Is It Next Year Yet?

He has the AL's best starters, and cash to spend this winter. Will Billy Beane finally build another contender in 2011?
September 12, 2010

The usually even-keeled Trevor Cahill was a bit worked up after his Aug. 30 start at Yankee Stadium. Yes, the A's righthander, a onetime Dartmouth recruit with an endearingly wry sense of humor ("He's got a little Steven Wright to him," says G.M. Billy Beane, referring to the skulleted master of the one-liner), had been rocked for eight runs in four innings. But it was the Yankees' caterers, not their hitters, that had him so animated. "They had filet, chicken, a guy making pasta," Cahill said three days later, still marveling about the spread in the visitors' clubhouse. "I think if our team played here, everyone would be pretty fat."

These have been lean years for the A's, who have won 75, 75 and 76 games since their last postseason appearance, in 2006. At week's end they were on pace to win 80 this season, a modest improvement, but there's reason for Oakland to look ahead eagerly to 2011. Through Sunday the A's starters led the league with a 3.45 ERA, which would be the lowest full-season mark for any AL rotation since 1989. Even better: The group is young and should return intact next year. Cahill, a fringe Cy Young candidate at 15--6 with a 2.72 ERA, is only 22, and other than Dallas Braden, 27, none of the current starters—lefthanders Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez and righty Vin Mazzaro—is older than 24. Next season the group will likely earn less than $4 million combined; no one will be eligible for free agency until at least 2014. "Young is synonymous with low cost," says Beane. "It's a more politically correct term."

With his starters locked up and some $28 million coming off the payroll due to the expiring contracts of veterans such as Eric Chavez, Mark Ellis and Ben Sheets, Beane will have something this winter he rarely has: money to spend. (Oakland's $51.7 million payroll this season ranked 27th.) That's good, because the offense—11th in the AL in runs—needs an upgrade. The signing of a free-agent slugger like Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko or Jayson Werth could change that. "I'd expect [the A's will] be in the mix for a few of them this winter," says one rival G.M.

Beane won't commit to chasing free agents: "I'm not quite sure yet there's just one player that provides the panacea for this club," he says. Besides, his farm system boasts a quartet of top hitting prospects—Triple A outfielders Chris Carter and Michael Taylor, 2009 first-round pick Grant Green (a shortstop) and '10 first-rounder Michael Choice (outfield)—who could provide a power boost as early as next spring.

This A's team is a reverse image of the teams Beane built in the late '90s. Back then he had a foundation of young hitters—Chavez, Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada—which he augmented with pitching prospects Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. Those teams became perennial contenders. Now Beane has a foundation of young pitchers, a stockpile of hitting prospects and could add a veteran or two in free agency. In the coming years Cahill could have many more chances to sample Yankee Stadium's delicacies—in October.

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PHOTOPhotograph by JED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES2011 VISION With budding ace Cahill leading the way, Beane (right) has a talented—and cheap—rotation set for next season. PHOTOMICHAEL ZAGARIS (BEANE)[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)