A's Demise No Surprise
The A’s struggles this year have prompted all sorts of strong reactions. One writer suggested, “It’s not too early to panic.” There’s been talk of bringing up players from the minors – the A’s did bring up Matt Watson – or making a trade to bring in a power-hitting right-handed hitter. In the press box on Sunday, one media member was even musing about 38-year-old Reggie Sanders. Not going to happen, and no other big trade is likely, either.
The fact is, baseball economics have caught up with the A’s.
Writers who turn a blind eye to the realities of baseball like to say that teams with low payrolls can win, and they’ve most often pointed to the A’s and Minnesota Twins. Yes, they can win – but they can’t keep a team together. A couple of years ago, we wondered whether the A’s could keep their young stars, especially the pitchers. We know the answer to that now. Eric Chavez is the only young star who’s signed to a long-term contract. Miguel Tejada left as a free agent, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder were traded.
That’s the reality when a team has a $60 million payroll, trying to compete with teams that have double and, in the case of the Yankees, triple the A’s payroll.
Some writers have pointed out that the increase in revenue-sharing and luxury tax made George Steinbrenner pass on Carlos Beltran in the last offseason. Poor baby. Steinbrenner is still making money, because of the revenue he gets from his own cable television network, which I wrote about earlier in the year. And, he still has a player payroll of roughly $200 million. If general manager Brian Cashman can’t build a winner with that kind of payroll, he should be in another job – which he may be if the Yankees don’t win this year.
If the A’s even had the Giants payroll, which has been probably $25-35 million higher in recent years, they’d have been able to keep Hudson and Mulder.
As it is, the remarkable thing about the A’s is not their collapse so far this year but that they were able to reach the postseason for four straight years and just miss last year. Unhappy A’s fans should look around the baseball map at cities like Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Colorado who have not enjoyed that kind of recent success and are still floundering. The A’s will be back in the postseason before any of those teams reach it.
AFTER LAST season, A’s general manager Billy Beane had a choice to make: He could leave the team intact for one more run at the postseason, which meant he’d lose Hudson to free agency at the end of the season, or he could start to rebuild.
Beane knew, though, that the gap between the A’s and the Anaheim Angels (you will not see them called Los Angeles on this website) was widening – again, because the Angels’ payroll is roughly double the A’s. With the two biggest payrolls, New York and Boston, in the East, the wild card would probably come out of that division again. (Baltimore has since become a factor as well.)
So, Beane opted for the rebuild. Aside from the trade for veteran catcher Jason Kendall, his moves brought in younger players and pitchers. He might have gone even further but for budget restraints. I’d much rather see Dan Johnson at first base right now than Scott Hatteberg, and I suspect Beane would, too, but with the A’s, you can’t just eat the contract of a productive player, and Hatteberg has a year left on his contract. (There’s a club option for another year, but it’s unlikely that will be exercised.)
This will be a development year for the A’s, and a time to see which players (and pitchers) will be part of the nucleus for another run. Nick Swisher, now injured, will likely be a part of that nucleus, for instance. He’s not quite ready now, but he has the attitude you like and the tools to be good. Charles Thomas, obtained in the Hudson trade, has been tentative at the plate, but he’ll get a chance to show whether he should be flanking Mark Kotsay (whom the A’s will try very hard to re-sign) in left field, with Swisher almost certainly the right fielder. Watson will also be given a shot at left field. Veterans Eric Byrnes and Bobby Kielty are in the mix, too, but you don’t have to read tea leaves to know that Beane hopes Thomas or Watson wins the job in left.
The young pitchers to watch are obviously Joe Blanton and Dan Haren, and when you watch them, think of what a difference a year has made for Rich Harden, who was by far the A’s most effective starter this year before he pulled the muscle in his side that has sidelined Hudson in the past.
Even when they’ve got the pitches to be winners, young pitchers need to learn how to manage a game. Haren got a lesson from Randy Johnson in the Sunday game. Johnson was all over the plate in the first two innings, throwing 47 pitches in those two innings and being raked for three runs in the first. But he found his rhythm the further the game went, and he wound up as a winner for the 250th time.
Haren still needs to learn that. Typically, he does fine the first couple of times through the lineup but he doesn’t change his pattern much the third time through, and the hitters are ready for him. One of these days, he’ll learn that lesson, and he’ll be a winner.
SO, THE A’S are very much a work in progress, but there’s hope for the A’s fans from the recent past.
In 1997, the A’s finished 65-97. Two years later, they won their division with a 91-71 record and went on to win 102, 103, 96 and 91 games the next four seasons. Their 483 regular season wins are second only to the Yankees in the American League for that period.
With three times the payroll the Yankees only won four more games? It’s the Yankees who should be embarrassed, not the A’s.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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