Are the Rays the A’s?

Even if they weren’t supposedly destined to cower in the divisional shadow of the game’s two most lucrative franchises, the Tampa Bay Rays’ transformation in 2008 from dependable laughing stocks to unlikely blue chippers made them easy to embrace and support. This past season saw the team win its second AL East title in three years, with expectations successfully recalibrated for even the most stubborn skeptic to accept, and expect, such success.

However, it’s because of this change in perception that the Rays’ first-round loss to Texas hurts that much more. Combined with the attendance issue, the payroll issues that go hand-in-hand with poor attendance, and the impending free agency of left fielder Carl Crawford, it’d be understandable if some Rays fans were down a little on their franchise’s future. Despite being at the height of their powers, the Rays are at a crossroads.

It’s a place similar to one that another expectation-bucking team found itself at just a few years ago: the 2002 Oakland A’s.

Now, to actually map all the similarities between Billy Beane‘s A’s and Andrew Friedman’s Rays probably would lead to all sorts of coincidental silliness. That said, there are some interesting parallels between these two front office regimes. The 2010 season was Friedman’s fifth year as executive VP of baseball operations for Tampa Bay. Beane’s fifth year as Oakland’s GM was, as you might have guessed, 2002.

It’s a oft-told (and soon to be filmed) story, but it’s at least worth a brief summary. After losing both Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon to the deep pockets of the AL East, Beane cobbled together a collection of young studs, castoffs and retreads to create a 103-game winner.

Granted, the 2002 A’s were a 103-game winner that lost in the ALDS for the third year in a row. That the A’s formula didn’t work in the playoffs, however, takes nothing away from what they were able to accomplish during the regular season, especially given the financial restrictions Beane worked under. The 2002 A’s won the most games while, as of Opening Day of that season, carrying the third-smallest payroll in the game ($39 million).

In comparison, the 2010 Rays were an underachieving juggernaut; their 96 wins were one off the most in baseball, while their Opening Day payroll of $71 million was merely 12th-smallest. In terms of a quick-and-dirty stat like “win efficiency” (i.e., taking the team’s payroll and dividing it by the team’s number of wins), the Rays were third best, with each win costing approximately $750,000. That’s a king’s ransom compared to the 2002 A’s cost-per-win of just under $390,000, but it’s a strong showing nonetheless. (See this article on Forbes’ SportsMoney blog for more info.)

However, according to this Rob Neyer post on ESPN.com, the Rays’ payroll is reportedly going to shrink to $60 million for the 2011 season. As Neyer notes, that decrease will be somewhat offset by the departure of Crawford and three other players: Carlos Pena, (current San Francisco Giant) Pat Burrell, and closer Rafael Soriano.

Before earmarking any of that payroll space for a long-term Crawford contract, there’s the matter of raises for the Rays’ arbitration-eligible players, including key contributors like starter Matt Garza, shortstop Jason Bartlett and outfielder B.J. Upton. Throw on top of that the $1 million-plus that would be spent if the Rays exercised buyouts on reliever Dan Wheeler and infielder Willy Aybar, and the money that might need to be spent to find a starting first baseman and re-populate their bullpen, and the chances of Crawford returning look even slimmer.

It’s the same dilemma Beane faced when both Giambi and Damon bolted for big bucks after 2001. While finding warm bodies to improve on Damon’s 82 OPS+ that year didn’t prove to be difficult, papering over the loss of Giambi’s 198 OPS+ took a good amount of midseason wheeling and dealing (for players like Ray Durham, David Justice and, uh, John Mabry).

The Giambi/Crawford parallels are readily apparent. Disregarding a look at any advanced statistics, the combination of speed and power and defensive prowess that Crawford provided seems as irreplaceable as Giambi’s bat did. Uber-prospect Desmond Jennings‘ 756 OPS this year in a full season of Triple-A was a decided disappointment. Even if he could hit as well as he did in 2009 between Double-A and Triple-A, the Rays would still need more than a few players to step up to make up for Crawford’s loss.

Those looking for a Rays player whose 2010 mirrors Damon’s disappointing A’s cameo need look no further than Carlos Pena. Even though his 2010 slash-line of .196/.325/.407 casts a decided pallor over his Rays tenure, his entire performance over the course of the three-year/$24 million contract he signed following his 2007 breakthrough more than justified its cost. According to Fangraphs’ WAR, Pena’s 2008 and 2009 showings were worth more than $30 million, and even his woeful 2010 performance was equivalent to a 102 OPS+; it’s not ideal production from a first baseman, but it’s not quite as pathetic as his batting line makes it seem.

