Billy Beane’s Wild Winter

Thanks to the fall release and somewhat unexpected buzz surrounding the Beane biopic, the longtime Oakland GM spent 2011 getting profiled by major media outlets and reclaiming the title “revolutionary baseball genius” he first acquired in the wake of Frank Thomas, Josh Willingham, and Rajai Davis, but his experiments with Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Giambi, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Ryan Sweeney, and Orlando Cabrera yielded less impressive results.

In the wake of the renewed Moneyball hoopla, Beane spent another offseason betting against the grain.

As the Hot Stove opened, the A’s projected rotation was as promising as it had been since the heady days of the “Big Three” – Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito – whose millenial dominance, it has often been observed, underscores Beane’s Moneyball success to an extent which goes largely unacknowledged by either Lewis or Sorkin. It seemed a foregone conclusion that the 2012 A’s would be fronted by similar blue chip talents – Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Brett Anderson – all of whom proved themselves capable of being premier big-league starters before they reached their mid-twenties. The projected Oakland staff also featured Brandon McCarthy, Andrew Bailey, Dallas Braden, Josh Outman, Joey Devine, and Guillermo Moscoso, all promising pitchers, none older than 28, and all under team control beyond this season.

Despite the fact that several of them missed substantial time, that group of nine pitchers produced 19 wins in 2011 (based on rWAR) and cost, all together, approximately $7.5 Million. That is, the A’s got 19 wins for roughly the same price as Carl Pavano (2.0 rWAR). Oakland finished 2011 among the AL leaders in ERA, ERA+, FIP, K/9, and HR/9. They could’ve returned more or less the exact same staff in 2012 and all members of it would’ve beem projected to maintain or even improve upon their 2011 performances. If we take for granted the conventional wisdom that acquiring and developing young, high-upside pitching is the single most important factor for small-market success, than Beane and the Athletics seemed primed for a long-awaited Renaissance. Sure, there were only four players in their projected starting lineup with more than one season of big-league experience (none of them world-beaters), but Beane had also stockpiled a nice collection of hitting prospects who were itching for their shot in the show. If just one or two managed to be league-average or better at their positions, the 2012 Athletics would almost certainly post their best record since 2006. With a little luck and a couple cagey acquisitions, Oakland might be primed to be a surprise contender. As teams like the Giants, Rays, and Rangers have proven in recent years, young, deep pitching staffs make anything possible.

So…naturally, Beane blew it up. Over the course of six weeks he traded Gonzalez, Cahill, Bailey, Outman, and Moscoso. That is, he traded his top two starters, his closer, a back-of-the-rotation workhorse, and a valuable southpaw swingman. Probably all that protected Anderson and Braden was the fact that they were coming off season-ending surgeries. By mid-January, what had been one of the most imposing staffs in the American League became a prime auditioning ground for rookies and retreads like Bartolo Colon.

Stranger still was the fact that, as he was unloading his inexpensive power pitchers, Beane was loading up on older, more expensive hitters. In December, this was the collection of players Oakland seemed likely to audition as outfielders, designated hitters, and first basemen:

Brandon Allen – 1B/LF – 26 – Pre-Arbitration

Daric Barton – 1B/DH – 26 – $1.1M (Free Agent: 2015)

Cris Carter – 1B/LF – 25 – Pre-Arbitration

Kila Ka’aihue – 1B/DH – 27 – Pre-Arbitration

Jermaine Mitchell – CF – 27 – Pre-Arbitration

Brandon Moss – LF/RF – 28 – Pre-Arbitration

Jason Pridie – CF – 28 – Pre-Arbirtration

Ryan Sweeney – OF – 27 – $1.8M (Free Agent: 2014)

Here’s what I see in this group: considerable upside, zero risk. Two players, Allen and Ka’aihue, were B+ prospects blocked by superior talents in their previous organizations. Beane was, to his tremendous credit, able to acquire them for next to nothing. They may be a little old for rookies. They may end up being “Quad-A” talents. But they also may end up being OBP machines. In 253 games at AAA, Allen hit .286/.401/.555. Kila posted a .281/.412/.497 line in 353 games at AAA. They, like Carter (.890 OPS @ AAA) and Mitchell (.960 OPS in 2011 between AA and AAA), have clearly learned pretty much everything there is to know about minor league competition. If they fail to produce in Oakland, Beane has lost nothing more significant than a couple seasons of Brad Ziegler. And, assuming six of these eight players made the Opening Day roster, the maximum cost would be less than $5 Million.

So…naturally, Beane went out and acquired six more players who played the same positions:

Collin Cowgill – OF – 25 – Pre-Arbitration – .984 OPS @ AAA

Coco Crisp – CF – 32 – 2 yrs./$10.5 Mil. – .693 OPS in ’11

Jonny Gomes – OF/DH – 31 – $1 Mil. – .714 OPS in ’11

Manny Ramirez – DH – 39 – $500K

Josh Reddick – OF – 25 – Pre-Arbitration – .748 OPS @ AAA

Seth Smith – RF – 29 – $2.4 Mil. (FA’15) – .830 OPS in ’11

No one of the above additions is ridiculous unto itself, but as a whole, they leave the Athletics with a team which is older, more expensive, and, most importantly, loaded with more that a dozen players fighting for the same seven or eight roster spots, meaning that either some young players will have their development stunted by returning to AAA or the Athletics will have to eat one or more seven-figure contracts, something small-market teams are notoriously reluctant to do.

