It has been clear for months that Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane is playing for keeps. From the onset of the December free-agent spree and well into the summer, he has changed the usual status quo that his measured, "Moneyball" famous approach has traditionally gone. Instead, he has set out as the most aggressive shark in the water, with a hell-bent focus that is squarely set on not only getting over the October hump, but standing atop the mountain at the end.
But Beane’s relentless quest to make his A’s the premier team in baseball has had to take an unusual route in comparison to how things are usually done in the game today. As always, Oakland has to work within the parameters of a mostly non-elastic budget and move as allowed to quite often. However, the A's have gone against the grain of how a small-market team is "supposed" to act in regard to building this club. Between jumping the line from passive to club-punch-level aggression in gathering talent, Beane has been at his best this year. And now he sits in the best position to win a World Series he may ever be in.
He has gone about building his team to this point through a blend of tactics and timing. The A’s have won the AL West the last two seasons, and thus are not an overnight sensation by any means. Unlike many small-market teams, these A’s are not built on a foundation of their own homegrown talent. Rather, it was series of what were considered at the time small trades and under-the-radar free-agent moves that built this team and made it the ultimate ensemble in the MLB today.
Josh Donaldson, Josh Reddick, Jed Lowrie, Derek Norris, Jesse Chavez, Eric Sogard, Eric O’Flaherty and Ryan Cook were all acquired via trades that barely moved the Richter scale when they went down, but now they have brought the team a group that includes three All-Stars, a top three MVP finalist and a Gold Glove winner.
Coco Crisp, Brandon Moss, Alberto Callaspo and Nick Punto (and even the departed Grant Balfour) all were barely noticed as free-agent gains but have each rounded out the lineup in vital ways.
Yet the draftees that have made it have handed in primo returns. Sean Doolittle was an All-Star this year, and Sonny Gray is one of the most promising young arms in the game.
All three of these stations combined have formed a successful core, one that could compete every year. But it is a group that regularly only made it halfway up the hill before eventually rolling back down in a hurry — most often pushed back by the Detroit Tigers and Justin Verlander. So in the fashion that he always has, Beane learned to adapt on the fly. His A’s had clearly hit a wall and were running short on both time and ways to overcome it.
So he set into the offseason with more teeth than ever before, but did so both suddenly and in the shadows. His moves were early and often, while increasing with potency steadily. He worked deals to land Luke Gregerson and Jim Johnson to round out the bullpen, and while Johnson did not work out (released late in July), it was an aggressive move to better the staff — while adding substantial money ($10 million owed to Johnson and $5 million to Gregerson) to a part of the team that long depended on low-cost free agents and internal options. When Beane followed by giving Scott Kazmir a $19 million deal as well, things were getting confusing. I mean, what is going on here? Oakland is not only taking on money, but it is freely spending it too in front-page deals? It was as out of character as a silent Yankee winter, but something else was becoming quickly clear: The A’s are in it to win it, right now.
Yet occasionally in the past, they would move the headline needle a bit with a pickup. Yoenis Cespedes was the biggest example of this, a much heralded yet unseen international prospect who was drawing the eye of every big spender in the game but landed in Oakland, which was at "of all places" status at the time. He's since grown into one of the most talented players in the game and ultimately the trade chip that put the team over to the summit of hired gun pickups: Jon Lester.
It would not seem logical for Beane to deal an All-Star everyday player and one of his premier talents that he still has under contract control for another year. But he smelled the blood in the water and went further against the conventional grain than he ever has before to land Lester for the last two months of the year.
It was the plateau of an aggressive year that has included taking not just one, but two of the most sought-after arms on the market in Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in a move that included trading his top prospect (and top 10 in the game) in Addison Russell with seemingly no reservations at all.
I mean, who are these guys? How is it possible that a team that probably doesn’t even carry checks is so easily able to outdo everyone in a constant spend-first, think later world? It certainly is not Moneyball anymore, but they still are doing it with craft first and cash (on loan) second. But what the A's are is the team that has gone further in to lay obvious claim to making a title run than any other in recent memory. More than half of these additions will be gone in two years at the longest, because everything has to return to its norm. But everything that has transpired along the way has once again redefined the way to go about building for a run.
After three years of the steady build and eight months of ruthless, yet calculated, aggression, Billy Beane has sculpted his best offering for a title that Oakland has seen since the '80s. And whether it works or not, the way to go about winning over an environment built for Goliath but not David has been resurfaced again — by the game’s foremost front-office artist.
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