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2012 Preview: Oakland Athletics


Oakland Athletics


What They Did:      74-88, 3rd Place AL West.

     Actual Runs:      Scored 645 runs, Allowed 679.

                              Expected wins based on RS and RA:  77.2 (3.2 above actual)

          Restated:      Scored 613 runs, Allowed 654.

                              Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  76.2 (2.2 above actual)


The present day pickle the Oakland A’s find themselves in provides an interesting view into the business of Major League Baseball, particularly the dysfunction that comes with thirty competing owners enjoying a Federally granted anti-trust exemption.  This isn’t yet another rehash of the find-undervalued-assets philosophy featured in Moneyball; Oakland, and by extension MLB are facing a much more tangible problem.  The A’s don’t have anywhere to play baseball after 2013.  As a result, it’s difficult to determine the team’s current strategy on or off the field.  Two things are certain though:  Someone is going to have to blink very soon and in the meantime it’s hard to be an Oakland A’s fan.

The A’s lease with the city of Oakland, their landlord at the last of baseball’s concrete, dual-purpose monstrosities, the Oakland Coliseum,* would have expired after this season but, for the bargain price of $1.8 million, the A’s extended the lease through 2013.  After that it’s anyone’s guess as to where the A’s will play.  A’s ownership has stated the Coliseum is unsuitable for baseball, and even MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who has stayed mute on every other aspect of this mess, has gone on record to concur that there is no future for the A’s in their current stadium. 

*Since I moved to San Francisco in 2004 the stadium has been called Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Network Associates Coliseum, McAfee Coliseum, Coliseum, and currently The Coliseum, named for a pornography-streaming website.  (One part of that sentence is unverified.)

The A’s want very much to move to San Jose, located 35 miles south of Oakland in Santa Clara County.  On the surface, you’d think the San Francisco Giants, with a competing team currently 10 miles due east of AT&T Park, would welcome the move.  Instead, the Giants have steadfastly refused to even negotiate with the A’s for a financial settlement that would compensate the franchise for any perceived losses as a result of Oakland moving into territory that, according to MLB’s bylaws, belongs to San Francisco. (The precedent for an agreement and similar payment was set last decade when the Montreal Expos were relocated to Washington, DC and the Baltimore Orioles were given a check.)  You might say, especially if you take a capitalistic-view of business disputes, that the Giants’ owners are simply protecting the value of their franchise by enforcing territorial rights they own.  That’s just a sound business decision.

Would knowing that the A’s gave the Giants the rights to Santa Clara County twenty years ago, for no consideration, but rather for the best interests of baseball in the Bay Area change your thinking?

It’s true.  When, in 1992, it looked like the Giants were sure to move to St. Petersburg, Florida if they didn’t get a stadium deal to move out of Candlestick Park, long-time A’s owner, and Bay Area gentleman-extraordinaire, Walter Haas, a San Francisco native with life-long ties to the city thanks to his family’s ownership of Levi Strauss & Co, simply gave the rights to Santa Clara County to Giants’ owner Bob Lurie.  This allowed Lurie to search for a new stadium deal outside the city of San Francisco but still in the Bay Area.  Although Lurie never moved the team, the leverage of his negotiations with Santa Clara eventually convinced the city of San Francisco to lease the industrial waterfront at China Basin to the Giants, and ground broke at what is now AT&T Park less than five years after Haas’ gift to the Giants.  That stadium has made the Giants, drawing more than 3.3 million fans a year, one of the most stable and valuable franchises in baseball.  (Note two things:  While the Giants should be commended for the only privately financed baseball stadium built in the last 50 years, they still received tax abatements and 12.5 acres of waterfront land from the city for a song.  Secondly, the value of the Haas’ franchise would have soared tremendously had the Giants relocated to St. Petersburg, leaving the entire Bay Area market to his A’s, so any revisionist twist on Haas’ motive for gifting the Santa Clara region to the Giants should be viewed skeptically.)

The A’s current ownership group, knowing the history of the territory rights, is understandably livid.  The Giants owners, with a much weaker standing from an ethics perspective – but taking a position not completely without merit – claim their purchase of the team included a price that assumed control of the heart of Silicon Valley. 

