Whither the Athletics

The signing of Cuban star Yoenis Cespedes by the Oakland Athletics was one of the most unexpected moves of the off-season. Cespedes was expected to sign with either a big market team or the Florida Marlins, a team with an obvious strong connection to Cuba. The Athletics, for their part, rarely sign free agents other than aging players who can be signed at a discount on the hopes that they have a good year or two left. The Athletics got Cespedes for $36 million over four years, which while less than many expected is still a lot for a team that seems to fetishize its role as a small market, low payroll team.

It is clearly too early to know whether or not this will turn out to be a good move for the Athletics. Cespedes could become a star center fielder, hitting for power, stealing bases and play great defense, or he could prove unable to hit big league pitching. This was the risk which whatever team ended up with Cespedes was going to have to take. Regardless of whether or not this is a good deal for the Athletics, it is further evidence that the Athletics, who under the stewardship of Billy Beane were once one of the most sharply focused teams in baseball with a plan and philosophy that drove virtually every move, have now become rudderless.

The Athletics spent the first part of this off-season trading off good young players who could have formed the nucleus of a competitive team over the next few years. Trading away Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez would be defendable moves if the Athletics were legitimately trying to rebuild. In this context, the Cespedes signing is even more puzzling. It seems that if the A’s were going to take a risk on a high ceiling player like Cespedes, it might have made sense to keep the star pitchers they have around him, especially if they only have Cespedes for four years.

If, however, the Athletics are not trying to build a contending team around Cespedes, it means that the primary value Cespedes has to the team is as trade bait if he becomes a star. According to this plan, in year three or four of this contract the Athletics will be able to flip Cespedes for, you guessed it, more prospects. Beane is still a good enough evaluator of talent that many of these trades, on their own, make sense as he is acquiring good players, but ultimately it is a path to nowhere, other than trading for even more prospects. To some extent, this is the plight of small market teams, but the Athletics have embraced this notion more uncritically than other teams.

The current Oakland Athletics, based upon a cycle of constantly trading players for prospects while explaining that behavior away by noting their small market size, appear to be at a turning point. It is possible that they will be allowed to move to the San Jose area, thus potentially expanding their market size, while competing with the San Francisco Giants in an area that has long been populated largely by Giants fans. This might catapult the A’s into a larger market. Similarly, they might be able to build a new stadium as their current ballpark feels like Candlestick Park without the charm, but neither of these strategies will work in the short or medium term unless the Athletics can put a better, and better presented, product on the field.

If the Athletics do not move and revive their franchise, it is likely that they will embrace their status as a small market team with little hope of winning. This would be an unfortunate deterioration of Beane’s approach to building a team, but constantly trading for prospects if it becomes and end in itself is the cheapest way to run a ballclub without giving up entirely. If this continues, the Athletics will become little more than a means for people to see big league baseball. They will sell out, or come close, against the Yankees, Red Sox, Giants, do well when the Angels or Dodgers come to town, but attendance will be down when less popular teams come to Oakland. In short, the Athletics will become free riders, with low salaries and overhead, but some fixed ability to sell tickets and sell media rights because of the popularity of some teams and of MLB in general.

Since coming to Oakland the A’s have been a strange franchise, but also at times a trendsetting team. They have had periods of dominance, such as 1971-1975 and 1988-1990 as well as periods of obscurity, but they have also been in the middle of many of the major developments in the Major Leagues over the last 40 or so years. Before there was George Steinbrenner, Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley set the bar for meddling owners but was also very innovative and made an enormous impact on baseball. No team was effected more by the free agency revolution than the A’s in the late 1970s who had their entire team dismantled over about two years. The Athletics were also the epicenter of the early years of the steroid era as Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and other Athletics were groundbreakers in that area as well. Although the sabrmetric revolution preceded Billy Beane by many years, no baseball executive did more to popularize its theories and findings.

In the late 1970s, when the A’s were truly terrible and the franchise was in a state of disrepair, I used to go to Oakland Coliseum, as it was then called, a few times a year when the Yankees were playing. For a once, and future, New Yorker seeking to reconnect with his roots, this was fun. It was like a brief slice of the Bronx in the middle of the East Bay. We got to see Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph and other favorites, but the A’s barely registered for many fans. This is the direction in which the Athletics may be headed now. More troublingly, it may be a trend as more teams decide, rightly or wrongly, that they may be able to find a way to make money showcasing other teams and players without even trying to compete.