It wasn’t easy to see Tim Hudson go this offseason. It was shocking to see Mark Mulder follow. Both moves made the future look bleak for a few days as I realized that the Oakland Athletics probably won’t contend late into the 2005 season. There was hope beyond that, and so there was a bit of solace to be found in my imaginings of 2006 and beyond – until I started to build a definition of the word “beyond” as it pertains to my Oakland A’s. I have to admit that for a few days I felt discouraged about the future of the ball team.
The A’s are at the end of a five-year cycle in which the team was able to compete by bringing up an amazing core of regular players through the organization’s farm system. The cycle ended when those players hit free agency and became unaffordable. Jason Giambi was the beginning. Miguel Tejada was the middle. The end came with an exclamation mark in the forms of Hudson and Mulder. I thought to myself, “This is going to happen again in five or six years. Do I really want to go through it all over again?” To answer that question one must ponder the alternatives:
Find a new favorite team.
This is like changing my blood type. Not possible. Next.
Stop watching baseball all together.
Even worse. Like trying to live without any blood in my body. Next.
Hope the A’s start making more money so that they can sign their star free agents.
I’ve always hoped for this, but right now there is reason for hope. While the impending sale of the team to Lew Wolff is no guarantee that the team will increase its payroll, it is still a possibility. It’s highly unlikely he will scale back on payroll, so if anything his ownership group might be able to add some money to Billy Beane’s annual budget. Even if they don’t, the fact that Steve Schott will no longer be around to criticize A’s fans, the Bay Area media and the Oakland market is definitely an improvement.
Furthermore, Wolff’s status as the A’s Vice President of Venue Development over the last 15 months gives him a better chance of realizing the team’s new ballpark dream than Schott ever had. Though, as evidenced by the new ballparks in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Detroit and even Cleveland, a new ballpark is not a guaranteed long-term solution. Oakland’s is an even bigger challenge owing to the fact that the A’s must pry new long-term revenue from a market that includes the media darling San Francisco Giants.
So is a new, baseball-only ballpark the answer? And if it does get built, will it be enough to allow the A’s to break the cycle? After careful consideration, I decided that neither question is very relevant in terms of my hope for the team's future. The real question is this: should the A’s even be looking for ways to break the cycle? The answer is emphatically ‘no’.
The only way to break the cycle is to create new, predictable streams of revenue. A new ballpark is one step toward this, but it is no guarantee. Let’s assume that the A’s build a new ballpark sometime between now and the end of the player cycle the team is about to enter (so, sometime in the next six years). Ideally, the new ballpark's first season will coincide with a playoff contending A’s team that generates buzz in the Bay Area. It would help even more if, at the same time, the Giants' popularity hits a lull following the retirement of Barry Bonds and the disastrous effects of Brian Sabean’s current “win now” philosophy. Given the correct set of circumstances, the A's might be able to secure a better foothold in the Bay Area's consciousness, which would, in turn, lead to more media coverage, higher ad revenue and better radio and television deals. It's all possible, but it's a lot to ask. Basically, the stars need to align if we want to put the cycle to rest for good.
I would argue, however, that even with more money to work with I would not want Beane or his successor to deviate very much from the organization's current business model. Trading players when they're about to become more expensive than they're worth is the smartest way to run a baseball franchise. Look at all the big spenders in MLB and you will find bad contracts that limit the team's flexibility and ultimately take even more money to get rid of.
Chicago Cubs? Sammy Sosa.
New York Yankees? Jason Giambi, Kevin Brown.
New York Mets? Mike Piazza, Cliff Floyd, Mike Cameron.
The Dodgers had Brown and Shawn Green, the Rockies had Mike Hampton. These players and many more like them essentially signed free agent contracts that paid them retroactively for the success they had in past seasons. In Oakland’s case, they would be paying their own free agents retroactively for their performances over the past six seasons. That completely negates the value they gained by following the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s rules and underpaying players during their first six years of service time.
It is a market vulnerability that Beane and the A’s are experts at exploiting: Players in their first six years are underpaid, while players who have reached free agency are overpaid. The proof is right there in the aforementioned contracts. The Cubs had to pay a huge portion of Sammy Sosa’s contract just to get rid of him. Sosa’s career numbers indicate that he is one of the best power hitters ever to play the game, yet he ended up with a contract that grossly overpaid him. It also handcuffed the Cubs and limited their ability to make moves to improve their team prior to 2005. If a player like Sosa fits the profile of a player who is overpaid, anyone can fit that profile.
Whether A's fans want to admit it or not, it is probable that the A's would be in the same position had they signed some of the players their fans were so desperate to keep. Jason Giambi is a perfect example. Though the BALCO scandal has revealed Giambi as a steroid user who has jeopardized his own health and the team's investment in him, he is still able to hide on a team with a $200 million payroll. Anyone could lose himself among such high profile names like A-Rod, Derek Jeter, Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield.
Put simply, Oakland will never be able to spend that much on players. Not even in the “best” of times. But for argument's sake, let's imagine that the A's won the World Series in 2000 while Pac Bell Park was condemned for not being earthquake-safe, forcing the Giants to move back to Candlestick. The result is an A's franchise that can spend $100 million on players every year. So what if they used this new flexibility to keep Jason Giambi in the fold with an 8-year, $120 million contract following the 2001 season? After a disappointing, albeit statistically productive 2003, Giambi's health problems and BALCO connection send him into a downward spiral in 2004, making his $17 million salary in 2004 a wasted 17% of the A’s payroll for the season.
The remaining 4 years and $70 million make him impossible for any team to trade, meaning that the A’s would be on the hook for that money no matter what. While this wouldn’t cripple the franchise, a series of similar mistakes could do so very easily. The ripple effect that a bad free agent signing has on a franchise is almost impossible to calculate, but it doesn’t take a psychic to understand that each such signing is exponentially damaging. Not only does it tie up money, it also ties up resources that could be used to bring in a replacement for the failed free agent. The next bad contract ties up more money and makes subsequent moves even more difficult to make. Each season, more players are slated to leave and eventually the money isn’t there to sign someone the team really needs to keep.
The beauty of the A’s current system is that, so far, it has allowed them to sustain a top ten performance for five consecutive years while spending very little money. In other words, it ain’t broke folks, so why “fix” it?
Adding money in the form of new revenue will make it possible to take a risk here or there, but the argument that the A’s should start keeping all their free agents is a knee-jerk reaction from fans stuck in the past. The days of George Brett and Mike Schmidt are gone. In fact, those two players were among the last generation of players who played in one city for their entire careers. The baseball economy just doesn’t support that scenario anymore. Be angry with MLB if you will, but don’t try to pressure Billy Beane into an attempt to relive the past.
Odds are that Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada will be the only A’s free agents who actually earn the money given to them in their first free agent contracts. This is how it will always play out. Among five or six players, only one will be worth keeping when he hits free agency. Teams must consider age, remaining potential, position and positional relevance (i.e. organizational and league-wide strength at that position) when figuring out who to pay and who to let walk. The A’s analyzed each of these criteria and ultimately kept Chavez and let everyone else walk. Whether they play in the Oakland Coliseum, The Oracle in Oakland or the Chrysler building, and whether they broadcast their games on KICU or a grand television enterprise called OAKS Net (Oakland Sports Network), this isn’t a process they should be looking to change.
Todd Morgan is a Senior Writer with OaklandClubhouse.com. Todd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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