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2011 Organizational Rankings: #18 – Oakland

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Yes, it’s a cliché, but statements often become clichés because they are grounded in truth. In the case of Oakland’s chain, the good things going in the organization only serve to cancel out the big glaring flaw – they just don’t have the kind of capital necessary to keep up with the big boys.

Present Talent: 77.50 (16th)

Athletics Team Preview

Future Talent: 75.00 (t-20th)

Athletics Top 10 Prospects

Financial Resources: 69.17 (28th)
Baseball Operations: 85.00 (6th)

Overall Rating: 76.50 (18th)

In the end, this ranking is all money. The A’s play in the worst stadium in baseball in the worst neighborhood for a stadium in baseball. For most teams, they can draw additional fans by winning games, creating a positive return on investment if they can put a good team together. The A’s? They won 102 and then 103 games in back-to-back seasons and attracted just 2.1 million fans in each year. When the team isn’t the best in baseball, that shrinks down to something more like 1.5 million. That they only have something in the range of 600,000 additional fans that can be convinced to come to the park when the team is super freaking good is an anchor holding them down.

If you’re owner Lew Wolff and you know that an additional $50 million in expenditures on player talent could lead to a nice bump in winning percentage, but that you’re barely going to sell another half million tickets, you would  need to generate $100 in profits (not just revenue, but profits) from each individual ticket sold in order for that to be a break-even proposition. The most expensive ticket the A’s sell is $75 – eyeballing the seating chart, the average looks to be around $35. Sure, you can gain incremental profit from selling those people hot dogs and beer, but unless you figure out how to attract a half million raging alcoholics with expense accounts, it would be a money-losing decision.

And so, the A’s are stuck. They generate enough revenue to give the front office enough money to keep afloat, but to actually win with any regularity, those guys have to spin yarn into gold. They were able to do it for a while, but they didn’t hold the patent on intelligent roster design, and now that the big boys are playing in the same sandbox, there’s not much room left for Billy Beane and company.

Even in years where they have money to spend (almost solely due to the fact that they didn’t have any highly paid players on the roster to begin with), they couldn’t get premium players to take their money, and instead had to turn their attention to trading for players who didn’t have a choice about whether they wanted to play in Oakland or not. You could certainly have a worse offseason than bringing in David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, and Hideki Matsui, but you could have a better one too – unless you’re running the A’s, at least. If you’re Oakland’s front office, that might be about as good as winter is ever going to get.

The lack of revenue gives the organization no margin for error. They have to hit on their draft picks and international signings. They have to keep their pitchers healthy. They have to lock up their internally developed stars at a young age and hope they don’t become old overnight. In a nutshell, they need to beat the odds with regularity, and unfortunately, that’s just an impossible assignment.

Even with all the respect we have for Billy Beane, David Forst, and the crew in Oakland, they’re running uphill in lead shoes. The league is getting smarter every season, and there simply aren’t enough “market inefficiencies” out there to make up for the fact that other smart teams have a payroll three times as large. The A’s can collect a whole roster of underrated quality performers, but then the Red Sox and Yankees roll into town with 15 guys Oakland can’t afford, and at the end of the day, the superior talent wins out.

Unless they move to a new stadium in a part of town that doesn’t scare away a lot of potential customers, the A’s are what they are – a well-run organization that makes enough good moves to be interesting but needs a few miracles in order to really contend for the title. In baseball, the A’s are the team bringing the proverbial knife to the gun fight. Their weak link is very weak, and it makes it tough for anything else they do to really make an impact.