The bar has been raised
Last night I gave myself until midnight to mourn the end of the A’s 2012 season. At midnight I realized that I hadn’t eaten since lunch, too nervous to do so during or before the game. So I took an hour and took care of my hunger pangs before settling in to start this post.
The memories of this season will remain fresh throughout the winter, through the inevitable rumors about roster shuffling. Which starting pitchers will be kept? Can Billy Beane find a real solution at second? And most importantly, what expectations will we have for the A’s in 2012, after they came out of nowhere to take the division from two teams (Rangers & Angels) whose combined payroll was five times that of the A’s?
That’s what it comes down to. Going into 2012, no one had any expectations of the roster, the fans, ownership, or anything else associated with the Oakland Athletics. All that has changed starting October 12, 2012. The bar has been raised. Everyone from fans to the media to the rest of baseball will expect more out of the A’s. The element of surprise that fueled much of the euphoria this year will have evaporated. That childlike joy, that sense that no one has anything to lose, will have to give way for a more consistent, more professional franchise. New expectations come with a weight for a team to bear, and in our case, the fans also have to bear it. It’s not enough to look at two weeks or a month and call Oakland “saved” for baseball. That would be like looking at Brandon Inge’s first week in an Oakland uniform and declaring him the third baseman of the future. It’s asinine and completely absurd. No, the test starts now: of ownership to cultivate this success, of the front office to sustain it, and of the fans to respond in kind.
Nothing gets a pro sports team’s sales organization going like a playoff run. In September the A’s sales group started to push hard for season ticket deposits, fueled by renewed fan enthusiasm. They got me on board for 2013, my yearlong experiment with walkup and online ticketing over. I’m an easy sell. I don’t have a grudge against ownership, and my worldview isn’t inextricably tied to the word “Oakland”, keeping me from investing my fandom. Many longtime A’s fans have stayed away because of ownership. They are naturally going to be tough sells. Has this fresh, exciting team brought those fans back into the fold, or will they look for more from ownership to convince them?
Yesterday’s pregame announcement of tarp removal for the ALCS/World Series elicited some positive reaction, but that isn’t enough going forward. Those same tarps for the original upper deck (West Side) should be removed forever, just as I had outlined as an option last week. Close down the Plaza Reserved seats to dial back the capacity somewhat, and simply sell sections of the upper deck on an as-needed basis as the Dodgers have done in the past. That should bring the capacity back to 43,000 or so, with 36,000 in play most of the time until high-demand or premium games comes around.
As for the roster, the front office is fortunate that there is only one high-priced free agent on whom to make a decision, Stephen Drew. While Drew played solidly since his trade from Arizona, $10 million is a high price and from a pure value perspective, not worth it. There’s a chance that Drew is bought out and a new deal done, but that would also put him on the open market, where there could be a premium for a someone who is ostensibly an average-to-good shortstop.
Then there’s Brandon McCarthy. Take away the horrendous line drive incident, because McCarthy’s already throwing and all parties were looking to clear him for the World Series. He even took time to write a back-page article for SI. No, McCarthy’s issue has, and always will be, the health of his right shoulder. Prior to September, McCarthy had to be put on the disabled list twice in 2012 and frequently had extra days between starts as his shoulder issues kept creeping. That may sound like a good opening for the team to let him go as many young starters are waiting in the wings, but I go back to what Farhan Zaidi said on Blog Day: “We try to build a set of options – 8, 9, 10, 11-deep of starting pitchers.” In that context, McCarthy should be a fairly easy guy to make a case for, since his injury history has depressed his value somewhat. His effectiveness when he’s there, his presence in the clubhouse, and the outsize positive attention both he and his wife Amanda have brought to the team are all reasons to bring him back for 2 years/$14 million.
Jonny Gomes was a major force, even though he saw only one at bat during the ALDS due to matchups. He should be back, also for 2 years at maybe $6-7 million. Bartolo Colon, who was practically forgotten as A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily were brought up, may not be too easy to dismiss. His PED suspension should’ve driven him out of baseball completely. Yet there’s something appealing about a guy who can simply eat innings. That helped the A’s staff in no small measure in 2012. Maybe he gets signed to a minor league deal and is stashed in Sacramento if he’s willing to be there. Then there’s the case of Dallas Braden, who’s as snakebit now as Justin Duchscherer was a few years back. Again, there’s a limited market for Braden’s services, so non-tender him, sign him to a minor league deal, and let him work out his shoulder problems in the spring and extended spring training.
The second base dilemma is the most puzzling, because none of the options are great. Five or six guys could play the position. Cliff Pennington’s the best defensively because of his arm. Jemile Weeks has the speed and potential leadoff ability but regressed badly in 2012. Adam Rosales is all heart and arm and little else. Scott Sizemore is an unknown because of his lost year. Eric Sogard may have disappeared down the depth chart for good. Grant Green, a organizational fan favorite, has a bat and no glove. Chances are that some guys will be non-tendered, at least one will be traded, and someone else will be stuck in Sacramento for another year, blocked by someone else in Oakland with marginally greater ability. The organization should expect more from second base in the future. It’s up to these players to break through and take the starting job for themselves.
Will the front office attempt another international free agent splash signing? Which Josh Donaldson and Chris Carter will we see to start 2013? How much can the catchers improve defensively? All of these questions have much of the internet fanbase already going through that yearly phase called rosterbation, what has classically been called the Hot Stove League. People in general are talking about the A’s again. There’s real interest and the non-hardcore fanbase may have been aroused enough to commit.
That’s where it gets difficult. The A’s fanbase won’t be judged solely on the last two weeks, as much as people would like to see it. The media liked to characterize this pennant chase as “rekindling Oakland’s love affair with baseball”. It’s romantic and hits all the right notes. But you know what often happens with affairs, right? They wither. They end. What starts as grand and limitless in May can be consigned to the dustbin in December. This is where the fans come in. Fans have to commit. Whatever anyone thinks of ownership, they have produced a winning team. Now it’s time for fans to respond by buying season tickets. Last I heard, season ticket subscriptions added up to 7-8,000 full-season equivalents when accounting for all of the partial plans. If you want this team to stay in Oakland, you need to do your part. Get that number to 10,000. Aim for 2 million in total attendance. Both are modest figures when compared to what happens regularly across the bay, but it’s a start. MLB may be struggling with its Oakland/San Jose decision because it needs to see real numbers like these to justify whatever decision it makes. In Oakland, MLB needs to see that even without a new ballpark, enough fan interest can be generated to avoid a Miami-like situation where attendance dropped off a cliff after the team started to disappoint in their new digs. In San Jose, MLB needs to see that enough of the existing East Bay fanbase can come along even after being alienated to help support the fans in the South Bay. Fan interest, or an apparent lack thereof, is a problem that affects both cities, whether the booster groups and ownership want to admit it or not. If you live in the Bay Area and you love the A’s, now’s the time to show it. Time to stop the posturing. Time to end the excuses. All of the goodwill built up over the last four months will evaporate if next May there’s another run of 10k crowds at the Coliseum. If fans deserve a winning team, they got it. The players have earned our support. The least we can do is provide support en masse. The bar has been raised for us fans too, as it should. If we can’t step up, then we’ll be back to the same old questions about viability and ownership and disaffection. And no one will care outside of the Bay Area, including MLB.