Everyone loves an underdog, and we’ve had some great stories this year. The Pirates were great while they lasted, and the Orioles… well, we project Baltimore to go 9-13 the rest of the way and miss the Wild Card entirely. But it was fun, wasn’t it?

And then there’s the Athletics. The lowly A’s, the least-valuable of the 30 MLB franchises at “only” $321 million. They of the skinflint ownership, endless stadium struggles, and ridiculously low ticket revenues. None of this is news, of course. We all saw that movie based on the book that Brad Pitt wrote about the guy from Parks & Recreation. That crafty Billy Beane always finds a way to do more with less! It’s the feelgood story of the year.

As of today, the Athletics are in first place in the AL Wild Card, we project them to go 11-11 the rest of the way. Barring some kind of catastrophic collapse, that should net them one of the two Wild Card spots, and we’ll find out whether or not Billy Beane’s shit works in a one-game playoff. And they’re doing it all with the second-lowest payroll in baseball, just behind the aforementioned Pirates.

According to BP’s Compensation page, the A’s total salary for 2012 is $53,475,00 for 31 players. And the A’s front office has trimmed that $53.5 million figure even further by shipping out Kurt Suzuki and Brian Fuentes, each of whom was owed $5 million for the season, for some marginal savings. (Moving Suzuki also saved the A’s an additional $6.5 million in 2013 salary commitments.)

(Aside: Didn’t trading Suzuki seem kinda crazy at the time? The A’s were still in contention, and here are the A’s, trading a guy who’s not only the face of the franchise (such as it is), but who’s also handling a very young and inexperienced pitching staff. But George Kottaras—a classic Billy Beane scrap-heap pickup—and Derek Norris—part of the Gio Gonzalez-to-Washington haul—have been more than adequate behind the plate. This (among myriad other reasons) is why I’m not a GM and Billy Beane is. But back to the premise of the article, which is how remarkable the A’s roster is.)

Disclaimer: This isn’t really analysis. There’s lots and lots and lots of cherry-picking going on. There are literal shit-tons of luck involved. Mostly I’m attempting to set some context so you can see just how remarkable (and lucky) this team (and front office) are.

With that in mind, here are a few observations about the A’s as they are currently constructed.

  • The average MLB team payroll is $100 million. The Twins have a payroll right at $100 million, and they’re 59-82 as of the afternoon of September 11th. We project their final record to be 68-94, while we believe Oakland will finish with a record of 91-71. That’s 23 more wins with 46 percent less money.
  • We assume that a team made up entirely of replacement-level players would go 54-108. (Please hold the Astros jokes.) So each win beyond 54 is considered a marginal win. If our projections hold up, the Twins will pay $7.17 million in salary per marginal win. The Yankees will pay $5.41 million per marginal win; the Red Sox, $9.21 million. The A’s will pay $1.45 million.
  • Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney have posted a combined -0.05 WARP for the Red Sox this year. (Bailey, of course, was injured and has made only 10 appearances this season. Sweeney is currently on the 60-day DL, and spent time on both the 7-day and 15-day DL this year.) Josh Reddick, the centerpiece of the trade that sent Sweeney and Bailey to Boston, has tallied 2.6 WARP. Raul Alcantara and Miles Head, who also came over in the Bailey/Sweeney deal, were ranked the 10th- and 19th-best prospects in the A’s system in January by Kevin Goldstein. Head also posted a .333/.391/.577 line across two levels (High-A and Double-A) this season and still has some upside.
  • Josh Reddick is earning $189,054 per WARP. Vernon Wells is earning just shy of $49 million per WARP.
  • Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira will make a combined $53,125,000 this year. The A’s will pay 31 total players and spend just $350,000 more than that—less than the major-league minimum salary for one player.
  • Yoenis Cespedes, the A’s big offseason free agent signing and the team’s highest paid player, will be paid $36 million over four years and has accrued 2.6 WARP this year. Alex Rodriguez will earn $30 million for 2012 alone and has posted 1.3 WARP.
  • The Yankees average player salary is $6.548 million, which is just slightly more than Cespedes will make this season. Theoretically, the Yankees could field a team of 32 2012 Yoenis Cespedeses (Cespedi?) for what they paid their current roster. Meanwhile, the A’s average salary is $1.725 million, and more than half (17 of 31) of their players are making the major-league minimum.
  • The A’s 2012 payroll is actually down more than 20 percent from their 2011 spending, a year in which they went 74-88. This year they’ve spent $13.88 million less —basically a year of Carlos Beltran or Ryan Dempster—and improved their record dramatically.
  • The Oakland rotation, which owns the fifth-best ERA in baseball (a percentage point behind St. Louis and one ahead of San Francisco) will earn $10,485,000 this year. Each member of the Los Angeles of Anaheim rotation earns an average of $12,290,000 ($61.45M total). The Angels rotation has the 14th-best ERA in the majors.  
  • Now that Bartolo Colon is off the roster, the oldest player on the A’s roster is 34, and the average age is 27.1, giving them the seventh-youngest team in the majors. The youngest team by average age is the Astros, at 26.2.

The Astros have a higher payroll, too, at $60.8 million. (Or at least they have higher payroll commitments for 2012, seeing as Luhnow et al. have sold off everything that wasn’t nailed down.) We project Houston to end the season with a 52-110 record, or $∞ per marginal win.

The Astros show that you can’t just “play the kids” and expect good things to happen—they have to be the right kids. While the 2012 A’s have enjoyed an incredible amount of luck, they’re not just lucky.

There’s not a pitching hydra in Phoenix—you don’t just cut off Bartolo Colon’s giant head and have Dan Straily and and A.J. Griffin sprout up in his place. Billy Beane and assistant GM David Forst and the rest of Oakland’s baseball operations staff have assembled this team, slowly but surely. They flipped Gio Gonzalez for Tommy Milone, Derek Norris, and two more arms. They turned Cahill and Breslow into Jarrod Parker, Colin Cowgill, and Ryan Cook. They traded Bailey and Sweeney for Reddick and prospects. They signed Bartolo Colon and Jonny Gomes on the cheap. They patiently developed Chris Carter into a productive big-leaguer (1.7 WARP in just 209 PA this year). This year, it seems, Beane can do no wrong.

Sell high. Buy low. Add a healthy amount of luck, and sprinkle in a pinch of Bernie. Ten years after the season chronicled in Moneyball, the A’s are doing it again, and it’s made for one hell of a story.