Billy Beane — Supergenius?

Billy Beane’s genius has gone unquestioned since the publication of Moneyball in 2003.  Unfortunately, since then the A’s have seen the postseason only once (a division championship in 2006), a fact often attributed solely to the A’s limited financial resources.

There can be no question that Billy Beane is one of the bright minds in baseball, and his aggressive exploitation of market inefficiencies in the late 90s and early 2000s undoubtedly led to more success in Oakland than almost anyone would have imagined.  Unfortunately, this is 2011, and as we look across an Athletics organization that has won more world championships than anyone except the Yankees and Cardinals, I see more disarray than genius.

As pitchers and catchers ready to report, the A’s 2011 payroll stands at $62M[1].  The salary obligations break down as follows:

 

TOTAL $62,647,500
Infield $14,190,000
OF/DH $26,600,000
RP $14,200,000
SP $7,657,500

 

Breaking down the players involved:

Infield:              Kurt Suzuki, Mark Ellis and Kevin Kouzmanoff

OF/DH:            Coco Crisp, Ryan Sweeney, Hideki Matsui, David Dejesus, Josh Willingham and Conor Jackson

SP:                   Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy

RP:                   Brian Fuentes, Craig Breslow, Joey Devine, Grant Balfour, Michael Wuertz and Brad Ziegler

Beane’s decision in the OF and in the bullpen stand out as requiring more scrutiny.  IN the OF, Ryan Sweeney has two arbitration years following the 2011 season, but each of the other 5 players are eligible for free agency after this season.  Crisp will be a 32 year old with a lifetime OPS around .750 after 8 seasons and a history of injuries.  Matsui – 37, with no ability to play the field.  Willingham will be 32 with a consist history of delivering mid 2 WAR seasons.  Conor Jackson has produced 4 WAR over 2100 plate appearances and will be 29 at the end of this season.   David Dejesus, the best of the bunch, is a corner outfielder with no power who can put up slightly above average OPS numbers.

Two troubling questions arise.  First and foremost, is this outfield the best way to spend $27M in 2011?  But perhaps more importantly from a franchise perspective, where is this group taking the Athletics in the future?  The obvious answer is nowhere – if the A’s are to cry poverty, it is obvious that none of these players are the type that the team would want to invest in long-term (even at reasonable prices).  The road to success in a small market is not investing in players in their mid 30s.

Equally problematic is Beane’s investment in the bullpen.  Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour will earn $9M this season, and the same amount already committed in 2012 while setting up Andrew Bailey and coming off underwhelming seasons in 2010.  It is hard for me to envision committing 20% of a limited payroll on reliever contracts that almost invariably work out poorly is a great move for Oakland.  And, of course, while the A’s pitching staff should be one of the stronger ones in the AL, it is hard to see what Beane is building toward with expensive veterans likely to underperform (or whom will perform and leave).

Looking out a bit further, Andrew Bailey, Daric Barton, Gio Gonzalez and Cliff Pennington all have arbitration years approaching (and free agency to follow, of course).  If those players are to form the core of the A’s moving forward, one would think buying out arbitration years and/or free agent years might be the way to realize the discounts necessary for a small market team to compete.  On the other hand, if they are not, one has to wonder how Beane has allowed its farm system to languish to the point where it was recently ranked 3rd to last in major league baseball.

To sum up, the Beane approach appears to be this:  maintain maximum year over year payroll flexibility and make no commitments of more than 1-2 years.  If we look to the success of other small market franchises (Minnesota and Tampa come to mind), the model for success seems to be draft well, develop talent, and lock in cornerstone players before the get 5 years experience in the big leagues.  There is absolutely nobody on the A’s roster that meets this criteria – though at least Beane avoided a couple of arbitration battles with Brett Anderson and Kurt Suzuki.

Rather than following the path to consistent success, Beane seems content to re-tool with marginal veterans and avoid losing 100 games.  I understand that the A’s are constantly trying to look to the future new stadium they hope one day to inhabit, but it amazes me that Billy Beane doesn’t attract more attention for running an organization that is both non-competitive now, and constructed to avoid building toward a competitive future.  A’s fans need to stop lamenting their lack of big market cash and start asking Billy Beane what he is trying to build.


