The Oakland Athletics are currently the best team in Major League Baseball with the sixth most frugal payroll, just over a third of what the Los Angeles Dodgers are shelling out. And their second highest earner, Jim Johnson, has just been cut.
So a team working on a relative shoestring budget gives up on one of two people that they’re paying $10million or more. They are paying him more money than everyone on the roster, bar Yoenis Cespedes, to simply not play for them.
Just before Oakland gave Johnson his marching orders, they made the first big splash in the trade market. The A’s went out and grabbed the best pitcher on the market in his breakout season, Jeff Samardzija. He didn’t come cheap as the A’s had to lose 2013 first round pick Billy McKinney and 2012 first round pick Addison Russell, widely regarded as a top five prospect in all of baseball.
General manager Billy Beane has never done things the traditional way in his war room.
In the movie “Moneyball” Brad Pitt as Beane says “If we try to play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there.” So he began looking at new stats, shopping at Walmart rather than on Rodeo Drive next to clubs with the fat wallets, though they prefer to be called “big boned.”
Beane has built this particular squad to pitch great, manufacture runs with speed and to hit home runs. Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what they’ve done.
Beane Begins Assembling a Championship Caliber Team
In July of 2008 the A’s were in the midst of what appeared to be their second consecutive season missing the playoffs. So in July they dumped pitchers Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin to the Chicago Cubs for 22-year-old Josh Donaldson and two other minor leaguers. Gaudin finished 2008 with the Cubs, and didn’t return. Harden only spent one more season in the Windy City.
Donaldson, now 28, is currently making just half a million dollars yet leads all third basemen in both homers, 22, and runs batted in, 73. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees still owe another $61million over the next three years to the suspended circus that is Alex Rodriguez.
During 2009, another losing season for Oakland, Beane pulled the plug on star outfielder Matt Holiday and traded him to St. Louis. This created an opening in the outfield. The A’s signed outfielder Coco Crisp to a one year deal after Crisp posted a career low in batting average. He repaid the faith, stealing bases and hitting home runs for a relatively cheap $7.5million this season.
In 2011 Beane got his most prized possession, starting pitcher Sonny Gray. Gray was drafted 18th overall in the first round and signed a rookie deal, but wouldn’t make it to the Show until 2013.
Before 2012, three key cogs donned the green hat with the big yellow “A”. Brandon Moss, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes. Beane flipped closer Andrew Bailey to the Boston Red Sox for Reddick where he was finally allowed consistent at bats. Across 2012-13, Reddick smacked 44 home runs.
On the other hand, Cespedes was a prized free agent after his defection from Cuba after the 2011 season and signed a 4-year/$36million contract. He’s hitting .254 with 17 home runs and 63 runs batted in so far in 2014. Another player with similar stats who also plays in the outfield is Justin Upton of the Atlanta Braves. Upton is batting .282 with 18HR and 60RBI. He is operating under a salary of $14.25million.
With that excess four million, Beane can pay Moss his current $4.1million, who was first signed to a minor league contract, which compensates the power hitting first baseman for .266 average with 23HR and 71RBI.
Meanwhile, division rival Los Angeles Angels is paying Albert Pujols an average $24million/year for another eight years. Their first baseman is hitting .273 with 20HR and 66RBI this season.
Beane has made a habit of unearthing unheralded players, like Moss and Donaldson, and knowing a stud when he sees one at a modest price, like Cespedes.
In 2012 Oakland returned to the summit of their division, winning it for the first time since 2006. Though the A’s were bounced in the first round at the hands of the Detroit Tigers in five games, they were here to stay.
Once 2013 came around Oakland defended their AL West crown, winning it in successive years for the first time since 2002-03. But they were bounced again by the Tigers, again in five games.
Fast forward to that offseason, Beane decided they needed more to get over that hurdle. The rotation could use bolstering, even though Gray was headed for his first full season.
The front office found Scott Kazmir, a 30-year-old starting pitcher who was dangerously close to not finding a job in baseball at 27, but had shown signs of his former self. Beane rolled with it, signing Kazmir to a 2 year/$21million contract. Kazmir is currently third in the AL in ERA with a cool 2.37 and is tied for first in wins with 12. One of the players he’s tied with is Gray. Gray’s 12 wins, 121 strikeouts and sub-3 ERA has him sticking his nose in the AL Cy Young race, right up there with established major league aces.
Earlier this month, Kazmir and Gray had been joined by the aforementioned Samardzija. Beane has cemented a stellar top of the rotation and playoff rotation.
Now back to the present where the Oakland Athletics are baseball’s best team with baseball’s sixth shortest payroll.
How’ve they done it? Well, don’t look past Billy Beane and his front office. Oakland is in pole position to represent the American League in this year’s edition of the World Series. A great story for baseball teams keeps getting better and a template for all small market teams has been created, but will it have a fairy tale ending?