Since 2009, when Seattle's future seemed promising and Oakland struggled, the A's have made all the right moves for success — but is it sustainable?
At the end of the 2009 season, you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone who believed the Oakland A’s would beat the Mariners back to the postseason.
The Mariners had just finished an unexpectedly bountiful 85-77 season in their first year under general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu, who seemed a match made in baseball heaven. A brighter Mariners future beckoned.
The A’s, meanwhile, chugged to a 75-87 record, last in the AL West by 10 games, and their third straight losing season. The magic of GM Billy Beane, it seemed, had finally run out. Moneyball doesn’t work so well when everyone is wise to the concept — and especially not when Oakland’s money woes lead to the departure of the rotation’s Big Three (Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder) as well as the offense’s Big Two (Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada).
It had been a fantastic run for the small-market A’s, yielding an average of 95 wins from 2000 to 2006, with four division titles and one wild-card berth — not to mention a best-selling book and its eventual movie version. But now the Giants owned the Bay Area, the Angels and Rangers owned the AL West, the A’s ballpark was going to seed, and their efforts to build a better one were going nowhere.
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We know now how this comparison ends — with Oakland riding high in 2012, the hottest team in baseball after the biggest comeback since the 1995 Mariners. From a 22-30 record on June 1 (tied with the Astros) and thirteen games back on June 30, they won the AL West in the most improbable fashion and will now try to do something Beane has yet to accomplish: make the World Series.
The Mariners, meanwhile, limped to their third consecutive last-place finish since that tease of a season in ’09. Now, instead of just two elite divisional teams to leapfrog, the Mariners have the daunting realization that Oakland’s young talent, jelling ahead of schedule with the potential of more payroll for Beane to work with if they finally get that elusive stadium, could send them on another extended run of contention.
Well, at least there are the Astros, who went 33-76 from the point they were tied with the A’s, finishing with 107 losses (the A’s went 72-37, best in baseball, over the final four months). Houston will join the AL West next season.
So how did it go so wrong for the Mariners and so right for the A’s, who continue to work with a paltry payroll ($55 million, ahead of only the Padres — and some $30 million behind the Mariners’ $81 million starting point in ’12)?
For the Mariners, their downfall was pretty simple. They made bad decisions, like signing Chone Figgins to a four-year, $36 million contract and bringing back Ken Griffey Jr. for one last hurrah when they should have let him ride off into the sunset on his teammates’ shoulders after his triumphant ’09 return. Wakamatsu didn’t even make it out of August without getting fired.
The M’s wouldn’t, or couldn’t, spend for the bat(s) that were so glaringly needed, and several of the young players they needed to take a step forward instead drifted backward.
They enter another winter with the same mandate: pump up an offense that has been a bottom-feeder for years.
For the A’s, it didn’t go right immediately. The A’s endured two more subpar years (making it five in a row without a winning record); they finished .500 in 2010 but slumped to 74-88 last season. Beane got a little wild and crazy, but there were some warts showing. He let Carlos Gonzalez get away to Colorado, Andre Ethier to the Dodgers, and Nelson Cruz to the Rangers (via Milwaukee). The Hudson trade with the Braves was a big flop, and even when they hit with prospects, the A’s seemed to be chasing their tails.
But then Beane’s mad-scientist genius for regenerating a contending team began to coalesce again. What the A’s have accomplished this year is nothing short of astounding, and in some ways, inexplicable. I truly believe that in his heart of hearts, Beane did not expect to contend this season — not after trading away three All-Star pitchers (Andrew Bailey, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill) during a three-week span in December and letting two of his best offensive players from last year, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus, leave via free agency.
Beane himself seemed to be giving something of a concession speech this past January when he told the San Francisco Chronicle: “The fact of the matter is, for us to compete, we’re going to have to have a new stadium, and I don’t think there was a move we could have made that would put us in a position to compete with a club like the Angels or Texas given what they have and where they’re headed and some of those signings. You’re talking about two clubs in the division that are probably in the $150 million to $170 million range, and we’re not a business that can put that payroll on the field.”
But his winter trades all hit beautifully, yielding a slew of players who have been major contributors: starter Jarrod Parker and reliever Ryan Cook, an All-Star, in the Cahill deal; pitcher Tommy Milone and starting catcher Derek Norris in the Gonzalez deal; and outfielder Josh Reddick, who hit 32 home runs, in the Bailey deal.
Beane went against type to sign Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes (four years, $36 million — same as Figgins), and Cespedes will likely finish in the top five of the MVP voting. Beane aggressively traded for shortstop Stephen Drew at midseason, moving Cliff Pennington to second base to accommodate the move and trading catcher Kurt Suzuki to Washington to help shoulder the extra dough.
They’ve received far more than they could have hoped from the likes of reliever Sean Doolittle, converted from catching just last season; third baseman Josh Donaldson (who, as pointed out by Tacoma announcer Mike Curto, is a career .154 hitter, 15 for 97, against the Class AAA Rainiers the last three years); and journeyman outfielder Brandon Moss (21 homers in just 296 at-bats as part of a highly productive platoon with Chris Carter).
The starting rotation is virtually all rookies after a gruesome head injury knocked out Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs. By virtue of Beane’s many veteran-dumping trades, the A’s had the minor-league depth to make it work, and manager Bob Melvin — fired by the Mariners after just two seasons — has blended the disparate parts with skill and vision.
Is it sustainable, or just a one-year flash of magic? Time will tell, but for now, while the A’s play for the pennant that has eluded Seattle throughout its history, the Mariners are on the outside, wistfully looking in.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @StoneLarry