[1] This number doesn’t include a 2011 salary number for Andrew Bailey, Daric Barton, Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill or Cliff Pennington, though those salary numbers should be finalized in the upcoming days.

 

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About Bill Porter

Bill is an aspiring sportswriter (attorney by day) born in Washington DC, raised in New York, and currently living in San Francisco with his wife Kirsten and two spazzy labs, Fletch and Bear. Follow me on Twitter at @wfporter1972
This entry was posted in A's, Billy Beane, Contracts, GMs, Players and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Billy Beane — Supergenius?

  1. dwishinsky says:

    I do not think there is any reason to be concerned about Oakland’s outfield being around for only one year. First off, one of these spots is likely to go to Chris Carter in Sacramento in 2012 (I assume left field – or he could become a designated hitter). Furthermore if he continues to develop Michael Taylor could slot into an outfield position.

    While there has been talk of Willingham signing long-term, realistically, the outfield is a position that is relatively easy to fill and Beane is always willing to make a move to get missing pieces.

    I personally also am a fan of the bullpen moves because with such a young starting pitching staff I like having a very deep bullpen to shorten the length of games. Also with the injuries we’ve had I wouldn’t mind pulling any of those guys a bit early without jeopardizing the game.

    But I agree with you 100% regarding the farm system and how bare it has become. The few bright spots we’ve had seem to be bitten by the injury bug thats afflicted the major league club as well whether it is Jemile Weeks, Michael Ynoa, Fautino de los Santos, Pedro Figueroa or Sean Doolittle.

    But all in all, I think Beane’s approach is a solid one. He did what he could to improve the offense (and did so), by going for guys like Willingham with one year remaining, he didn’t have to give up a king’s ransom, (same applies to DeJesus though Mazzaro was a bigger cost) and I think the Matsui signing was an absolute steal (compare it to Guerrero at $8M).

    • Bill Porter says:

      Hello David —

      I think your perspective is excellent. I agree that a lot of what Beane has done is not a BAD idea, but the larger question that I struggle with is whether or not he’s building toward a winner in Oakland. Bolstering the bullpen is of course a necessity in today’s game, but we all know how highly variable (primarily because of the short sample sizes) relievers are, and spending close to $10M without a good sense of what the return for me is a disaster for teams on Oakland’s budget. I can’t help but think they’d be better off spending the Balfour and Fuentes money elsewhere — primarily on identifying and locking up which of the young players they deem fundamental — Pennington, Barton, Kouzmanoff, Bailey, Gonzalez to begin with, and as you mention, Carter et al soon after. Oakland is never going to find bargains on the free agent wire (no team really is, but especially a club that free agents aren’t keen on signing with, and to Beane’s credit he did make a run this off season at Beltre), so in terms of bang for their bucks, it has to come from buying out arbitration years and potentially a year or two of free agency and using those savings elsewhere. Right now, Beane has invested in a couple of years of Suzuki and Anderson, but not much else, and seems to be willing to commit ABs to players that almost assuredly won’t be in Oakland the next time they field a winner. I’d like to see Beane fully committed to a 3 to 5 year process aimed at producing a team good enough not only to win the horrific AL West, but to win 95-100 and have more than a puncher’s chance in the postseason.

      Thanks for the thoughts and please keep reading!

      Bill

      • dwishinsky says:

        I think that is what he is doing (committing to a 3-5 year process). Our pitching is going to be in Oakland for a while. Dallas Braden is under club control through 2013. Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson are under team control through 2014. Gio is under team control through 2015. That’s reminiscent to me of the pitching of the early 2000’s who we rode to the playoffs.

        With respect to the bullpen – Fuentes and Balfour I think are worth their money in the sense that they both have playoff experience and both are capable (its an assumption with Balfour but proven with Fuentes) to close out games. If you look at contracts given to Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit, we got somewhat comparable pitchers at really a good deal. And I just think having so many quality options in the pen is really a necessity with such a young staff.

