Strange A's in Oakland
Even vaunted front office doesn't expect much in '08
Posted: Monday January 21, 2008 1:11PM; Updated: Monday January 21, 2008 3:38PM
For almost all of the past decade, the Oakland A's have been baseball's premier example that small-market teams can still accomplish big things. Through smart drafts, good scouting, solid player development and wily trades the A's have proven that it is the way an organization operates, and not how much money it spends, that allows small-market teams to level the playing field with their big market brethren.
Oakland's approach was so successful that it was given a name: Moneyball, the title of Michael Lewis' influential 2003 book that shined a spotlight on general manager Billy Beane, detailing how he and his staff kept the A's in contention on a shoestring. Those methods enabled Oakland to win lots (five playoff appearances from 2000 through 2006) while spending little (they've never had a payroll in the top half of the majors under Beane and have been in the bottom third in each of their past five playoff years).
Part of Beane's genius was that shrewd tactics and a consistent organizational philosophy would always allow his team to be, at the very least, competitive. So what are all of Oakland's dollar-conscious disciples to think of the A's this year? What's anyone to think? The franchise that made the modern blueprint for winning on a budget has spent the winter trading away what few marquee players it had and stocking up on unproven, untested, largely unknown kids. That is nobody's formula for success.
In fact, if we didn't know any better, we'd swear that the A's are ... are ... rebuilding.
"We weren't afraid of the word," says David Forst, the team's assistant general manager. "There's a negative connotation to it when it's used by fans, who think they're going to be watching a team without any entertainment value. But if you look at it and what it leads to, it's really exciting.
"We have more questions on our major league roster than we've had in the last seven, eight years. But rebuilding doesn't scare us. Rebuilding, if it's done the right way, can be exciting."
Gone in trades this winter are the team's ace, Dan Haren, its most popular everyday player, Nick Swisher, and its fragile but effective centerfielder, Mark Kotsay. What's left is a group of mostly 20-somethings who, right now, represent the second-youngest team in the majors (behind the Marlins). The makeover has caused a lot of unrest among the fans in Oakland, many of whom -- if you stay up on the blogs and chat rooms -- have all but given up on '08.
Beane may not have gone that far, but he is exhibiting a level of patience unseen on a team that was built to win. "We're trying to get younger," he said last month after the Haren trade. "We're trying to put together a club that continues to get better over the next couple of years."
The new course of action was charted last October, shortly after the A's had concluded their worst season since 1998. Beane sat down with Forst and others and conducted a top-to-bottom organizational review, Oakland's first in years. A new strength coach was brought in to examine why players were having such a huge problem with injuries. The A's also hired five new area scouts, adding to a staff that had become one of the smallest in the league, and re-sectioned the country to get better coverage. They increased their scouting budget in Latin America and elsewhere internationally, and have earmarked more money for signing bonuses.
The change in scouting has been especially noteworthy, considering the criticism the team has faced for its mediocre drafts over the past several years. Haren was traded to the Diamondbacks for six prospects last month; Baseball Prospectus immediately ranked four of them among the top seven players in Oakland's organization.