Include Pena’s 172 OPS+ from 2007, which cost the Rays only $800,000, and Pena’s value to Tampa Bay eclipses what the Rays paid him. Just as with the A’s during Beane’s heyday, it’s the combination of dumpster-diving savvy and good old fashioned dumb luck epitomized by the Rays’ discovery of Pena that Friedman and friends need to capitalize on to continue their success.

Living off the draft-born largesse provided by years of woeful ineptitude (in the case of Tampa Bay) or free-agent compensation (as those A’s teams in the early 21st century did) also helps, of course. Naysayers might write off the Rays’ success as merely the result of last-place finishes and the commensurate top-10 first-round picks they “earned” via those finishes. However, as the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals have proven over the past 15 years, having early-round draft picks doesn’t mean the players chosen with those picks will automatically turn into superstars.

It could just be dumb luck that Evan Longoria‘s career-to-date didn’t end up as misbegotten and misspent as Alex Gordon‘s, and it’s only because of happenstance that David Price isn’t mentioned in the same disappointed breath as Brian Bullington or Colt Griffin. But sometimes, as was the case with the Rays’ franchise-changing Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett trade, you make your own luck.

In the case of Billy Beane’s A’s, a lot of the luck that followed the 2002 season was as bad as bad can get. The homegrown players Beane held onto—most notably Eric Chavez and Bobby Crosby—either failed to develop or were waylaid by countless trips to the DL. The players he traded away either brought back paltry returns or produced short-term gains that can’t be justified in hindsight; Milton Bradley was a godsend during their 2006 playoff run, but Andre Ethier in green and gold going forward would’ve been even sweeter.

Even the trades that seemed to be lopsided in the A’s favor, like the Mark Mulder/Daric Barton swap, turned out to be much ado about nothing. In light of the attention given to OBP in Moneyball, Barton’s combination of high on-base prowess and lackluster extra-base power almost seems like a karmic Wet Willie.

As if to make up for the trades that didn’t provide much in return, Beane’s wheeling and dealing reached a fever pitch, with decidedly mixed results. Add in fluke occurrences like Jermaine Dye‘s broken leg, and ignominious moments like the storied Jeremy Giambi non-slide, and it wouldn’t surprise me to find black cat hairs or mirror shrapnel in the A’s weight room. That the perpetually injured Chavez was paid more than $30 million over the past three years for a paltry 249 plate appearances, and is scheduled to be bought out of the final year of his contract for $3 million, seems sadly appropriate.

For better or worse, the 81-81 A’s of 2010 epitomize both the strengths and weaknesses of Beane’s tenure as GM. Despite the non-stop roster turnover, the team’s starting rotation for next year (especially if Brett Anderson can stay healthy) promises to rival the Tim Hudson/Mulder/Barry Zito trifecta that powered those older A’s teams. However, all that pitching will go for naught if Beane can’t field a league-average hitting lineup. It’s a far-fetched possibility to think these three would have played in the same outfield, but the fact that Beane had players like Ethier, Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez and the Rangers’ Nelson Cruz and they slipped through his fingers can’t be ignored. It’s all too telling that Jack Cust, the sort of bad-body unmentionable Beane was known for rescuing from the scrap heap, was the team’s leading hitter in OPS+ (128), and tied for second in homers (13) despite spending the first six weeks of the season in the minors.

Superficially, with their strong pitching and with more than a few young hitters seemingly stuck in neutral, this Rays team looks a little too much like those A’s teams of late. (Those who want to draw parallels between Eric Chavez’s snake-bitten career and B.J. Upton’s injury-plagued path can do so at their own peril.)

Thankfully for Tampa Bay, the Rays are better off than those Oakland teams. With Joe Maddon, the Rays have the sort of forward-thinking, hands-on field manager that even the best of Beane’s A’s teams could have used. While their minor league system lacks hitters (outside of Jennings), they “suffer” from an enviable wealth of pitching prospects. Headlined by rotational hopeful Jeremy Hellickson, their young arms can be used to either bolster an already-strong starting five, add vigor to a threadbare bullpen, or sweeten any trade offers.

The Scott Kazmir trade at the tail end of the 2009 season proved that Friedman’s not afraid to make unpopular trades, while the oft-discussed and oft-lauded Delmon Young/Garza/Bartlett trade showed that he could both recognize team needs and find ways to address them.

Also, unlike Beane’s A’s, no trades have actually backfired on the team. Folks might take exception to the Edwin Jackson/Matt Joyce swap, but the Rays were trading from a position of strength for a player who could still prove to be a useful offensive contributor. Even the one move made during Friedman’s tenure that can safely be called an outright failure—the two-year contract given to Burrell after 2008—was universally praised as a savvy and economically sound signing that, again, addressed a clear Rays need.

