The Virtual 1980 Oakland Athletics (Part 2)

Last time, we posed the question of what sort of ball club the Oakland A’s might have fielded in 1980, had owner Charles O. Finley been able to hold onto his outstanding core of system-developed talent. Now we’re ready to find out.

The seasons prior to 1980

The list of actual Athletics transactions we’ve “disappeared” in this exercise goes all the way back to 1971, with the Rick Monday-for-Ken Holtzman trade. As we discussed last time, while that was a high-profile deal, its outcome didn’t particularly favor or disfavor either team, at least in the short run, as both Monday and Holtzman blossomed into stardom.

Thus, as we discussed, while an early-’70s Oakland ball club with Monday and without Holtzman would have been somewhat different in character from the actual A’s, it would have been just about the same in quality. Therefore it’s reasonable to imagine that, without that deal, the A’s would likely have been the division, league and World Series champions they actually were in 1972, ’73, and ’74. This is especially true given that the Athletics would have been a better team in 1973-74 than they were had they not traded Dave Duncan and George Hendrick for Ray Fosse.

Since Catfish Hunter was retired from baseball by 1980, this exercise has been agnostic as to whether he would have remained with Oakland past 1974. In any case, the A’s won the AL West division without Hunter in 1975 and finished second in ’76, so with or without Hunter these virtual Athletics would have been a strong contender in those seasons, if not a champion.

It was in 1977, of course, with the great free agent diaspora, that the actual A’s suddenly found their status transformed from contender to cellar-dweller. Our A’s obviously wouldn’t have faced that crisis. But neither is it certain that our A’s would have remained a championship-caliber club across 1977-78-79; while their offense clearly would have remained robust, their pitching would have been spotty with or without Hunter (who was in severe decline in those seasons).

The only pitching stars left from the great early-’70s staff would be Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers, and both would have some ups and downs in that period. Several fine young arms would be coming along from the A’s farm system in those years, but they’d take some developmental lumps, and so the late 1970s would be a period of transitional struggle for this Oakland pitching staff.

But in 1980 things would come together quite well.

The 1980 A’s

By 1980, two exceptionally talented young outfielders produced by the organization, Rickey Henderson and Dwayne Murphy, would have elbowed their way into starting roles. Completing the outfield would be the excellent all-around performer Chet Lemon, who’d come up a few years earlier.

This would have pushed George Hendrick to first base (a position he would actually end up playing a couple of years later), Reggie Jackson into a full-time designated hitter, and Rick Monday into a backup role.

Phil Garner didn’t actually play much shortstop in the major leagues, but he had the range and arm to handle the position capably. In our scenario he would have taken over the starting shortstop role as veteran Bert Campaneris declined in the late 1970s, and with Manny Trillo at second base the A’s would have a solid double play combination. At third base, power-hitting farm product Wayne Gross would have moved into a platoon arrangement with the fading former star Sal Bando.

The catcher would be the ever-productive veteran Gene Tenace, backed up by journeymen Jeff Newman and Jose Morales. The bench would be rounded out with farm system products Denny Walling as a first baseman-outfielder and Rob Picciolo backing up the middle infield.

Vida Blue would be joined in the starting rotation by a quartet of good young right handers: Mike Norris, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman. Relief ace Rollie Fingers would be supported in the bullpen by system-produced Bob Lacey, Jeff Jones and Randy Scarbery, among others.

The normal starting lineup probably would be as follows:

1. Henderson, lf
2. Murphy, cf
3. Hendrick, 1b
4. Jackson, dh
5. Tenace, c
6. Gross, 3b
7. Lemon, rf
8. Garner, ss
9. Trillo, 2b

The yield

 Pos Player     B  Age    G    AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
 1B  Hendrick   R   30   150  572   95  168   31    1   27  103   31   65 .294 .330 .493 .823  130
 2B  Trillo     R   29   141  531   66  149   26    8    7   55   31   45 .281 .320 .399 .720  103
 SS  Garner     R   31   151  548   62  138   28    5    5   62   45   52 .252 .309 .349 .657   86
 3B  Gross      L   28   113  366   54  103   20    3   14   67   44   39 .281 .359 .467 .826  132
 RF  Lemon      R   25   147  514   67  145   32    6   12   74   68   54 .282 .366 .438 .804  127
 CF  Murphy     L   25   154  516   88  142   16    2   12   60   93   85 .275 .386 .384 .770  119
 LF  Henderson  R   21   158  591  124  179   22    4    9   56  117   54 .303 .418 .399 .817  133
  C  Tenace     R   33   133  316   52   69   11    1   20   57   89   61 .218 .390 .449 .839  137
 DH  Jackson    L   34   143  514   99  150   24    3   40  118   81  118 .292 .388 .584 .972  171

