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January 12, 2011

Expanded Horizons

White Elephants

by Tommy Bennett

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‘I said we could have everything.’
‘We can have everything.’
‘No, we can’t.’
‘We can have the whole world.’
‘No, we can’t.’
‘We can go everywhere.’
‘No, we can’t. It isn’t ours any more.’
‘It’s ours.’
‘No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.’
‘But they haven’t taken it away.’
‘We’ll wait and see.’
—Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants

The Athletics’ promise is less than a decade removed from synonymy with baseball savvy. When Jason Giambi left the team before the 2002 season, the decision not to pursue him was viewed as shrewd acceptance of baseball economic realities. When the club let Miguel Tejada walk prior to the 2004 season—only to sign Eric Chavez to a six-year, $66 million deal the following year—it was explained by the necessity of choosing only a few elite talents to build around.

This is a familiar story—it’s about the straightjackets imposed on teams with limited revenue (often confusingly labeled “small market”) by baseball’s contract rules. It’s a story whose epitaph has been written for numerous occasions: the retirement of Jeremy Brown; the 2009 pennant chase; and, inevitably, the decision to stop production on the Hollywood adaptation. But now it’s 2011, and Chavez—the last of the holdovers—is a free agent. What is left to say about the white elephant not only that nobody wants, but that Oakland has found so difficult to shed?

The only way to dispose of an unwanted narrative is to make a new one. Instead, the Athletics have failed even to become a mystery. They are a vanilla also-ran, a team that finished in second place by default, and an injury prone one to boot. In the last four seasons, they have finished with 76, 75, 75, and 81 wins each year. They have neither outscored, nor been outscored by, their opponents by more than 50 runs in any of those years. What meaningful purpose can be drawn out from such drab results?

First, note that this is a team with basically zero stars. With apologies to Trevor Cahill, the shine on whose sophomore season has not yet worn, there aren’t even very many baseball fans who could recognize a corner position player on this A’s team (heck—can you even name them?). The most famous players in the lineup, Coco Crisp and Hideki Matsui, were last counted as superstars when the A’s were still in the habit of making the playoffs.

And yet the team managed to win 81 games last year. Eight of the 11 hitters with at least 200 PA had above average offensive seasons last year. Six of them will return, while new additions Josh Willingham, David DeJesus, and Matsui each would have been among the best hitters on last year’s team. Odder still is that the 2011 lineup as it stands features exactly zero players who sported slugging percentages north of .460 last year, but five (Willingham, DeJesus, Matsui, Daric Barton, and Crisp) with True Averages over .290.

But before you squint too hard and see Barton as a latter-day Scott Hatteberg, keep in mind that the team’s biggest strides have been in baserunning and defense. The leap forward in baserunning came three seasons ago, when they went from one of the worst to one of the best teams in that category. Additions like Ryan Sweeney and Rajai Davis (since traded to the Blue Jays) dramatically improved the team’s efficiency on the base paths. Of course, such changes come at a cost, and the cost of their two-win swing in EqBRR was offset by a drop in team TAv from .261 to .244 between the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Now, players like Crisp, Cliff Pennington, and Barton ought to keep Oakland an above-average baserunning team without the concomitant drop in offense.

The team’s defense has improved significantly too. Thanks to a nifty home park chock full of foul territory, the team posted the best defensive efficiency in baseball last year. Even after adjusting for park (via PADE), the team was still about 1.3 percent better than average at converting balls in play into outs, which is how a pitcher like Cahill can go a whole season with a .238 BABIP. The defensive success was in stark contrast to the miserable rates the team recorded the year before: the A’s improved by over three percentage points in PADE from 2009 to 2010.

The loss of Rajai Davis—also a strong asset in the field—ought to be offset by the acquisition of David DeJesus, who is essentially a better version of Davis. That will again give the A’s at least two, and potentially three (if Ryan Sweeney spells Willingham against a righty), true center fielders in the outfield every game. Other than perhaps starting pitching, it’s hard to identify an area of the game in which the 2011 Athletics will be noticeably worse than their 81 win counterparts from a year ago. Except last year’s team wasn’t a .500 ball club at all; its third-order winning percentage was a robust .530.

So how about the pitching staff? No, Cahill won’t be that good again. But some of his correction will be offset by more innings from true ace Brett Anderson, who was limited to just 19 starts by elbow problems in 2010. Brandon McCarthy and First Team All Name selection Josh Outman join Gio Gonzalez as young pitchers who could lift the rotation in 2011. McCarthy was impressive in limited time in Triple-A last year, while Outman missed the entire season recovering from Tommy John. The A’s have eschewed the logic that led them to overpay Ben Sheets last year, and instead focused on cheaper options. And, hey, Dallas Braden threw a perfect game and even Rich Harden could be shiny for 75 innings or so.  The bullpen, carried over almost entirely from 2010, remains as terrific as it is inexpensive.

The funny thing about narratives is that they are a conclusion, not an argument. If you assemble an 85 win team at a cost of $55 million, that is just exactly what it is. Nothing else matters if you win the ballgames. As a matter of fact, nothing else matters if you lose the ballgames either. Unwanted and unnecessary as narratives might be, they are nevertheless painful to lose because of the human reality that worked so hard to shape them in the first place. Being unsaddled of their weight, though, can be a relief.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.
'I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

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