We should all know this by now – they do things differently out in Oakland. Billy Beane is as unconventional as they come, and his brilliant mind has famously led to a complete transformation of the way we view the game of baseball, and specifically the way executives manage their teams.
Beane has ratified the improbable notion that it’s feasible for a small-market club to consistently compete in this unfair game. But his unorthodox formula, although it’s been widely accepted and often duplicated, has yet to result in the ultimate objective, a championship, for these Oakland Athletics.
Regular season success is impressive, especially working with such a minuscule payroll, but Beane is still chasing that elusive World Series title that would once and for all give merit to the growing perception that he’s a step ahead other Major League GMs. Until that happens, the skeptics will remain vociferous.
The beginning of this off-season had people believing that Beane and company were looking ahead for the future, and starting a rebuilding process of sorts. Those suspicions arose when Beane dealt Josh Donaldson, MLB’s WAR leader among third baseman over the past two seasons (according to Fangraphs).
It wasn’t long after that powerful first baseman/outfielder Brandon Moss was also shown the door. Those two, along with Yoenis Cespedes, who was traded away at last season’s non-waiver deadline, accounted for approximately 49% of Oakland’s home run total in 2014. In return for those sluggers, the A’s hauled in Brett Lawrie, four prospects, and two months of Jon Lester.
Still, this makeover was far from complete. Beane proceeded to move 2014 All-Stars Jeff Samardzija and Derek Norris in the next few weeks. It seemed as if, in a blink, he was tearing down the roster he worked so hard to build into a contender. However, it quickly became very apparent that Beane still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
His first major signing made me cringe. Beane inked 28-year-old DH Billy Butler to a three-year, $30 million contract. Formerly of the reigning American League champion Kansas City Royals, Butler struggled through an extremely lackluster 2014 season, posting a dreadful -0.3 WAR and a mediocre .323 OBP. Butler is a severely deficient athlete, so his value hinges upon his ability to hit for power and drive in runs. I presume that Beane views this as a high-risk, high-reward type of deal, but Butler’s recent decline is particularly concerning.
Beane’s next noteworthy move is the one that caught the attention of the masses. He worked out a deal with Matt Silverman to acquire shortstop Yunel Escobar and utility man Ben Zobrist from the Tampa Bay Rays, in exchange for catcher John Jaso and two top prospects, including lauded young shortstop Daniel Robertson. This is the move that, in my opinion, gave some indication of Beane’s plan: he intends to push all of his chips forward, and go all in for 2015.
But should we assume that this is a flawless strategy just because it was originated by the baseball genius that is Billy Beane? Absolutely not. As much respect as I have for Mr. Beane and his astounding accomplishments, I’m having a hard time making sense of his recent proceedings.
Ben Zobrist is an exceptional player and will undoubtedly provide Oakland with an immense level of value – at least for the time being. Not only is Zobrist 34 years of age, but he’s also in the final year of his contract, and the A’s are in no better position to sign him long-term than Tampa Bay would have been. Essentially, Beane is putting the future of the franchise at risk and rolling the dice with a roster that isn’t assured anything in what’s shaping up to be a very competitive AL West.
Furthermore, Yunel Escobar is a prosaic hitter with elite defensive skills and a number of character flaws. Even though he won’t inspire at the plate, he is fully capable of being a stable fielder of the shortstop position. However, his defense is what took a huge step back in 2014.
Defensive metrics can be murky, but Yunel Escobar went from a +4 in defensive runs saved in ’13 to -24 in ’14, the worst among reg. SS’s.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 10, 2015
He might be an upgrade to Oakland’s previous rotation of shortstops, but he’s certainly not a substantial addition by any means.
Even without Lester and Samardzija, Oakland still owns solid starting pitching depth, but the current projected lineup has a number of inadequacies, specifically in the power department. Combine these deficiencies with Oakland’s constant inability to make that deep playoff run, and some skepticism is justifiable.
Does Beane get the benefit of the doubt? Of course, but I get the feeling that he might be a bit overly desperate for that long-awaited championship, and I’m not convinced that he has the group to accomplish that feat. It’s now up to Billy Beane to do what he does best: prove the doubters wrong.