Organizational Rankings: #19 – Oakland

Billy Beane and the rest of the A’s front office got famous for being the most visible sabermetric organization, and as Matt noted, it served them well for the first half of the decade. They exploited opportunities in value to build contending teams on the cheap, and were able to win in spite of low payrolls and general fan disinterest.

Unfortunately for the A’s, the proverbial cat is out of the bag. The list of organizations that could now be described as stat-centric is longer than ever. Everyone is now reading from the same general playbook, and while there will always be inefficiencies to exploit, they are now much, much harder to monopolize. When the A’s were going for OBP or defense, they didn’t have many people bidding for those types of players – now, they’re fighting big market franchises with similar ideals when they try to pursue players like Adrian Beltre.

Beyond just a league wide acceptance of the principles the A’s have built their organization on, their division is now an ineptitude free zone. The Mariners went from disaster to contender at the same time that the Rangers built a monster farm system and have committed themselves to spending wisely rather than wasting money on big money contracts for mediocre pitchers. And, of course, there’s the Angels, flexing their big market payroll and keeping the talent flowing from their minor league system.

The AL West is no longer an easy division to win, and it’s only getting stronger. While the A’s are still a very well run team, their relative advantage over their peers has all but evaporated, and now they’re fighting an up hill battle to contend against better resourced smart teams.

Unfortunately for the A’s, their best chance to win is now to hope they catch a few breaks, and that’s the direction they’ve headed. They bet their 2010 season on the health of Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer; if it works, they could contend, but if they both land on the DL, there’s not enough talent in Oakland to keep up with the rest of the division.

If this was just a one year thing, that would be okay, but this is essentially what the A’s are going to have to do on an annual basis. They can’t afford low risk premium talent, so they’ll have to bet on guys with baggage to get the necessary upside onto the roster. It will work sometimes, but other years it will fail spectacularly, because the A’s playoff hopes are now going to inevitably be tied to keeping injury prone guys healthy (or hoping that whatever other risk they’ve taken on doesn’t come to fruition).

You can’t blame the A’s for adopting this strategy, given the circumstances. It will allow them to contend, just not annually. Given their budget and the relative strength of their competitors, that might be the best they can hope for until they get a better stadium, better attendance, or both.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

23 Responses to “Organizational Rankings: #19 – Oakland”

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  1. TheUnrepentantGunner says:

    And to think, the A’s would be so much better off if Billy Beane spent more time running the team instead of writing that book and movie script…

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  2. Dan says:

    When was the AL West an easy division to win?

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    • bobo says:

      You could argue the AL the west is easier to win then every other division in MLB simply based on the number of teams. You only have to beat out 3 other teams, insteand of 4.

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      • Joel C. says:

        bobo: So under that logic, without knowing any additional information about the franchises, you are saying that the NL Central is the hardest division to win because you have to beat out 5 teams instead of 4?

        Seems like the screenname is apropos.

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      • bobo says:

        Really Joel C? you don’t get this? Assume you don’t know anything about any of the teams and give them all the exact same win probability, such that each team has an equal winning percentage. Then run a monte carlo simulation with a division of 4 teams,playing whatever schedule you devise. You will probably find that each team wins the division at around 25% of the time. Next do the same with a division of 6 equal teams. You’ll hopefully find that each team wins the division 16.666% of the time. So, yes, all other things being equal, if you were a GM you would want to be in a 4 team division because it is easier to win than a 5 team or a 6 team division. Make fun of my screen name all you want, but please think through this example, it is relatively simple.

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    • Yo izzle says:

      It was much easier to win when Bavasi was running Seattle and Texas had a joke of a run-prevention unit each year.

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    • archilochusColubris says:


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  3. johnf says:

    Do you mean injury-prone exclusively when you refer to baggage? Could you see the A’s pursuing someone like Elijah Dukes? Interestingly, that would kind of run contrary to one of the major points of Moneyball(head case issues getting in the way of pure talent).

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    • scatterbrian says:

      They kicked Milton Bradley’s tires, so it’s not out of the question. Or maybe it is, depending on your view of the outcome of the Bradley experiment.

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  4. Dan says:

    The A’s don’t need to rely on risky investments turning into gold to compete.

    They would have been competitive the last few years if the money they spent supplementing their pre-FA talent had resulted in a league average return on investment. Instead, they’ve received virtually no value the last three years from the money they’ve poured into Chavez, Giambi, Piazza, Cabrera, Springer, Loaiza, Bradley, and Kendall. They’ve either been injured, awful, or both. In 2007, for example, their 6 highest paid players (comprising nearly 2/3 of their payroll) combined to provide replacement level performance.

