Oakland Athletics Need a Fresh Approach from the Front Office


I hate when people say moneyball has never worked. I hate when people say the Oakland Athletics and general manager Billy Beane just can’t win a championship running their team like that. More so because when you say moneyball doesn’t work, it feels like you’re saying sabermetrics are useless, which is painfully false.

Advanced metrics helped change the Boston Red Sox from forever cursed to a modern dynasty. It helped the Tampa Bay Rays finally climb out of the cellar of the American League East and become perennial playoff contenders, and every team in the league uses these new stats, some more than others, to evaluate talent and make roster moves.

But after the 2014 season, it dawned on me that it wasn’t sabermetrics that was being criticized anymore, it was that “money” part of moneyball. Money, or the lack thereof, is what constantly forces the A’s to say goodbye to some of their most popular players. It’s what gets Beane to trade for rental players only to flip them at the trade deadline.

Most importantly, it’s what prevents the A’s from keeping a stable roster together year after year, giving them the ability to build team chemistry that doesn’t just last for a few months.

Almost a week after the A’s traded third baseman Josh Donaldson, yet another in a long line of cornerstone players to be traded by the club and with more change on the horizon, the story in Oakland is comically familiar. Unlike the countless other instances of the A’s wheeling and dealing though, players are well aware of what’s going on, and the act seems to be wearing thin.

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In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser, first baseman Brandon Moss said upon hearing that the team had signed Billy Butler and Ike Davis, both first baseman, that “I’m not trying to let anything surprise me…Obviously, I love playing in Oakland, but when this happened, I knew it could mean someone else gets moved.”

Slusser also talked to outfielder Josh Reddick (whose Twitter history might reveal how he felt about the Donaldson trade) who said that it was clear to him and teammates that the A’s are in rebuild mode.

Players being frustrated by trades is certainly nothing new, but if recent revelations from Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller are true, then there may be bigger problems than just the A’s being the A’s. Miller’s report said that Donaldson and Beane clashed during the season after Donaldson asked for a day off, to which Beane told him he could have one if he wants the A’s to place him on the DL. The relationship was apparently never repaired, which explains this critical tweet from Donaldson about A’s ownership and also explains the trade.

These reports reveal a bigger issue within the A’s organization that seems all too obvious when you connect the dots. Beane treats his roster more like a fantasy baseball team, not one that features actual human beings who have real emotions and real physical limitations. The ability to distance yourself from the players as people and the players on the field is an asset that every GM should have, but Beane seems to have gone a little overboard with it.

It’s well documented that he doesn’t often watch the A’s play in person, and his visits to the team clubhouse are infrequent. Just the way that Donaldson found out he was traded, a text received from his agent while playing video games as Slusser reports, should indicate how impersonally Beane likes to run things.

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4 under the radar Phillies prospects named Organization All-Stars by MLB Pipeline
4 under the radar Phillies prospects named Organization All-Stars by MLB Pipeline /

That Balls Outta Here

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  • But what can the A’s do? They play in a football stadium that has only drawn better attendance numbers over the past few seasons (and even those numbers leave much to be desired), and they are always in a financial bind, thanks in large part to weak attendance and recent attention focusing more heavily on their cross bay rivals, the San Francisco Giants.

    We’ve been conditioned to believe that the A’s simply don’t have the means to sign their most popular stars to long term deals, and trading them is the only way they can stay competitive.

    But recent trends have proven that small market teams can hang on to their franchise players, despite what the A’s model of business suggests. Both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Rays share similar payrolls to the A’s, and in the Rays’ case, they share similar front office strategies and even ballpark situations.

    The Pirates and Rays were able to sign Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria respectively to long-term, team friendly contracts, making sure that fans will see their team’s biggest star on the field for the foreseeable future, even if other pieces around them come and go.

    It sounds like a small thing, but ask Pirate fans what their team would look like if the Pirates traded McCutchen instead of locking him into a long-term contract. In all likelihood, the Pirates would still be waiting on their first winning season since Barry Bonds was in Pittsburgh.

    If Longoria isn’t on the Rays, things might as well be hopeless in Tampa. His presence is a big reason why Rays fans should have hope going into 2015, despite losing some key pieces and coming off a down season in 2014. One player can make all the difference. Just ask the Pirates and Rays, or Madison Bumgarner and the Giants, or Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    Having that one guy who remains a constant for the A’s would be huge not only for the fan base but also within the clubhouse. For example, Pirates players know they can always look to McCutchen when things are down, both as a leader and as someone who can step up their performance when it matters most.

    Chemistry within the A’s clubhouse is certainly not a problem, but having a familiar face and team leader year in and year out with the amount of turnover their roster experiences certainly wouldn’t hurt. Signing young star pitcher Sonny Gray to a long-term contract instead of shipping him out of town in three years could be a huge first step in the right direction.

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    Before signing with St. Louis, Sonny Gray almost became a Cardinal...twice
    Before signing with St. Louis, Sonny Gray almost became a Cardinal...twice /

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  • The change can’t just come from the way the A’s deal with the roster though; it also has to come from the way Beane deals with the players on the roster. No one is expecting him to be best friends with every player on the team, but having players like Reddick and Donaldson calling out ownership and the front office shows there is a big disconnect between the ones writing the checks and the ones earning them.

    Maybe the A’s can learn something from their rivals across the Bay Bridge. Every time the Giants moved on during their 2014 World Series run, the cameras would cut to Brian Sabean, sometimes smiling and cheering but often choked up or crying tears of joy.

    To put it in simple terms, Sabean’s Giants see very little turnover both in the front office and on their roster. Their team runs more like a family than a business, and they have three World Series titles in five seasons to show for it. Beane and the A’s run their team more like a business, and they haven’t been to a World Series since 1989.

    Granted, the Giants are flush with cash while the A’s, well, the A’s just aren’t. This isn’t to say that there is a right and wrong way to run a baseball team. Beane has seen tremendous success as A’s GM, and whatever room he steps in, he’s probably the smartest guy there. But the A’s strategy has to find some sort of middle ground between utilizing the means you’re dealt with to build the most competitive roster possible and showing some care and compassion to both the players on the field and the fans at home.

    Beane has done wonders for the A’s since he’s arrived, but just imagine what he could do with an ownership group that was more willing to spend than what Oakland currently has. That doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon, so it’s up to Beane to try and adjust his ways. With the Donaldson trade, there seems to be no indication of that happening either.

    The A’s will still likely build a roster that can compete for a playoff spot in 2015, but for Beane and the A’s to finally get over the hump come October, he and the front office staff will have to start giving as much attention to off the field matters as they do to what happens on it.

    Moneyball can work. It just needs some much needed tweaks.