A Winning Hand?

March 07, 2005
March 07, 2005

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March 7, 2005

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A Winning Hand?

Having discarded a pair of aces, the Oakland A's are wagering that general manager Billy Beane picked the right time for his boldest gamble yet

On the second floor of Tim Hudson's waterfront house in Apollo Beach, Fla., just off the main staircase, is a cluttered trophy room. It's thick with the flotsam of a ballplayer's life: cabinets stocked with rows of autographed baseballs, dating back 10 years to Hudson's junior college days at Chattahoochee Valley Community College, in Phenix City, Ala.; myriad bobblehead dolls, mostly of teammates, two of himself; framed lineup cards and photographs. (Here is Hudson, right elbow resting on Babe Ruth's pillar in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park, on the afternoon before his eight shutout innings in Game 2 of the 2001 American League Division Series.) And on the rear wall, above a billiard table, hangs an oil painting by Vernon Wells Sr., father of the Toronto Blue Jays centerfielder, of the righthanded Hudson and lefties Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, all three mid-windup, all three wearing Oakland A's green and gold.

This is an article from the March 7, 2005 issue Original Layout

"Good thing I got it last season," Hudson said, smiling, to a recent visitor. Like the rest of the things in the room, it has become a relic in a quickly receding past: On Dec. 16 Hudson, who had spent all six of his major league seasons with Oakland, was traded to the Atlanta Braves; three days later Mulder, his rotationmate for five seasons, was shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals. In that short span the A's dismantled their greatest weapon and reconfigured the face of the franchise. "They were our identity," says first baseman Scott Hatteberg. "Every friggin' piece of marketing we had had three players on it."

The explanation that fits on a cocktail napkin, and the one most commonly offered in the wake of the deals, was that Hudson, who'll earn $6.75 million this year before becoming eligible for free agency, and Mulder, who'll make $6 million with a $7.25 million option for '06 before hitting the market himself, had become too costly for Oakland's limited means, which provide for a payroll of about $60 million. Like a host of elite players before them--first baseman Jason Giambi and shortstop Miguel Tejada, to name two who departed after winning MVP awards--the pair was destined to leave the East Bay to sign the lucrative contracts that they had earned there.

But whereas A's general manager Billy Beane had usually been content, as in the cases of Giambi and Tejada, to wring the last years of service from his young talent and accept draft picks as compensation, he changed tracks this winter. In essence Beane preempted--to borrow a term now in vogue in foreign policy circles and favored by several members of the Oakland brain trust--an imminent financial crisis, surrendering three years' worth of dividends for immediate help. The consensus around baseball has the A's dead and buried, with preemption the cause.

"Nothing wrong with it if you're a neocon," roars Beane, who showed in Michael Lewis's 2003 best-seller Moneyball that he's equal parts earthy and wonkish.

"Preemptive is always uncomfortable for people," he continues. "But understand, if we do a move when everyone else thinks we should, we've waited too long. When you're a small-market team, an economically challenged team, and you hit bottom, it takes a long time to get out. You hit last place with a thud, not a bounce."

Oakland proceeded with the trades on the assumption that given the existing market for starting pitching and the 29-year-old Hudson's impeccable résumé (a 92-39 record and a 3.30 ERA in more than 1,200 innings), a contract extension was not an option. With about six weeks left in the regular season, the front office was already conceding Hudson's departure; at that point the idea of trading another of the Big Three arose almost instantly. This was a radical insight because it was the second deal, trading the 27-year-old Mulder, that was most surprising.

"The Hudson trade, there were rumors that it was likely to happen," says Canadian-born righthander Rich Harden, 23, now Oakland's No. 2 starter, who learned about the deals in a phone call from his father, Russ, while visiting family in Winnipeg. "And when the Mulder trade went down, that was a shock. I don't think anybody in a million years thought it would have happened, to get rid of both of them."

beane and his lieutenants, including assistant G.M. David Forst, believed that the roster required wholesale change to remain sustainable and competitive in the long term; only moving two premier but soon to be high-priced pitchers could accomplish that goal and forestall the talent void that would have arisen after the '06 season, by which time all three would have been gone. (It's possible that Zito, 26, who will make $4.8 million this year with a club option for $7 million in '06, will also price himself out of Oakland's budget before he hits free agency.)

Offensive players are mostly fungible, Beane believes, which is why he was content to let the likes of Giambi and Tejada walk in exchange for draft picks. But constructing a rotation entirely from free agents or low-level prospects proves either too costly or too speculative. "It's impossible to re-create a starting staff from free agency because the economics won't allow us to do it," Beane says. "An average major league pitcher in this market was anywhere between $6 and $10 million a year, and we can't afford even one of those guys at that number. We have to make sure if we lose guys, we have somebody to step in right away."

