DENVER—Billy Beane has had his chances to leave the Athletics over the years. He’s smarter than that.
Beane has mastered the art of the small-budget franchise. Those skills don’t necessarily transfer to somewhere else. Andy MacPhail found that out when he left the Twins to take over the Cubs. Sharp as he is, MacPhail was suddenly in a different world, and without the infrastructure he had built with the Twins.
The A’s haven’t won a World Series in Beane’s 16 seasons as their general manager, but they have been among the most successful franchises during that time, advancing to the postseason seven times. And he has done it on a budget.
The A’s have never been in the upper half of payrolls during Beane’s tenure, and they have ranked among the bottom third 14 times, including all seven times they made the playoffs. They were 29th in 2012 and 27th last year.
Success on a budget is a lot more than being able to read computer printouts.
More important is how Beane sees a window of opportunity and capitalizes on it.
There are going to be rought stretches that a franchise like the A’s has to deal with, but it is important not to be blinded by the frustrations when success is on the horizon.
Beane’s vision was evident again when the club signed Coco Crisp to a two-year extension that binds him to the A’s through 2016. That’s the longest guarantee for anybody on the roster. Crisp, 34, is also the A’s oldest player, and he has been the leadoff catalyst to Oakland’s back-to-back AL West titles.
The A’s also signed free agent lefthanders Scott Kazmir and Eric O’Flaherty to two-year deals this offseason. They acquired closer Jim Johnson from the Orioles and signed him to a one-year deal, keeping with their philosophy that closers generally have short lifespans.
Beane was asked by email if the signings underscored that “in smaller markets, you look for windows of opportunity and have to be focused on maximizing them.”
The answer was emphatic: “Yes!!!”
Building Toward Success
It’s the A’s way, initially mapped out by Sandy Alderson, a mentor to Beane.
The A’s won four division titles in the five-year stretch from 1988-92. They went seven years without a postseason appearance, and then returned to the playoffs from 2000-03. They won the AL West again in 2006, their only postseason appearance from 2004-11.
And now they will open 2014 as the two-time defending AL West champs. They aren’t intimidated by playing in a division in which, during the past three years, the Angels signed Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson. Not to mention this offseason, when the
Rangers traded for Prince Fielder and signed Shin-soo Choo while the Mariners inked Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal.
But the A’s believe they are set for the next couple of seasons. By keeping Crisp from becoming a free agent, every player except Johnson, shortstop Jed Lowrie, reliever Luke Gregerson and utilityman Alberto Callaspo is under control for at least two seasons.
Beane understands the A’s can afford to pay the salary of a star player only as long as he is indeed a star, which is why it is important to limit the long-term commitments.
That actually was an advantage for the A’s in the bidding for Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes two years ago. They made a four-year offer, with the caveat that they wouldn’t offer arbitration after the deal expired. It was two years shorter than any other offer, but it meant that after establishing himself in the big leagues, Cespedes will have the chance to revisit the free agent market.
Cespedes isn’t anxious to shop for a new home, however. In the aftermath of the extension for Crisp, he said he would be open to an extension, too. He told local media that, all things being equal, he wants to spend his big league career with the A’s.
He has had a glimpse of Beane’s vision, and likes what he has seen.