Is eliminating a team with about three times your payroll good enough?
How about overtaking the two-time defending American League champions, a team with more than twice your payroll?
The Los Angeles Angels are vanquished. The Texas Rangers could be next.
Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane is back in the postseason, back after many of his critics thought he had lost his touch, become disengaged, or both.
His $55 million team, at this moment, is a pure reflection of the personality that author Michael Lewis described in “Moneyball” when talking about Beane’s selection of Nick Swisher with the first of seven high picks in the 2002 draft:
“Billy is now on his feet. He’s got Swisher in the bag: who else can he get? There’s a new thrust about him, an unabridged expression on his face. He was a bond trader, who had made a killing in the morning and entered the afternoon free of fear. Feeling greedy.”
Look out, Rangers: Those are your 2012 Oakland A’s.
The Rangers, mind you, need to win only one of the final two games in Oakland to clinch the AL West title. Alas, the Rangers have been on cruise control for much of the season, and now they’re Microsoft trapped in a room with 25 hotshot techies, all out for blood.
The Athletics’ 4-3 victory Monday night not only clinched a wild-card berth, but also moved them within one game of Texas. A win Tuesday night would create a winner-take-all game for the AL West title Wednesday.
All this, after Beane traded two of his best three starting pitchers and his closer last offseason. Shocked the industry by signing an unheralded Cuban defector for $36 million. Collected others’ spare parts, tossed them at his patient, resourceful manager and said, “Here. Go play.”
Of course, it isn’t that simple, it isn’t a narrative as clean as the book “Moneyball", or a plot as Hollywood as the movie. For one thing, Beane doesn’t work alone; his braintrust includes assistant GM David Forst, director of player personnel Billy Owens, farm director Keith Lieppman and scouting director Eric Kubota.
The Athletics’ success starts with their players, many of whom are more talented than people perceived. And you can be damned sure it includes manager Bob Melvin, who currently is using four platoons and five rookie starting pitchers – and in perhaps his biggest accomplishment, managing with the respect of his notoriously fickle GM.
As Susan Slusser wrote Tuesday in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Oakland’s third baseman is a catcher, the first baseman is an outfielder, the former shortstop is at second base and the top left-hander in the bullpen was a first baseman until last fall.”
Remember how the A’s were supposed to be doomed by their taxing schedule down the stretch, including a 10-game road trip to New York, Detroit and Texas? Well, they’ve gone 13-8 in this run, with all but four of the games coming against contenders.
So here they are, back in the postseason for the first time since 2006 with the second-lowest payroll in the majors. Melvin should be the AL Manager of the Year if the Orioles’ Buck Showalter isn’t. Beane should be the runaway Executive of the Year.
The balloting for the executive’s award – and there is only one, not one for each league – is conducted among two execs from each team. A few may still harbor resentment toward Beane for “Moneyball” – you don’t see Brad Pitt playing Terry Ryan – but many are his disciples.
Oh, Beane will face competition – from the Reds’ Walt Jocketty, the Orioles’ Dan Duquette and especially the Nationals’ Mike Rizzo, among others. But no other team’s ascent has been as dramatic or as unlikely as the Athletics’.
Indeed, many fans, media and rival executives groaned when Beane traded left-hander Gio Gonzalez, right-hander Trevor Cahill and closer Andrew Bailey in the offseason, believing that the A’s again were engaging in unnecessary churn.
This time, though, the circumstances were different – the Rangers were adding right-hander Yu Darvish, and the Angels were spending on first baseman Albert Pujols and left-hander C.J. Wilson. Beane calculated that it was the right moment to step back, particularly with the A’s pointing toward a new ballpark in San Jose. And even then, he vowed privately that the team would be younger, cheaper and better.
As it turned out, each of Beane’s trades proved a resounding success – right-hander Jarrod Parker and reliever Ryan Cook came for Cahill, right-hander Tommy Milone and catcher Derek Norris for Gonzalez, right fielder Josh Reddick for Bailey.
The Athletics’ stunning signing of Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, meanwhile, proved an even bigger hit.
The move seemed curious at the time – Cespedes agreed to a four-year deal through 2015, and the move to San Jose, if it ever happens, won’t occur before ’16. Beane, though, knew that no major league free agent that talented would come to Oakland; such players have been rejecting him for years. The A’s also had a higher opinion of Cespedes than many in the industry. They projected that he would hit .260 to .270 with 25 home runs. He’s batting .290 with 23 homers.
One thing worth noting: The Athletics – like their low-revenue, bad-ballpark cousins, the Tampa Bay Rays – can take chances that other franchises can’t. A team need not worry about alienating its fan base when there isn’t much of a fan base to alienate.
Still, not many GMs would trade a veteran catcher in the middle of a pennant race, particularly when that catcher, Kurt Suzuki, was helping stabilize a young staff. Beane did it, to the chagrin of some in his own clubhouse.
The move created a platoon of Norris and George Kottaras, and Kottaras, in particular, is more of an offensive threat than the light-hitting Suzuki. The pitching staff does not seem to have suffered, and the A’s escaped Suzuki’s $6.45 million salary for next season.
Say hello to the oddest playoff team you’ll ever see.
The entire collection celebrated on the field Monday night – Cespedes, the youngsters acquired in trades last offseason, the unheralded free agents such as designated hitter Jonny Gomes and first baseman Brandon Moss, the homegrown pitchers such as A.J. Griffin (13th round) and Daniel Straily (24th).
Someone held up a sign that read, “We were supposed to lose 100!” Beane, in an e-mail, called it, “My most enjoyable moment.”
How do you like your vindication?
The A’s have not fully answered that question – yet.