State of the art roster construction in baseball belongs to the team that plays out of the worst facility in baseball, a dual-sport monolith with lousy plumbing, a mountain of concrete and no World Series games in almost a quarter of a century. And what one of the wildest trading deadline days in history showed us is that the rest of baseball is catching on to the ways of the cutting edge Oakland Athletics.
The Tigers added a third Cy Young Award winner to their rotation, the Cardinals added a second veteran starting pitcher in as many days and the Red Sox continued to do everything but line up the duck boats to get their reigning world championship players out of town. But the biggest takeaway from Deadline Day on Thursday was that roster flexibility is the new paradigm. Beane’s Athletics must live by such flexibility because they don’t have the resources to fall in love with their players, partly because the O.co Coliseum, where the team plays, is an anachronism in today’s revenue game.
Beane is the ultimate house-flipper. Here is how he has put together his team, at least at this minute:
Trades: 17 players (11 this year alone)
Free agents and waiver claims: 6
What made this day so fascinating is that Oakland and other contending clubs traded off their 25-man roster to get better, rather than making the usual prospects-for-veterans maneuvers. Detroit (Austin Jackson and Drew Smyly), St. Louis (Allen Craig and Joe Kelly) and Oakland (Yoenis Cespedes) broke up their rosters to get better – and each team did so to get arms at a time when pitching rules the game more than at any time in the past 40 years.
What we’re seeing is that baseball has become a general manager’s game. The power base of an organization has left the dugout and re-located to the front office. Four days after managerial icons Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa were inducted into the Hall of Fame, it was never more apparent that managers are simply middle men, carrying out the ideology of GMs. Five-year rebuilding plans no longer apply (except perpetually on the North Side of Chicago). You better be able to turn your club on a dime. The stars of the day were Beane, Boston GM Ben Cherington and Detroit president Dave Dombrowski.
Beane made the day's first mega-move, acting swiftly to get lefthanded ace John Lester from the Red Sox, even if it meant giving up Cespedes. Why? Three reasons:
1. Cespedes could have left as a free agent after next season without so much as a compensation pick in return. The Athletics were in no position to extend him at his market value. Beane can make $10 million mistakes (Jim Johnson), but not $100 million mistakes.
2. Oakland has enough offense. The roster is a tight-fitting puzzle full of complementary pieces. Cespedes is a rare righthanded power threat, but what he has never done is hit very well in the late innings. His career batting average against relief pitchers is .238, with a .284 OBP. His career batting average in the seventh through ninth innings is .216, including .191 this year with only three home runs. You can match up righthanded slider pitchers against him late in games and neutralize his power.
3. Lester can win a deciding playoff game. During Beane's time as GM, dating to 1998, the Athletics have played 13 possible clinchers in the postseason. They are 1-12 in those games while trying 11 different starting pitchers. Lester has won more games himself in possible clinchers (2-1, 1.37 ERA in three such starts) than all of Beane’s teams combined.
Detroit, while not in the same division, answered Oakland just hours later by getting Price from Tampa Bay in a three-team trade that also involved the Mariners. The Rays seemed to move too quickly to deal their ace, with the Lester trade in the morning causing a run on Price. Tampa Bay should have done better than lefthanded starter Drew Smyly, recently-demoted infielder Nick Franklin and shortstop prospect Willy Adames in return value for about 42 starts and potentially two postseasons worth of one of the best lefthanders in the game.
The Rays have done well in the past in identifying young players they like and then acquiring them in trades (Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Wil Myers, etc.). But Adames better become a star to make this a good deal for Tampa Bay. He is only 18 years old.
It wasn’t long ago that most teams coveted draft picks and prospects like gold. Now we’re seeing a correction in the market. The over-valuing of young players has cooled. (See Beane once again; on July 5 he traded two former number one picks to the Cubs to get two pitchers who can help him today, Jeff Samardjiza and Jason Hammel.)
Do you remember the names Chin-Hui Tsao, Jeremy Reed, Andy Marte, Jeff Mathis and Greg Miller? Ten years ago, they made up one-fourth of Baseball America’s 20 best prospects in baseball. Prospect hype only has increased since, but not the success rate of those prospects.
Even the Cardinals found out the pains of counting on young players. They began the year with Jaime Garcia, Joe Kelly, Carlos Martinez, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha all in the mix for rotation spots. So it was downright shocking, with all of them either hurt or ineffective, to see St. Louis have to go get veterans Justin Masterson (from the Indians) and John Lackey (from the Red Sox) on consecutive days this week.
And what will become of the reigning world champions? Cherington turned his team on a dime after the 2012 season, and now he’s trying to do it all over again 18 months later. A dozen players from the Red Sox' World Series team of just 10 months ago are gone. Will Cespedes get his money in Boston? Will Lester return there for his mega-deal after the season? (Cherington did well to ship Lester to Oakland. If the Red Sox were worried about trading Lester to a place that he would find to be such a good fit that he would re-sign there in the offseason rather than go back to Boston as a free agent, they needn't worry about that now. The Athletics are not going to pay Lester the kind of money he'll be seeking.)
Boston is an organization that has signed on to Beane’s ways, turning its back against the tide of long-term guaranteed money in the name of roster flexibility. The Red Sox let Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury, among others, leave as free agents in the past decade, and they got out of long-term mistakes with Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford by trading them as soon as possible.
Now do they stay nimble, or do they lock up Lester and/or Cespedes into their mid- to late-30s? It will be a test of their financial discipline, especially when it comes to their now-departed ace. Without Lester (and Lackey), and with Clay Buchholz devolving as a pitcher, Boston suddenly has nobody in its organization who can be counted on to throw 200 innings next year. You can’t win championships that way.
But also know that Lester’s market value is more than $100 million. There have been seven pitchers who signed contracts worth more than nine figures that took them well into their 30s, and all of them were or look like poor values: Kevin Brown, Matt Cain, Mike Hampton, Cliff Lee, Johan Santana, CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander. Boston owner John Henry, who made his money crunching numbers, knows well the risk/reward equation when it comes to paying for pitchers’ declines.
On a crazy day in baseball, maybe not much changed – which actually is not all that big of a surprise considering what happened last year: the 10 teams in playoff position on Deadline Day in 2013 were the same 10 teams that made the playoffs. This year's American League pennant went through Oakland and Detroit before Thursday started, and that truth is even more apparent after all the trades.
Both teams have aging owners (Lew Wolff, 79, and Mike Ilitch, 85) who yearn to win their first championship and the first for their respective cities in decades (24 years in Oakland; 30 years in Detroit). Both teams understand that to win in October, when runs become even scarcer than they do in this run-starved regular season, you better load up on starting pitching. Both teams already had plenty of it; Detroit and Oakland ranked 1-2 in wins by starting pitchers and were in the top five in ERA by starters when the day began. And then both teams traded offense to get even more starting pitching.
How important is pitching these days? Think of on-base percentage as the simplest why to measure the balance between hitting and pitching. If the hitter wins the confrontation, he gets on base; if the pitcher wins, the hitter does not get on base. The major league on-base percentage this year is .315. In the 95 seasons of the Live Ball Era (1920-2014), hitting has been worse only in two small windows: the mid-1960s (each year between 1963 and '68) and 1972.
The mid-60s hitting crisis prompted baseball to lower the mound. The 1972 hitting crisis prompted baseball to add the designated hitter. The 2014 hitting crisis has prompted the two best teams in the AL to trade offense to get even more pitching.