        I think the team is banking to a degree on a move to San Jose and is keeping payroll flexibility until then. I’d love to see them lock up Daric Barton longer term, but to me the rest of the infield really is quite expendable. Kouzmanoff can’t get out of town quickly enough as far as I am concerned (watch him now have a great 2011), and Pennington – while I love him – is really playing a position where we have a relatively strong amount of minor league depth.

        So I am bullish on Oakland’s future. The best move of the winter may have been the non-signing of Iwakuma – that would have been very detrimental to our long term future.

        Enjoyed the piece, feel free to stop by my blog too: The Todd Van Poppel Rookie Card Retirement Plan

      • Bill Porter says:

        I’d also be interested in your thoughts on a piece I wrote back during August of last year on their infield: https://sportsbythenumbers.wordpress.com/2010/08/22/the-best-infield-in-the-al/

    • Bill Porter says:

      Love your piece on Barton — couldn’t agree more. With respect to Oakland, we will see. I completely agree that they’ve got flexibility to go in a lot of directions, but I’ll be interested to see what they do. At the end of this year, I would expect that Ellis, Matsui, Dejesus, Willingham and Jackson will all be allowed to walk (or at least, whomever Beane doesn’t flip in July will be allowed to walk). I happen to think those are probably the correct decisions (depending I guess on whether or not the market might not value Ellis’ defense), but it doesn’t make them more competitive. On the hitting front, Kouzamanoff’s plate discipline stinks, but he’s got a minimal amount of pop and manages to deliver mid 2 WAR seasons primarily with the glove, so he’s a useful asset that likely won’t be overvalued by other teams. I think Pennington gets short shrift — second best SS in the AL last year (again albeit primarily delivering value on defense). I will be really interested to see what Beane does with Barton, Pennington and Gonzalez — and whether the A’s can develop Carter’s contact skills to the point where he can start to realize the upside his prodigious power presents.

      • dwishinsky says:

        Thank you! I hope you continue reading TVRRCRP and I will def keep reading here. Yeah I am not sure what the future holds. I think if Carter and Taylor develop they will likely be your guys in the outfield. I have a feeling we will somehow sign Willingham though… its completely based on nothing but a feeling. Especially if we’re successful which I think we will be. Will be interesting for sure!

  2. jsp says:

    I’m not at all sure BB’s genius has gone unquestioned. I mean, he’s been to the playoffs once in the last seven years. To his (and perhaps our) misfortune, some of the richest teams (NYY, BOS) have adopted his tenets to a certain extent and with rather more resources. Of course there are still the Mets and Cubs willing to make everyone look good.

    I don’t pretend (and I don’t know that anyone does) to understand the machinations involving the A’s future location. But I can provide a perspective that this blog’s author is mercifully unaware of.

    This might be a stretch, but I think that if everything went well, the A’s would be in contention in any given year. Obviously things won’t always go well, but at least there’s a hope, for a bit.

    There have been no Pirates teams any time in recent memory of which this could be said. They have had decent players, they have had decent prospects, but in 18 years there has never been any legitimate hope that they could contend. Nor have they been able to parlay their futility into prowess the way the Rays (or perhaps the Royals, until they fuck it up) have. Andrew McCutchen is a solid and exciting outfielder. Pedro Alvarez might amount to something at third. But by the time Jameson Taillon reaches the majors, they’ll be all but gone elsewhere.

    Meanwhile Pirates president and former softball player Frank Coonelly blames the fans for the Bucs’ struggles to be relevant.

    So while I understand your complaints about Beane and am sure he could have made certain better decisions, I think he’s probably done a decent job in that his club could conceivably compete each year. Maybe everything works out, like the Giants last year; maybe everything falls apart, like the Mariners (perhaps not the best example, but still). His genius, perhaps, lies in giving his fans a vague hope each spring.

  3. Pingback: Cubs, A’s, Addison Russell and Billy Beane | Sports By the Numbers

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