There’s every chance that 2011 could be a down year in this current run of Rays success, and that the franchise could enter the same sort of holding pattern that afflicted the A’s. However they could make a few smart moves—a cheap first base replacement for Pena like a Russell Branyan-Lance Berkman first-aid-kit platoon; the eye for bullpen bargains that led to the acquisitions of Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano last year; using their farm depth to go after a prize one-year rental like Prince Fielder. Add those to some not-inconceivable growth from any of the team’s young players (like Joyce or Upton), and the Rays could find themselves once again on top of the toughest division in baseball.

David Raposa is a longtime baseball blogger whose work also has appeared in the Village Voice, the Hartford Courant and other publications. He maintains his own blog, http://falsebinary.com/

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Comments

  1. Danmay said...

    As an A’s fan, those are definitely some interesting parallels. I would like to see the Rays make some good moves this offseason and go right back to competing for the AL East crown.

    One correction: You failed to mention a HUGE part of the Mulder/Barton trade; Dan Haren.

  2. David R. said...

    Ha—yeah, I guess I conflated the fruits of that trade with all the other trades it indirectly lead to, & forgot that Haren made the trade an outright win, even if Barton’s turned into a rich man’s Mientkiewicz.

    (& I totally spelled Doug’s name correct up there w/out looking it up.)

  3. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Very good piece David. As a defacto A’s fan (being primarily a Cubs fan who just happens to admire economics), it has been struggling to see the A’s flop so bad so often the past five seasons. Busted prospect after busted prospect makes me sigh.

    But I think this might finally be the year the A’s wriggle back into dominance (by the way, they should have untraded for Haren, given how cheap it was for the Angels to acquire him…). Between a solid SP front of with a solid SP core of Anderson (3.21 FIP, 3.24 tERA), Gio (3.78 FIP, 3.51 tERA) and Dallas braden (3.80 FIP, 3.74 tERA) anchored behind by Trevor Cahill (4.19 FIP, 4.01 tERA) and some fifth starter of average ability, the A’s seem poised to rule the AL West in 2011. Pair this already solidly talented pitching with baseball’s fifth best defense (each starting position player averaging a +4-5 glove per 150), and you really do not need a whole lot more to compete.

    I’d argue the A’s are best suited signing Russell Branyan to work with Barton at 1b/dh or go for bust with a 3 year/$40+$15m option with DH-placed Dunn (if Dunn will so accept) or risk a gamble on DH Nick Johnson…Cust cannot be resigned, honestly, unless he is banished purely to DH. I’d like to see Jake Fox hit more homers too…Chris Carter is also around to provide the team with some cheap, cheap pop…

    Just saying, do not be surprised if this year’s A’s are more like last years Rays than this year’s Rays are like the A’s of the past 5…

    I plan to expand on this notion further later…

  4. Jeffrey Gross said...

    And just to follow up the notion. Wouldn’t the A’s be best suited to signing Werth or preferably crawford? Good offense to blend with elite defense, given a hole in left/right….

  5. Greg Simons said...

    I’m glad Dan Haren was brought up as part of the Mulder trade.  As a Cards fan, I hated the deal the day it was announced.

    On a bit of a tangent, I find it interesting that many people lately have talked about the poor Blue Jays and Orioles having to compete with the Big Three in the AL East.

    It’s not a Big Three, it’s a Big Two with the Rays consolidating their efforts of the last several seasons into a very nice medium-term (3-5 year) run before their inevitable fall to mediocrity.  I think TB has peaked, and while the team may battle for a playoff spot with New York and Boston for another year or two, finances will soon relegate them to a tussle for third place.

    It’s up to Baltimore and Toronto to time their climb up the ladder to match Tampa Bay’s fall.  If they can do that, they’ll take the Rays’ place as the upstart trying to take down the Evil Empires.

    That’s how I forsee the AL East playing out for the forseeable future.

  6. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Some may say this is something of a minor point in the face of the cascading wealth that flows from baseball’s most profitable teams, but drafting well does reward itself, to some degree. If you develop young stars, you get a chance to replace them through compensatory picks received when they bolt as either class A or B free agents. It pays not just short or mid-term dividends to draft well, but long terms returns as well.

    Though we can’t deny the role of sheer, drafting young talent is perhaps the most meritocratic of the means to long term competitiveness on a lower to middle-class budget.

    One of the my oft-repeated talking points is that the poorer teams are well-served to invest heavily on scouting, infrastructure, player development, and making their club an attractive destination for top prospects. You can’t compete at the free agency level, but you can be a tad aggressive on the signing bonuses, for example. It won’t always work, but the playing field is at its most level at this facet of “the game.” If the smaller market teams can’t win here, they can’t win at all. But if they do, they at least proceed to the phase in which they are outmatched with headstart.

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