Often during the A's recently concluded 9-game losing streak I've felt like ranting here, but I haven't had--well, not the time; I've had lots of time--the hands to do so. Much of my computer time these days is spent with a sleeping baby in one arm, and I've held off writing, waiting for a two-handed opportunity on the computer. As I've sat waiting, I have officially gave up on two things:
Two-handed opportunities on the computer
The A's making the playoffs in 2007
So here I go, pecking slowly at the keyboard.
It's a bit of an odd sensation giving up on the A's playoff chances in July. The A's haven't been this clearly out of contention in July since 1998, the summer before Tim Hudson became the first of the "Big Three" starters to make his major league debut.
So here's one point in support of those who said that Billy Beane's success has nothing to do with the principles outlined in Moneyball, and everything to do with the good fortune of acquiring Hudson, Mulder and Zito: the A's streak of contention began precisely when the first of those three pitchers arrived, and ended precisely when the last of them had departed. Interesting that both Bay Area GMs, after many successful years, find themselves this summer having to re-prove themselves by moving past the foundation of their previous success: Beane without the Big Three, and Brian Sabean without Barry Bonds. And each has to start this process this summer with a farm system pipeline that is quite dry, and a trade market that has largely ceased to overvalue mediocre proven veterans. It's a difficult task, like trying to type a long essay while holding a seven-pound baby in one arm.
It will take all of Biily Beane's creativity to fix this thing. 10 years ago, a Jason Kendall might have brought in a package of good prospects; now he brings in a guy described as "no one's idea of a top relief prospect" who six months ago was probably closer to being out of baseball than to the major leagues. Beane is really going to have to dig deep to extract any value out of his tradeable assets. The good news is that if there is one thing that Billy Beane is good at, it's digging deep and finding hidden value in other teams' minor league systems. Justin Duchscherer, Chad Gaudin, Lenny DiNardo, Jack Cust, Marco Scutaro--these guys were all acquired without fanfare for next to nothing, and all have provided positive value in return.
Still, those guys are useful role players, not stars. The thing about having a lineup devoid of big stars is that you can't afford to have any offensive black holes like Jason Kendall and Bobby Crosby suck everything away. Like a tennis player with mediocre ground strokes who gets a lot of free points with a big serve, one star player like Frank Thomas can compensate for a lot of other deficiencies. The A's have been hurting (literally) in a lot of ways this year, but the biggest hurt this year compared to last has been not having the Big Hurt to hit that three-run homer once a week, that turns a 3-4 losing week into a 4-3 winning record.
In fact, Beane is so good at acquiring talent on the cheap, like finding quality in rehabbing free agents (John Jaha, Frank Thomas, Shannon Stewart) it's rather stunning to contemplate how bad his track record is at signing mid-level free agents. Mike Magnante? Arthur Rhodes? Mark Redman? Esteban Loaiza? Even his re-signs and extensions have been bad. Jermaine Dye was a total flop in Oakland. Has Eric Chavez been worth all that money? Has Mark Kotsay?
I'm beginning to think that given Beane's strengths and weaknesses, he ought to forego the midlevel free agents altogether, and go for a stars-and-scrubs strategy. Beane can find the scrubs for cheap better than anyone. Skip having three or four $7-12 million/year players on the team--nearly every one the A's have had in Beane's tenure has been wasted money. Blow it all on one superstar instead. Go ahead, Billy, go forth this offseason and spend all your money on ARod.
Then after six or seven more contending seasons on both sides of the bay, we can go complain that Brian Sabean is overrated; he just lucked into that Barry Zito-led pitching rotation, and state that we'll finally find out how good a GM Billy Beane is, now that he at last has to build a team that isn't just a bunch of nobodies surrounding his all-time home run king.