    They don’t need a winning lottery ticket to compete; they just need to spend their limited ML budget non-terribly.

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    • Aaron/YYZ says:

      Or have a little better luck… Most of those guys were clearly in declined but seriously crashed and burned when they joined the A’s.

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    • Paul Thomas says:

      True, but the only reason why this is even in play is that they significantly outperformed most teams in getting value out of their farm system. It’s somewhat obvious that the A’s cannot compete with an average farm and their current payroll.

      So unless the team can come up with a way to consistently remain way above-average in producing farm talent, they’re stuck with the high-risk approach. In 2008 and 2009, their payroll could not have reasonably been expected to produce a playoff team; even adding an extra 10 free agent wins to what they produced in 2008 and 2009 wouldn’t have put them anywhere near the postseason.

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  5. q says:

    “The A’s don’t need to rely on risky investments turning into gold to compete.”

    “They don’t need a winning lottery ticket to compete; they just need to spend their limited ML budget non-terribly.”

    Where are you going to find cheap, non-risky, high expected outcomes investments?

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  6. gary says:

    Billy Beane is the oat bran of GMs.

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  7. cavegravedave says:

    Is there anything to be said about adopting the rays/marlins and more recently (the pirates) small market rebuilding-strategy?

    Investing more heavily into the amateur draft (the red sox have acquired a top farm system while having terrible draft positions) and taking more risks on international talent; all the while losing 90+ games a season and reaping the rewards of a top 5 draft selections?

    Or is investing in aging/injury prone/declining players the only way the A’s can compete?

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  8. Free Bowker says:

    The A’s are going to be better than many think this year.

    And many of their prospects somehow lose their luster upon arrival in Oakland (Adrian Cardenas isn’t top 100 on most lists anymore, for example).

    There’s a fair amount of potential stars.
    I like Anderson, Cahill, Mazz, Gio, Outman with many others on the way (Ynoa).
    C – Suzuki is good enough for now. Stassi and Donaldson coming.
    1b – I like Daric Barton. Carter is a great plan B.
    2b – Cardenas, Sogard, Weeks after Ellis
    SS – Pennington+Rosales before Grant Green or the guy they got from Minne for Cabrera
    3b – Kouz, until one of the 2b’s proves better
    RF – Taylor, Buck after Crisp
    CF – Sweeney, Rajai
    LF – Carter, Buck
    DH – Cust, Carter, etc

    Starting next year, this team will be really good.

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    • JH says:

      Those only look like a grouping of future stars if you only look at their 99th-percentile projection. Cardenas/Weeks project as roughly average. Barton is almost out of chances to show he’s even serviceable, and it’s a little tough to keep dreamin gon star-level upside. Like Bryan said, Carter needs to be a 900+ OPS guy to even be an above-average player. To be any kind of star he’ll need to hit at .950-1.000 regularly. Those are long odds, even for a great minor league bat. Pennington’s the definition of average with little to no upside. Taylor’s a solid above-average guy, but it’s tough to call him a future star with his poor defensive reports, and Sweeney, and Davis top out at slightly above average, and only for their gloves.

      That’s not really, really good. That’s serviceable.

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      • eldingo says:

        It’s above league average, and if you have a above league average rotation and bullpen you have a playoff team

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      • bSpittle says:

        Being that Sweeney was a 4-win player last year (mostly on the strength of his defense) its not out of the question he’ll break out.

        I have faith in Barton to be well above average.
        And that Pennington will be above average as well.

        In fact, I fail to see where the A’s are starting any scrubs.

        This will be a good team this year, great the next.

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  9. Omar says:

    Dave mentions that they need a few breaks to win the division…might I ask, since each team in the AL West are really close to each other on paper, don’t they ALL need a few breaks this season, and likely in the future since the As seem to find a way to be around .500 or a few games over. The Rangers have one of the richest, if not the richest, farm in baseball and a decent budget. The Angels have a large budget, but still that shitty “Angels Baseball” philosophy and lost three mainstays of the team over the past five years in Lackey, Vlad, and Figgins. The Mariners, well I’m sure half the readers here are Ms fans (not that that’s a bad thing) and I don’t need to go on about them…but their offense is one of the weaker ones in baseball, and after Cliff Lee their rotation has questions marks. So I would argue that each of the ALW teams need some things to break their way this year, and for the next few years. Other than that, I enjoyed the article.

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  10. Audio began playing when I opened this blog, so irritating!

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