“Moneyball” GM Billy Beane once again has the Oakland Athletics (54-45) right in the thick of the playoff hunt. And in case you thought the A’s have simply been lucky, their current romp through the AL East has shown just how good this team really is. Oakland completed a four-game sweep of the New York Yankees last weekend, and then scored 27 runs while taking 2 of 3 from the Blue Jays. Last night, the A’s pushed another 14 runs across the plate in a huge victory at Baltimore. The A’s hold the second wild card spot in the AL, and are a half game out of second place in the A.L. West.
With Oakland poised to begin yet another Cinderella run to the playoffs, I thought I would break down the five best moves made by Billy Beane in the past year to help make Oakland the most surprising team in baseball in 2012.
- Josh Reddick acquired in Trade from Red Sox
Last December, the A’s traded their all-star closer Andrew Bailey and bench-warmer Ryan Sweeney for outfielder Josh Reddick and two prospects. On paper, the move looked like a good one for the Sox, who were getting a proven closer in exchange for an unpolished young outfielder. But Reddick simply exploded this season, hitting 22 homeruns and posting an .886 OPS, despite playing in the pitcher-friendly Coliseum. Reddick’s Range Factor per nine of 2.14 is also fifth best among AL right fielders. Bailey has yet to pitch for Boston due to injury. Reddick gives the A’s what they have so desperately missed the past few years: a star power hitter at a cheap price. Reddick is making just $485,000 this year and is under team control until at least 2017. Boston is going to regret this trade for a long time.
- Yoenis Cespedes Signed as Free Agent
On February 13, 2012, the A’s signed highly-touted Cuban free agent outfielder Cespedes to a 4 year, $36 million dollar contract. This was a risky signing for Oakland, given that MLB teams never quite know what they are getting with Cuban free agents, and given that the A’s were committing over 10% of their tiny 2012 payroll to Cespedes. He has been worth every penny, and his $6.5 million salary this year is an absolute steal. In just 67 games, Cespedes has smashed 13 homeruns, and is batting .299 with an .881 OPS. Together with Reddick, he gives the A’s a dynamic duo of power-hitting outfielders.
- Cook and Parker acquired in Trade from Arizona
Last December, Beane sent young starter Trevor Cahill and reliever Craig Breslow to the D-backs for pitchers Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook and outfielder Ryan Cowgill. Many baseball ‘experts’ quickly pronounced that Arizona won this deal, but once again, the players acquired by Beane are outplaying the assets he traded away. In 17 starts, Parker has a 3.38 ERA and 1.25 WHIP to go with 7 wins. Cook has been lights-out in the A’s bullpen, with 10 saves, a 1.90 ERA, better than a strikeout per inning, and is making just $480,000 this year and is under team control until 2018. Cahill has a 3.86 ERA and 1.33 WHIP this year with Arizona, and Breslow has a 2.76 ERA and no saves. In order for the A’s to be competitive they must make deals like this one, which gives them younger, cheaper, team-controlled players who deliver star-level performance.
- Four Players Acquired for Gio Gonzalez
The December 23, 2011 trade of Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone and Derek Norris appeared to be one of Beane’s biggest blunders in recent memory. Gonzalez has 13 wins, a 3.13 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and better than 10 K’s per nine, and was selected to the NL all-star team this year. But each of the players acquired by Beane has the potential to make an impact at the MLB level this year and beyond. Milone has 9 wins, a 3.51 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP in 20 starts with the A’s, while making $2.77 million less than Gonzalez. Norris was recently called up from the minors where he posted an .804 OPS and threw out a third of would-be base stealers. At just 23 years old, Norris looks destined to become the starting catcher for the A’s. Cole is only 20 years old, but as his pitching stats in Single-A suggests (2.11 ERA, 10.3 strikeouts per 9), he has the potential to be a star pitcher in the majors in the near future. Peacock is struggling in Triple-A this year, but he is just 24, is averaging 9.6 K’s per 9 and throws in the mid-90s. Because Beane has already nearly replaced Gonzalez’s contributions while acquiring at least two future star pitchers and a solid (future) starting catcher for one pitcher, Oakland wins this deal hands down.
- Acquisitions of Smith and Gomes
Seth Smith was acquired in a January trade with the Rockies for two pitchers of no consequence, and Jonny Gomes was signed as a free agent ten days later. These two players give Oakland a cheap, productive platoon combo at DH or in the outfield, if necessary. The left-handed Smith excels against right-handed pitchers (career .875 OPS), while the righty Gomes prefers lefty hurlers (career .878 OPS). For a combined salary of just $3.415 million, the Gomes-Smith combo has delivered 21 homeruns and an .833 OPS in just over 500 total at-bats. By comparison, consider that the fictional DH platoon of A-Rod and Joe Mauer has delivered 21 HR’s and an .842 OPS in 689 total at-bats for the combined salary of $52 million this year.
It’s going to be fun watching the A’s make a run to the playoffs with the league’s second-lowest payroll ($55.3725 million), competing against clubs which spend double or triple the money that Oakland does on player salaries. The renewed success of the A’s is proof positive that baseball is still the ultimate team game, and that frugal, intelligent management can triumph over the gluttonous, excessive payrolls which so dominate baseball.
…and that’s the Last Word.