So in negotiations with Hudson's and Mulder's suitors, the A's made the acquisition of rotation-ready pitchers their first priority and obtained their top choice in each deal: Braves lefthander Dan Meyer, the presumptive fifth starter, and Cardinals righthander Danny Haren, the third. In the statistical indicators that most matter to the A's, Haren and Meyer, strike-throwers with college experience, are virtual clones. Haren, 24, a 2001 second-round draft pick out of Pepperdine, has made 73 minor league starts, and last season, in 128 innings at Triple A Memphis, struck out 10.5 batters per nine innings with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.5. Meyer, 23, an '02 first-rounder from James Madison, has made 65 minor league starts, and in 126 1/3 innings split between Double A Greenville and Triple A Richmond last season struck out 10.4 per nine innings, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.9.

Like righthander Joe Blanton, 24, who tentatively slots in between them as the fourth starter, Haren and Meyer have moved quickly through their organizations' systems, are young enough to still possess upside and, most important, are 0-3s--players with fewer than three years of major league service time who are not yet arbitration-eligible and thus earn close to the $300,000 minimum salary. In those three pitchers, plus Harden, who last year went 11-7 with a 3.99 ERA in his first full major league season, the A's envision a cost-controlled nucleus that will remain in place for several seasons.

The second notion that informed the trades was that given the youth of the new staff, the relative cost of relievers versus starters and the shoddiness of the Oakland bullpen in the first half of 2004 (its 28 blown saves tied for most in the American League), the pitching staff ought to be constructed back-to-front. Beane sought to complement 31-year-old closer Octavio Dotel with relievers who, again, tend toward high strikeout rates and good control and, of greater significance, can throw multiple innings. Oakland's targets were righthander Juan Cruz of Atlanta (22 of his 50 appearances last season exceeded three outs, and he struck out 8.8 per nine innings) and righthander Kiko Calero of St. Louis (11 of 41 appearances of more than one inning, 9.3 K's per nine). The A's got both in the Hudson and Mulder deals. Also 0-3s, Cruz and Calero represent a substantial upgrade over 34-year-old Jim Mecir, who averaged less than one inning per outing, and 35-year-old Arthur Rhodes (5.12 ERA in 382/3 innings), and they will minimize the demands on Dotel, whom the A's would prefer to restrict to three- or four-out saves as often as possible.

For reasons of caution and confidence-building Oakland's putative three rookie starters will not be asked to work deep into games; they will be backed by a strong bullpen that also has fallback rotation options, such as righthanders Seth Etherton, Kirk Saarloos and Keiichi Yabu. "Their youth is a concern," manager Ken Macha says of his new starters. "That's why we're going to get seven starters ready. That's why our bullpen is built the way it is. Last year it was like, Who are our emergency guys? We really didn't have the options we do this year." Along with catcher Jason Kendall, a respected handler of pitchers and a solid offensive performer obtained from the Pittsburgh Pirates for disaffected (and unwanted) lefties Rhodes and Mark Redman (11-12, 4.71), the roster design mitigates the risks inherent in Oakland's youth-oriented approach. (And the A's were only able to take on the majority of the $34 million owed Kendall over the next three years by dealing Hudson and Mulder.)

Oakland's ability to remain in the playoff hunt until last season's penultimate game, despite losing Hudson for six weeks in midsummer (strained oblique) and enduring a dreadful second half from Mulder (6.13 ERA after the All-Star break), reinforced the front office's conviction that it could build a competitive team without that pair of aces. And though Beane disagrees with this assessment, the fact that the A's missed the postseason for the first time since 1999 leavened what would have been an implied pressure to keep the roster intact and make another run.

But Beane also recalls the club's error of '92, when, following an AL West title, it re-signed pricey free agents like Ron Darling, Mark McGwire, Ruben Sierra and Terry Steinbach to long-term deals, though both he and G.M. Sandy Alderson knew rebuilding better suited the situation. "We knew in our gut what the right thing to do was," says Beane, then an Oakland scout, "but we made an emotional decision. And emotional decisions can be devastating." Six consecutive sub-.500 seasons ensued.

Though they will not punt '05, the A's have sacrificed a great deal and are almost certainly worse in the near term. Since 2000, when Zito became the last of the Big Three to debut, the troika accounted for 61% of the innings thrown by Oakland starters and 66% of their wins. Hudson, Mulder and Zito's combined ERA was 3.54 over that span, compared with 4.61 for all other Oakland starters. In an optimistic scenario Haren and Meyer will supply two thirds of the 414 1/3 innings that Mulder and Hudson did. Nor is the absence of two equally savvy veterans negligible, both as mentors and teachers. After Harden joined the A's two years ago, Mulder immediately invited him to stay, rent-free, at his home in Alamo, Calif., along with infielders Mark Ellis and Frank Menechino. The two pitchers chewed long and hard over starts, and last September, after Harden was bombed for seven runs in 41/3 innings at Toronto, Mulder alerted him that he'd been tipping his off-speed pitches, making an upward motion with his hands before coming to the set position when he threw his change and his splitter.

