The Mets had no use for pitcher Jeff Tam two years ago, but in the eyes of the Athletics, he cut the perfect profile. Under general manager Billy Beane the A's favor a statistical evaluation of talent. Beane and his staff noted that Tam had a better than two-to-one ratio of ground balls to fly balls and low rates of home runs and walks per nine innings. Score another one for the Beane counters. Tam, signed as a minor league free agent, has become a valuable part of the Oakland bullpen, appearing in a team-high 70 games last year with a 3.01 ERA for the blue-light price of $350,000.
The A's are the Antiques Roadshow of baseball, a low-budget production that recognizes the treasures in other people's junk. Their minor league free-agent steals have included Tam, Geronimo Berroa, Buddy Groom, Gil Heredia, Matt Stairs and Billy Taylor, while the cache from trades includes Jason Isringhausen, Cory Lidle, Terrence Long and Jim Mecir. Oakland won the second-most games in baseball last year (102) with the second-lowest payroll ($34 million).
Beane's philosophy is simple: Give him pitchers who throw strikes and keep the ball in the park and hitters who draw walks to ring up high on-base percentages. "We're not as quick to judge initial failure," Beane says. "The strengths that we're looking for have to play out over time. If you watch someone for 20 at bats and put a label on him, you're making a big mistake."
Oakland drew the most walks in the AL and issued the fewest last year, piling up differentials of 200 walks and 239 runs. The Athletics came within one infamous step of the ALCS—Jeremy Giambi's non-slide in the pivotal third game of a Division Series loss to the Yankees. Giambi's big brother, Jason, the ultimate Beane player, then took his league-best .477 on-base percentage and clubhouse presence to the Yankees, while outfielder and leadoff hitter Johnny Damon sprinted to Boston. The two free agents scored 25% of Oakland's runs.
So Beane whipped out his trusty on-base slide rule and traded for Rangers first base prospect Carlos Pe�a and (by way of the Mets) Yankees DH David Justice. "I'm very aware of the philosophy here as far as patience at the plate," says Pe�a, who had a solid .361 OBP in a 22-game trial with Texas last year while living and learning under the roof of Alex Rodriguez, who took him in as a boarder. "That's the way I've always hit. It's a perfect fit."
Justice will be 36 on April 14 and is coming off an awful year in which he hit .241 (.333 OBP) and continued to spend so much time in the trainers' room that he should have been charged rent. He hasn't played in 150 games in a season since he was 27, and he's missed an average of 45 games a year since 1994.
The A's still have Jermaine Dye, who drove in 59 runs in 61 games after Beane picked Kansas City's pocket again in a midseason trade, and third baseman Eric Chavez, who busted loose with a huge second half (.340, 21 homers, 68 RBIs after the All-Star break). Whether the A's get a third crack at taking out the Yankees in October may come down to how well they replace Giambi and Damon, even if Chavez claims that Giambi's leadership role has been exaggerated.
"Jason wasn't too vocal," Chavez says. "[Manager] Art [Howe] would go to Jason and say, 'Maybe you should have a team meeting.' And Jason would go, 'Aw, Skip, do I have to?' He was very quiet. People are making too much out of that.
"What we'll miss is that Jason was so good at getting on base. Even if he didn't get a hit, he'd get his two or three walks. One thing Jason did was carry the team. Me, Miggy [ Miguel Tejada], David Justice, Jermaine.... One of us has to emerge as that consistent go-to guy."
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