Billy’s Bag Of Magic Beans

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It never is; no general manager overhauls his roster expecting the whole thing to tank–but it happens. If you’re a general manager who does overhauls the way Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane does, there’s always a risk that everything will go up in flames.

And so it has. The A’s are a dumpster fire, having gone from a three time postseason participant to holding the worst record in baseball. What’s a GM to do when he trades everything in sight and all he gets back winds up looking more and more like a bag of magic beans? Indeed, what’s a fan to do when it all falls apart?

The DFR: BaseballEven in the midst of last season’s wildcard run, there were ominous signs. The Yoenis Cespedes trade–which was not particularly popular around Oakland–marked a turning point for what had been a team on a roll. The A’s limped through August and September, mostly propped up by their fast start and the top talent that is Sonny Gray. Once the team gagged away the wildcard game against the Royals, the writing was on the wall. Jon Lester, the big in-season pickup, was known to be out the door; given Beane’s history, others on the roster had to sense what was to come.

…if you’re a fan of such a team, here’s what you do: you endure. Or, as the big leaguers themselves say, you hang with it. Because…you know that the bad times won’t last forever.

Nobody expected that one of those out the door would be Josh Donaldson, but that was just a warmup. Soon Jeff Samardzija, Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, Jed Lowrie, and Luke Gregerson were out the door, too. That’s a lot of talent to send packing, but Beane seemed to have a plan. As a longtime A’s observer, I was optimistic that the roster would gel and the team’s performance would be OK, if not playoff caliber.

Instead, the dumpster fire. Donaldson’s talent and fire are sorely missed, especially his glove at third. Brett Lawrie has fallen short of his predecessor’s production; even his defense–a supposed strength–has been wanting. Actually, the defense has been abysmal team-wide, with scatter-armed shortstop Marcus Semien leading the fielding follies; even when his accurate throws to first tend to fall short, leading to a lot of tough chances on balls in the dirt. The rest of the defense has been nearly as bad. No wonder the team decided to bring back masterful defensive guru Ron Washington to help make Oakland’s fielders something close to watchable.

Unfortunately, Wash is not also a pitching coach. The A’s have a good one in Curt Young, but he has been helpless to turn around the team’s woeful relief core. Oakland’s awful record is the product, in part, of several late leads blown by the bullpen. Given that much of the roster turnover (with the exception of the departed Gregerson and the injured Sean Doolittle) did not occur in the bullpen, the absence of Norris may be the strongest factor in the bullpen’s flameout. Of all Beane’s off-season moves, sending away the staff’s anchor may have been the worst.

And yet, when I look at all the off-season moves…get it. The crazy ones–those fans who demand that every game be won, who call in to talk radio and propose ridiculous trades (“We should make a trade with the Dodgers and get Kershaw, and Puig, and Gonzalez for Eric Sogard!”)–will never be satisfied with any hot stove moves that aren’t immediately obvious. But as a veteran observer who understands that there are limitations to every team’s actions, I can see the logic in what Beane was trying to do.

Please note, the limitations the A’s face are not financial. Lew Wolff and John Fisher have plenty of money; they can swim in the big pool. If you’re a billionaire–and Fisher is–you can invest your personal fortune into running a baseball team at a loss of $20 million dollars a year, if you so desire; that would mean that you would have to sell the team when you went broke…in 50 years. And no, the Athletics don’t lose money; they make money, year after year.

So why sell or trade away or let walk all of your star players? How can that make sense to the schmoe who’s paying $30 for a game ticket? Here’s the explanation: given the low rates of return on huge contracts, given that you can run this business–and achieve nearly as good results–by not spending all that money, why would you?

Baseball history is replete with teams that spent huge sums on players and got nothing for their money than cramped check-signing hands. Just lately, the Dodgers have been embarrassed to see the Giants–another fabulously wealthy but relatively parsimonious team–win multiple championships versus LA’s recent nothing. Before his teams caught fire in the late ’90s, George Steinbrenner famously threw good money after bad with his Yankees in the 1980s; by the end of that decade, the predecessors of today’s very Athletics–the Bash Brothers teams–were sweeping a season series from New York on their way to the AL pennant.

It’s the bottom line: spending huge sums of money helps, but it does not determine the difference between losing and winning and winning a championship. One can quibble with the particulars of Beane’s off-season moves (Norris clearly should have been kept; Samardzija was signed for this season for relatively cheap; Donaldson was too important to the team to trade away), but in general, the transactions made sense. If I owned or ran the A’s (in Beane’s case, they’re the same thing; he owns a stake), I’d probably do exactly what he did–especially once it became clear last fall that the team as constituted did not have enough to get past the first round of the postseason.

That, then, is what you do if you’re a GM and it looks like you traded away all your prize steers for a bag of magic beans: you look around you for more cattle and prepare to do the exact same thing all over again. Because as a strategy, it just makes sense–and next time, your bag of magic beans might grow into a beanstalk that leads to fields of gold.

And if you’re a fan of such a team, here’s what you do: you endure. Or, as the big leaguers themselves say, you hang with it. Because, unless you’re a Cleveland Browns fan, you know that the bad times won’t last forever. The good times will return soon enough, and then you’ll really see some magic.


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