Why does this matter to a team preview?  A happy outcome for the A’s only results if the Commissioner’s Office invokes the “best interest of baseball” clause and orders the Giants to cede San Jose to the A’s.  To perhaps force Bud Selig’s hand, it certainly looked this winter that the A’s, like a defiant child, planned to spend so little money this year on its on-field product that, thanks to revenue sharing payments from fellow MLB teams that exceed a collectively bargained salary cap, Oakland could possibly make a profit if they never sold a single ticket to a home game.  That would surely infuriate powerful, check-writing teams like the New York Yankees which in turn could implore Selig to make the A’s a viable franchise via relocation to San Jose.  San Jose, incidentally is not only the third largest city in California (behind Los Angeles and San Diego) but the tenth largest city in the United States.  Watching a stand-off like this recalls the quote of former Atlanta Braves’ owner Ted Turner.  Listening to a roomful of his fellow owners, bickering with each other over a 1970’s labor agreement he admonished them, “Gentlemen we have the only legal monopoly in the country and we’re (screwing) it up.”

The A’s hit 114 home runs in 2011, 3rd lowest in the American League.  Twenty-nine of those home runs, or more than 25%, came from one player, Josh Willingham.  He departed via free agency this off-season, without an offer from Oakland.  That made speedster Jemile Weeks the only returning starter with a 2011 batting average over .265 or a slugging percentage above .385.  (The league average slugging percentage is .399.)  Management dismantled the pitching staff, which was the team’s strength in 2011, even more dramatically over the winter.  Closer Andrew Bailey, eligible for a huge raise via arbitration in 2012 was shipped to Boston for utility outfielder Josh Reddick and, importantly, his $400,000 salary.  Trevor Cahill who started 34 games for Oakland in 2011?  Eligible for a huge raise via arbitration in 2012 and traded to Arizona for prospects.  Staff ace Gio Gonzalez?   Eligible for a huge raise via arbitration in 2012 – this is easier to follow than a Dr. Suess story – and subsequently traded to Washington for prospects and, at best, 30 league-average starts from Brad Peacock and Tom Milone.  Peacock and Milone are essentially middle reliever talents but for Oakland’s purposes they make the MLB minimum wage. 

No player acquired via these trades, with the possible exception of Reddick will make any sort of meaningful contribution to the A’s this year or most likely 2013 either.  The farm system is deep though, as if the A’s are stocking up on players ready to make an impact in the majors during 2014, in a new stadium – wherever that may be. 

Just when it looked like Oakland’s actions were designed to infuriate its fellow owners, the A’s made a surprise splash days before training camps opened by signing highly-regarded Cuban export Yoenis Cespedes to a 4-year $36 million contract.  During games that either Coco Crisp or Kurt Suzuki rest, it’s possible Cespedes will make more money this year than the rest of the batting order combined.  Cynics can point out that the signing of Cespedes serves the A’s two purposes; the splashy contract silences, to a degree, owners who effectively cut the A’s a check via MLB’s revenue sharing agreement, and it also gives the A’s a potentially valuable trading chip should they have little intention of actually paying out the full value of the contract.

In gutting its rotation, the A’s may have traded away a lot of upside but that doesn’t mean they’ll be that much worse than last year, it just means they won’t be as good as they could have been without the moves.  On offense, Cespedes and two-thirds of a season of Manny Ramirez should easily top the production of Willingham and Hideki Matsui who gave the A’s less production last year than the average AL shortstop, let alone that of a designated hitter.  A full year of production from impressive 2011 rookie second baseman Jemile Weeks, a 2011 mid-season call-up, and the fact that every Opening Day starter other than Coco Crisp is in his 20s means there should be some production gains in 2012 that aren’t readily visible to fans and analysts.

The A’s won’t be exciting, they have no shot at contending for the playoffs but with Cespedes and Ramirez at least there is a reason to glance at the team’s box scores every once in a while.

Oddsmakers’ expectations:  Oddsmakers’ consensus is that the A’s will be engaged in a battle with the Seattle Mariners to occupy last place in the American League West.  Both teams have very similar outlooks – diminished year-over-year starting pitchers offset by more pop in the line up.  I like the A’s to finish in 3rd place because of the subtle factors of fielding, year-over-year bullpen regression to the mean, and the unappreciated improvement line ups full of twenty-somethings often demonstrate.  Oakland’s total wins over/under stands at 71 ½.  I like the over with a fairly high degree of confidence.  Oakland is also listed at 20-1 to win its division.  It’s hard to believe there is zero value in 1-in-20 odds in a four-team race, but it would take 1-in-40 odds to interest me.    

2012 Outlook:

79-83 – Third in AL West

683 Runs Scored       702 Runs Allowed


Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.

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