  C  Newman     R   31    75  219   21   50    9    1    7   31   12   41 .228 .268 .374 .643   80
 OF  Monday     L   34    81  195   31   52    7    1   10   35   27   48 .267 .360 .462 .822  131
 3B  Bando      R   36    78  191   21   38    9    1    4   25   21   26 .199 .278 .319 .598   69
 1O  Walling    L   26    80  170   25   48    6    2    4   19   21   17 .282 .361 .412 .773  119
 S2  Picciolo   R   27    65  136   16   31    4    1    2   10    1   33 .228 .234 .316 .550   54
  C  Morales    R   35    49   80   10   21    5    0    2   14    6    7 .263 .314 .400 .714  101

     Others                    36    4    6    0    0    0    2    2    5 .167 .211 .167 .377    8

     TOTAL                   5495  835 1489  250   39  175  788  689  750 .271 .352 .426 .778  119

Pitcher    T   Age     G   GS   CG   IP    W    L   Sv    H   HR   BB   SO   ERA ERA+
Norris     R   25     33   33   16  256   22    5    0  188   16   73  165  2.46  153
Keough     R   24     34   32   13  225   16    8    0  191   21   82  111  2.84  132
Blue       L   30     31   31   10  224   16    7    0  212   18   64  116  3.17  119
McCatty    R   26     33   31    4  200   15    9    0  177   24   87  105  3.74  101
Kingman    R   25     32   30    3  190    9   11    0  183   18   72  106  3.74  101

Fingers    R   33     66    0    0  103   12    6   28  105    5   33   66  3.05  123
Lacey      L   26     47    1    0   80    4    2    8   68    7   21   45  2.94  128
Jones      R   23     35    2    0   62    3    3    2   50    3   38   44  3.19  118
Scarbery   R   28     29    1    0   53    4    3    0   55    3   17   29  4.92   76
Hamilton   L   32     14    0    0   20    0    2    0   29    4   19   15 11.25   33
Minetto    L   26     13    1    0   18    1    1    0   25    3   10   13  6.50   58
Beard      R   20     13    0    0   16    0    1    1   12    0    7   12  3.38  111
Souza      L   25     13    0    0   16    1    1    0   18    1    9    7  5.06   74

Others                 4    0    0    8    0    0    0   15    2    2    4  7.88   46

TOTAL                     162   46 1471  103   59   39 1328  125  534  838  3.39  111

That team OPS+ of 119 would be the best in the American League between the 1971 Orioles and the 1982 Brewers. Winning 103 games, these A’s would ease past an outstanding Kansas City Royals ball club for the AL West crown. Those Royals swept the Yankees in the ALCS before losing the World Series in six games to the Phillies. The outcome of any short series is a bit flighty, but none of those actual postseason qualifiers (nor the NL West champ Astros) compiled a Pythagorean record threatening 103-59.

But wait

Bear in mind that this is by no means the best-case scenario version of the 1980 Athletics. The approach this exercise has taken in putting them together simply has been to passively retain home-grown talent; among the advantageous actual trades the A’s made that we’ve eschewed here was the deal in which Finley exchanged Phil Garner for Rick Langford, Tony Armas, Mitchell Page and Doug Bair. And moreover, of course, these A’s haven’t brought in a single free agent from the outside.

And, the bounty of talent we see on this roster isn’t all that the A’s farm system had produced. In this exercise we haven’t touched upon what Oakland might have done with two addtional good outfielders they produced in the ’70s: Dan Ford and Claudell Washington. Nor did we have them retain two significant system-developed veteran talents from their early-’70s glory days: Bert Campaneris and Joe Rudi. Thus, strong as this 103-59 version of the 1980 Athletics is, it isn’t perfect, but there were resources at the organization’s disposal to have been deployed in the trade market to shore up this ball club’s weak points, most notably the back end of the bullpen.

Oh, Charley O.

Obviously, this exercise rests upon the optimistic assumption of the Athletics having both the financial means and the persuasive power to retain the franchise’s stupendous core of talent in the noisily awakening free agent market of the late 1970s. To say the least, this wasn’t actually the case.

While Finley’s utter incapacity to retain or attract free agent talent was the worst-case scenario (the great bulk of the blame for that being his, of course), it’s fanciful to imagine the organization being as capacious as we portray here; realistically, no ownership would likely have been able to retain all of its talent through that period. That said, it’s also realistic that a different manner of ownership would have had at least some ability to attract incoming free agent talent.

And such an ownership would have had an extraordinary foundation of system-developed talent to build upon. Because, as we see, the talent produced by Charlie Finley’s shoestring-budget, pathologically dysfunctional organization in the 1960s and 1970s was astounding by any measure.

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