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.
Breaking down the players involved:
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.
 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.