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A's Baseball

Better Luck Next Year

Let the 2004 Oakland A's epitaph read: "It only took Anaheim an extra $42 million to beat us." But let's be honest -- the A's weren't good enough to win the AL West. While bad luck kept the A's from winning in the playoffs the last few years, good luck kept them from being eliminated a month ago. I have no doubt that with $102 million (or even the Giants $82 million) to play with, Billy Beane would have beaten the Angels. Of course, they didn't need to remind us of the 1987 Toronto "Blow" Jays with their collapse in the final week.

Were there any crucial errors? Not really. Billy Beane spent $59 million about as well as he possibly could have. Regulars Erubiel Durazo, Mark Kotsay, Eric Byrnes, Scott Hatteberg, Damian Miller and Bobby Crosby all played as well as their salaries would indicate. Marco Scutaro didn't hit, but neither did Mark Ellis. Jermaine Dye was a second-half disappointment due to nagging injuries, but his contract is over, which frees up nearly $12 million in payroll.

On the pitching side, the blame is spread thinly everywhere. Barry Zito's strikeout rate declined in 2003 and his effectiveness declined in 2004. Mark Mulder had a horrible second half after a good first half. Arthur Rhodes was bad, but he barely pitched in the second half. Chad Bradford had an off-year, but Ricardo Rincon, Jim Mecir, Justin Duchscherer and Chris Hammond were more than adequate. Fireballer Octavio Dotel blew three games overall, but had only one bad appearance in the last two months.

So if the team was managed properly, and no one player stunk up the joint any more than any other, then what's the problem? Unfortunately for Oakland, it's that the market for baseball talent has become more efficient. While in the past Billy Beane was able to swipe Erubiel Durazo or Scott Hatteberg or Keith Foulke off an unsuspecting team, this year he's got Theo Epstein, Paul Depodesta and J.P. Ricciardi fighting with him over undervalued talent. While he was able to fleece the San Diego Padres for Mark Kotsay, his other Moneyball pickups -- Bobby Kielty and Marco Scutaro -- really didn't work out. In the past, the Dodgers wouldn't have picked up Milton Bradley and the A's could have had him. Same goes for Mark Bellhorn. As Billy Beane's disciples scatter throughout the universe, the battle to build a better player evaluation system intensifies.

Does that mean we count the A's out in the future? Not a chance. First of all, the A's have a two-year advantage over the Red Sox, Dodgers and Blue Jays in drafting and in remaking the organization's ability to evaluate and develop players. We've already seen Bobby Crosby make everyone forget Miguel Tejada, but Outfielder Nick Swisher is ready to replace Jermaine Dye and First Baseman Dan Johnson is ready to do something poorly-defined. Joe Blanton's ready to start, Mike Wood's ready for the bullpen, and 21-year old Jairo Garcia has a fastball that tops out somewhere between 100-miles an hour (radar gun estimate) and one million miles an hour (Billy Beane's estimate.) The A's are clearing more than $20 million off their payroll and they've got fewer holes to plug than the Giants. Prior to the season, it looked like Mulder and Zito would have won huge arbitration victories, but not so much anymore.

A's owner Steve Schott got very lucky the last few years -- rather than being contracted, the A's made everyone on Wall Street notice their management system. But Schott's going to have to pony up a bit more cash if he wants his team to be successful in the future. Sure, he can still be profitable in Oakland if the team suffers a bit -- A's fans seem to go to the games mostly for the brawls in the crowd -- but if he wants a new stadium or a move to San Jose, he's going to have to spend, both to keep the team competitive, and to keep Billy Beane from eventually being sucked up by the Mets or another team with deep pockets but no results on the field.