years ago under their previous incarnation and previous owners, but I honestly don’t remember.) The owners are very enthusiastic, which is a great thing in anyone doing small retail! I’ll probably go back every so often, even though my I already have a regular shop I patronize (Comics Conspiracy). As most stores today do, Illusive seems to be focusing on new books and paperback collections. Unfortunately I’m an outlier among comics fans: the main thing that brings me back to a shop is a good and constantly-changing back issue selection, and the comics retailing biz has moved away from back issues over the last 15 years. And every store has pretty much the same set of paperback collections, so you don’t really need to go to multiple stores for those.

Anyway. Comics retailing is hard enough without listening to me moan about how comics shops aren’t like they were back when I was a teenager, so enough about that.

We spent a good chunk of Saturday doing chores around the house: We did a whole bunch of long-awaited cleaning, throwing away the little things which stack up on bookshelves and in the garage and in nooks and crannies elsewhere. I put up a bike hanger so we could reclaim some floor space by hanging Debbi’s bike above mine. Now Debbi wants to hang the step ladder and our spare folding chairs, so that may be another project soon! Debbi fixed up the shadowbox with my old Mardi Gras beads and coins, and it looks great!

Sunday we had a quieter day. I spent a lot of the afternoon and evening up in the study paying bills, putting together some Magic decks, and doing some cleaning up (though not nearly enough). We also cooked dinner and watched Sunday night baseball.

So that about covers it. We have some more projects to take care of around the house (for instance, replace the long-broken kitchen dispose-all), and I hope we can get a bunch of it taken care of this summer. It ought to keep us busy!

Meanwhile, happy June, everyone!

Milton Bradley

The A’s designated outfielder Milton Bradley for assignment yesterday. It was an unusual, unexpected move (Subrata‘s reaction when I told him in chat was “What the–?? Holy cr-p!”), since it means the A’s will have no leverage to trade him, and they’ll likely have to eat most of the remaining $4 million of his 2007 salary. Rightly or wrongly, I think A’s GM Billy Beane felt that he was backed into a corner due to a wealth of outfielders (which admittedly is a “nice problem to have”).

The A’s have had a lot of problems with injuries so far this year, and consequently they’ve done a lot of shuffling to actually have 3 outfielders available at some points in time. With Bradley having just come off the DL, that means all of their 1B/OF/DH players are available at once. So now what? Well, here’s who they’ve got, with their stats to date this year:

Position Player Age PA AVG/OBP/SLG MLVr VORP
1B Dan Johnson 27 217 253/369/427 0.57 7.0
CF Mark Kotsay 31 69 250/304/344 -.172 -0.3
CF/RF Milton Bradley 29 71 306/380/468 .186 5.4
RF/1B/CF Nick Swisher 26 282 295/420/493 .267 24.1
DH/LF Jack Cust 28 146 276/425/578 .361 13.7
LF/RF Travis Buck 23 195 285/381/503 .211 13.5
LF Shannon Stewart 33 254 271/352/333 -0.84 2.3
DH/C Mike Piazza 38 112 282/339/379 -0.32 1.2

Even with Mike Piazza on the DL, you still have 7 players for 5 positions. Dan Johnson isn’t the best first baseman in the world, but he’s pretty good, and it’s unlikely that anyone but (maybe) Swisher would be willing to move to first base to displace him. Swisher is the team’s star, Cust has been a powerhouse at the plate and the team’s going to ride him until he stops producing, and Buck is young, developing, and hitting just as well as Bradley. They’re all going to play ahead of Bradley. And Stewart is signed to a corner-outfield-backup contract (he’s only being paid $1M this year).

Lastly, it seems clear that someone has to go, because carrying 6 outfielders is going to impact either the pitching staff or the infield backups, and it’s really more important to have backups for the infield than the outfield.

So the A’s conundrum basically comes down to: Bradley or Kotsay in center field? They’re both about equally good as defenders, they’re both likely to get hurt again (I think Bradley is riskier than Kotsay on that front), but Bradley’s almost certain to be the better hitter.

So why did the A’s choose Bradley over Kotsay? I believe there were two reasons:

  1. Bradley is a free agent after this season, being paid $4M for the year. Kotsay is in the first year of a 2-year, $15M extension. (See the A’s player contracts.)
  2. Bradley has a reputation as a troublesome guy in the clubhouse, having famously clashed with Jeff Kent when he was with the Dodgers. Now, clashing with Jeff Kent hardly makes Bradley unique, and it’s impossible to tell (from my standpoint as a fan) just how reflective Bradley’s reputation is of the man himself. But if the reputation is earned, then this might be a factor.

Between his injuries, his contact, and his personality, the A’s might have decided that it was better to go with Kotsay for the remainder of the season. With Swisher able to spell Kotsay in center field if necessary, the A’s are probably covered in the event of most further injuries.

So I suspect that the bottom line is that the A’s decided it was easier for someone else to deal with Bradley’s flaws – even if the A’s are paying his salary – than to demote or waive one of their other players. A harsh decision, but a defensible one, based on the evidence available to me.

Many other teams probably would have demoted Buck or Cust and held on to Bradley to get whatever production they could out of him, and perhaps a draft pick when he walks after the season. But the A’s are an unusual team, and they had an unusual problem. Did they make the right move? A lot of that will depend on whether Kotsay stay healthy and return his hitting to a productive level.

The A’s are in the thick of the wild card race, and trying to catch the surging Angels, so it’s not like this is a low-pressure decision; it could one that makes the difference between playing baseball or golf in October. But you gotta hand it to Billy Beane: He doesn’t flinch when it comes to making the tough calls. And that’s one reason he’s one of the best general managers in baseball.

(P.S.: It turns out that Jack Cust and I share a birthday, along with a slightly more storied player. They’re better hitters than I am, but I bet they don’t know Objective-C.)

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:


  • 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)


  • 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.