Says Blanton, who had a three-game cup of coffee last September, "Anytime you can be around such good pitchers, sit and watch them go about their work, their starts, how they look at scouting reports--even the three weeks I was there, it helped." Yet the moves have emboldened Zito, who despite a raggedy performance last season (11-11, 4.48) appears confident this spring. As he says of the trades, "They're old. I'm prepared to do whatever it takes to lead this team now." It also augurs well that Zito, the one retained, is the one among the Big Three who has never visited the disabled list.

The impression the A's players give is of some incredulity, tempered by faith in Beane. "People I talked to this winter were like, 'What the hell? They floated our boat, what are we doing getting rid of them?'" Hatteberg says. "But everybody finished up by saying, 'How can you argue with Billy?' It's not blind faith either. He's lost big names in the past and done well."

Public reaction has played out much the same way. Tyler Bleszinski, a 33-year-old A's fan in Sacramento who runs a heavily trafficked blog,, posted a lengthy interview with Beane elucidating the trades in January. "There was an initial emotional shock, like losing a family member, but Billy made these moves, and the theme of our site is, In Billy we trust," Bleszinski says. (Through his site Bleszinski has sold some 200 custom-designed T-shirts bearing that slogan, at $16.50 apiece.) "Opinion was 60-40 in favor of the trades, then once Billy did the interview, people saw the thinking behind it and came around. Now it's 90-10."

Beane professes that he's flattered by the support and laughs at the canard, popular among his many and vociferous detractors, that breaking up the Big Three will expose the fallacy of his quantitative methods or that the coming season is an acid test. "The acid test was after Giambi left, after Tejada left," he says. "If people are holding their breath and waiting for us not to win 90 games, guess what? At some point it's going to happen. My job is to make sure we're still a healthy business and poised to get back there." ■


Four other general managers who, like Oakland's Billy Beane, rely heavily on quantitative analysis in player evaluations, had varied off-seasons. Here's a recap of what they did.


Key moves: signed OF J.D. Drew (five years, $55 million), 2B Jeff Kent (two years, $17 million), RHP Derek Lowe (four years, $36 million)

Analysis: Loosed from financial restrictions in Oakland, Beane's former assistant spent freely, adding two power bats--Drew and Kent combined for 58 homers and 136 extra-base hits--to an offense that ranked eighth in the NL in slugging and total bases and ninth in runs, and also lost MVP candidate Adrian Beltre. But can Drew stay healthy for a second straight year?


Key moves: signed 3B Corey Koskie (three years, $17 million); lost 1B Carlos Delgado to free agency

Analysis:After an unexpected last-place finish in the AL East, Toronto moved modestly, adding Koskie (25 homers, .495 slugging) as a power lefty bat in the middle of the order. Eric Hinske, whose free fall since his '02 Rookie of the Year season is a head-scratcher, moves from third to first. More flexibility is coming: Team owner Rogers Communications has approved $210 million in payroll over the next three seasons.


Key moves:signed SS Edgar Renteria (four years, $40 million), RHP Matt Clement (three years, $25.5 million), LHP David Wells (two years, $8 million)

Analysis:Renteria is a defensive upgrade over Nomar Garciaparra, but his '04 dips in on-base (.327) and slugging percentage (.401) should give pause. Clement and Wells make the rotation the league's best in terms of strike-throwing and control. The expected starters (including Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo) averaged 7.0 Ks and 2.2 walks per nine innings.


Key moves: signed RHP Kevin Millwood (one year, $3 million), OF Juan Gonzalez (one year, $600,000); traded for LHP Arthur Rhodes

Analysis:Shapiro minimized risk with incentive-laden deals for Millwood, who took a beating in Philadelphia (4.85 ERA, 155 hits in 141 innings), and Gonzalez, a cipher in Kansas City. Both could still be productive, but Rhodes (5.12 ERA with Oakland) is hardly the answer for a bullpen that was the main stumbling block to Cleveland's winning the AL Central last year.

"Preemptive is always uncomfortable for people," Beane says, "but if we do a move when everyone else THINKS WE SHOULD, we've waited too long."
COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Brad ManginTAKING IT ALL IN STRIDE Harden (foreground) becomes Oakland's No. 2 starter, while the newly acquired Yabu will work out of the bullpen or in the rotation.COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Brad ManginTRADER BILLY Beane reasoned that when it came to fortifying his starting pitching, there was no better time than the present.FOUR COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Brad ManginTWO COLOR PHOTOSCHUCK SOLOMON (DEPODESTA, EPSTEIN)COLOR PHOTOAL MESSERSCHMIDT/WIREIMAGE.COM (RICCIARDI)COLOR PHOTOLARRY GOREN/WIREIMAGE.COM