Hacks don’t understand the competitive window
The Chronicle’s Scott Ostler is signing onto the claim that the A’s recent on-field success serves to foil Lew Wolff’s plans to move to San Jose. He’s not the first. The Trib’s Monte Poole and the Press Democrat’s Lowell Cohn have done the same since the All Star Break. The reasoning is that the way the A’s are playing, it proves with complete certainty that the A’s can, in fact, compete in Oakland.
Anyone who has read most Bay Area sports columnists over the years could see this dime store analysis coming. It’s more than ludicrous, it’s absolutely fallacious. Think about it. These writers are basing the viability of a franchise on 17 games. 17 games! Look, I’m the last person to rain on this parade and I’m loving every minute of this run, but to base any long-term decision-making on 17 games is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. The sample size is incredibly small. Over the next 1-4 years, it may prove to be the start of a trend. Then again, it could be a blip. If the A’s fade in August-September the same way the Mets and Indians are now, what does it mean for success in Oakland? Nothing, because there’s no real causality there.
If we’re going to look at any trends, it’s the team’s 40-24 (.625) record with Yoenis Cespedes in the lineup. The team was pretty bad in May, largely due to Cespedes not being in the lineup for lengthy stretches. It didn’t help that Josh Donaldson and Daric Barton were black holes regularly manning the corners, while Josh Reddick was left to carry the lineup in the Cuban defector’s absence. Now with better contributions from numerous fringe and platoon players plus continued health (knock on wood) for Cespedes, the A’s are doing just enough offensively to win games.
None of this is very related to the A’s long term success. Cespedes is locked up through 2015 unless Billy Beane flips him for prospects. Yet Beane is keenly aware of the organization’s continued inability to develop quality hitters, so unless rivals offer Billy the moon for either Cespedes or Reddick, the heart of the order isn’t going anywhere. Beyond that, there are questions about Cespedes’s durability. The Cuban baseball season is only 90 games long, and Yoenis has had little nicks already and a tight hamstring halfway through his rookie campaign. If Cespedes runs into a lengthy injury spell like what befell Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in Minnesota, the A’s will be screwed moving forward unless certain hitters on the farm (Grant Green, the just-injured Michael Choice, other recent draftees) make miraculous Sean Doolittle or Dan Straily-style transformations into solid contributors.
We’ve talked a bit about the competitive window every have-not team faces. Refuse to acknowledge it at your peril. San Diego, Arizona, and Colorado all had brief, 1 or 2-year runs in the past few years. When injuries hit or players didn’t perform up to potential, all three teams sold off key players in order to rebuild for the next competitive window. The same just happened to the Miami Marlins, who nearly doubled their 2011 payroll in hopes of bringing in bigger crowds and revenue. With the team fighting to keep itself out of the NL East cellar, the Marlins are looking to sell off vital pieces. Already Hanley Ramirez has been traded to the Dodgers, and Josh Johnson may be the next one out of town. The aforementioned Twins had a bright future prior to the 2011 season, then Mauer was lost for half the season and Morneau struggled to recover from concussion symptoms. Now they have no choice but to rebuild, starting with a trades of Morneau and Francisco Liriano that many are anticipating in the future. Competitive windows for many mid- and small-market teams all were slammed shut in a hurry.
For the have-not teams, the competitive window means there’s little room for error, practically no room to absorb expensive mistake contracts. The Dodgers had plenty of flexibility to absorb Ramirez’s contract. The Yankees somehow got Seattle to pay for part of Ichiro’s contract even though the Pinstripers sent back a middling starter and a guy who had already been traded or cut six times in his short career. The A’s have a league-low $55 million payroll, which gives them the flexibility to pick up a one-year rental. It doesn’t give them the flexibility to start trading for guys with long, bad contracts, like Ramirez and Jimmy Rollins. Brett Anderson is due for some raises in the coming years. Reddick is sure to become a Super Two thanks to his breakout season – which will give him a hefty raise. He could very well be locked up through his arbitration years this offseason. Cespedes will be paid nearly $30 million over the next three years. Beane and David Forst will have to decide which young pitchers to keep and which ones to use as trade pieces. Kurt Suzuki already has a bad contract and he’s worth pennies on the dollar. By 2014, the A’s could easily be committed to spend $40-50 million on just 4-5 guys. It’ll help that new national TV money is on the way, but it doesn’t mean that fiscal responsibility will go out the window.
Sustaining the competitive window will depend greatly on picking the right guys to commit to (remember the Chavez-Tejada debate from a decade ago?) and those cornerstone guys staying healthy. If not, all bets are off. It won’t prove that the A’s should leave Oakland posthaste. What it would prove is that the A’s again are a big-market team that is forced to operate like a small-market team because of revenues from playing in Oakland. The current CBA calls for the A’s to get off revenue sharing by 2016 as long as the team stays in the Bay Area, however the stadium solution occurs. That’s language from on high saying that having the A’s in the Coliseum is not what MLB has in mind, no matter how good this run is or how many pies are thrown. The Lodge doesn’t care about 17 games. They care about the long view.