My question is, “Can we find some method to this madness?” If, for argument’s sake, we take for granted that Beane is a baseball savant, what is the market trend he’s getting out in front of?

Perhaps the simplest explanation is that Beane decided, no matter how good his ascendent pitchers became, his timing was poor. The Rangers and Angels were building monoliths. Anaheim has their own version of the Big Three with Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and C. J. Wilson, while Texas was hoarding young, high-upside arms. And both, obviously, had much deeper lineups. It’s worth noting that Beane didn’t make his first deal (Cahill) until after the Pujols and Wilson signings had been announced, and he dealt Gonzalez hot on the heals of the Rangers winning the Yu Darvish sweepstakes. Beane may have determined that the AL West was destined to be a two-team division for at least the next couple years, by which point his best players would be approaching free agency. If he could delay his roster from peaking, he might actually hit the sweet spot where the expensive Angels started showing their age and the Rangers had to make a flurry of tough free agent decisions.

Beane may have elected to keep Anderson, not only because his injury made him untradable, but because he was younger than Gonzalez (and the same age as Cahill) and was signed to an extremely team-friendly contract that could keep him in Oakland through 2015. He and McCarthy would, ideally, be joined down the road by some combination of Jarrod Parker (Baseball America’s #33 prospect in 2011, acquired in the Cahill deal), Brad Peacock (2.39 ERA, 0.98 WHIP in 147 minor-league innings in ’11, acquired in the Gonzalez deal), and A. J. Griffin (a polished USD grad who rose through four levels in 2011 alone). By the time this group was ready to hit arbitration, Albert Pujols and Adrian Beltre would each be over 35, basically everybody on Rangers World Series roster would demand a new contract, and the Angels would still owe Weaver and Wilson a couple of $20 Million paychecks.

Of course, developing pitching is notoriously hazardous, and, even if you’re extremely good at it, you’re unlikely to hit a trifecta like Anderson, Cahill, and Gonzalez more than once every 10-12 years…as Beane well knows. With the inconsistency of pitching development in mind, however, it is possible to ask, particularly in the wake of two consecutive so-called “Years of the Pitcher,” whether we are actually on the verge of a bursting pitching bubble. Could GMs like Beane be trading their young hurlers at the peak of a bull market? Despite the fact that baseball history clearly shows few starters can maintain elite production for more than a handful of seasons, pitchers like Ubaldo Jimenez, Zack Greinke, and Matt Garza have commanded large prospect packages after only one or two good years. Beane is not the only saber-minded GM unloading twenty-something “rising stars.” Josh Byrnes rushed to deal Mat Latos upon becoming the Padres GM, netting a pretty impressive haul in return for a pitcher who regressed in his second year in the league and has numbers somewhat inflated by a favorable home environment. Jack Zduriencik was not to reluctant to part with his own 23-year-old All-Star directly following his breakout campaign (I believe in Michael Pineda, but can’t dispute that he fits the trend). A year ago, Alex Anthopoulos made a somewhat similar deal, trading Shaun Marcum for a single unproven hitting prospect, Brett Lawrie. In all likelihood, from among the half-dozen or so young pitchers traded this past year, there is going to be at least a couple busts. In fact, a sober look at the history of twenty-something pitchers suggests that those who achieve perennial Ace status will be in the minority. If we return to the Moneyball-era analogy, we can recognize that of the Big Three, only Hudson had peak seasons beyond the age of 25. Beane has assured that, once again, he won’t be left holding the bag:

There is another, more insidious, rationale for the Athletics strange offseason. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Beane was, quite explicitly, instructed to punt. His boss wants to move to San Jose. MLB wants the A’s to move to San Jose. If the A’s start winning again, if they seem poised for another string of strong seasons, if Oakland is not dead last in attendance for the third time in four years, it could further complicate the already prolonged and litigious process of abandoning the Coliseum. Beane may have simply been compelled to make his team worse, at least in the short term.

Which brings us to Oakland’s last big move of the Hot Stove season: extending Billy Beane. Beane still had three years left on his contract, had not posted a winning record in the last five seasons, and had made only one playoff appearance since Moneyball was published. Yet, in February, in the wake of four risky trades, A’s ownership decided it was necessary to add five additional years to his deal, essentially assuring that he will be the Athletics GM for the rest of the decade.

So, in return for blowing up a roster that had the potential to affirm Beane’s Moneyball reputation, he at least got the guarantee that when the A’s do finally open a better ballpark in a more affluent part of town, he’ll be on hand to manage the associated spending extravaganza. That is, after all, one of the unanswered questions of Moneyball. What would Billy Beane do if he had even half as much money as the Yankees, the Red Sox, or the Angels?

Stay tuned. In the meantime, I hope you like Cliff Pennington bobbleheads and Kurt Suzuki collectible programs.

About Matt Seybold

Matt teaches at The University of Alabama. Roll Tide. He specializes in American Literature and Rhetorical Economics. Fate chose for him the peculiar perdition of rooting for the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Clippers.

8 thoughts on “Billy Beane’s Wild Winter

  1. Oh, also…to nitpick a bit… Kila failed in the majors last year (SSS alert), practically forcing the Royals to bring up Hosmer… Maybe it was just a bad audition, maybe he's just a AAAA player.