Last year, the Oakland A's were expected to go nowhere fast. We here at Baseball Prospectus had them finishing last in an American League West that figured to be dominated by the big-spending Angels and Rangers. Oakland broke the script and won 94 games, pushing past the heavily favored Rangers in the season's final week with a three-game sweep. After that last 12-5 victory on October 3, the A's took sole possession of first place in the division for the first and only time all year.
After stumbling to a 22-29 start through May, the A's got serious, going a major-league-best 72-39 the rest of the way. Even still, on the heels of a 9-7 loss at Texas on September 27, they trailed the Rangers by four games with six games left on the schedule. Then the A's won all of those games and shocked the baseball world.
Two years earlier, 500 miles to the south, another small-market team nearly pulled off the same upset. The 2010 Padres had similarly low expectations and put themselves in position to do what nobody thought possible by winning the National League West. Then reality struck in the form of a 10-game losing streak at the end of August that saw their lead shrink by 5 ½ games.
The Giants took advantage and, after dropping the first two games in San Francisco to a Padres team that still had a chance entering the season's final weekend, won 3-0 on that same magical date of October 3 to complete their comeback and secure a spot in the postseason. From there, the Giants won the World Series, leaving the Padres and their fans to wonder—as they often have throughout their history—what might have been.
Aside from that little detail of reaching the postseason or not, last year's A's and the 2010 Padres have a lot in common. Let's take a closer look.
How Did They Do It?
The Padres were coming off a season in which they went 75-87, finishing in fourth place, 20 games behind the division-champion Dodgers. Even that was a huge improvement over the previous year when they went 63-99. On the heels of two dismal seasons and with a payroll expected to dip below the already low $43.7 million of 2009 (they ended up at $37.8 million), the Padres appeared to be headed toward another 90-loss season.
Their big off-season moves were:
- Signing free agents Chris Denorfia, Jerry Hairston, Matt Stairs, Jon Garland, and Yorvit Torrealba
- Trading Kevin Kouzmanoff and Eric Sogard to the A's for Aaron Cunningham and Scott Hairston
With this lack of household names—one might have referred to the team as “Adrian Gonzalez and 24 other guys” and not have been that far off—the Padres lost six of their first nine games. Just as prognosticators began patting themselves on the back for having foreseen such a poor showing, a funny thing happened: San Diego stopped losing.
The Padres rolled off an eight-game winning streak that pushed them into first place. At the end of April, they held a 15-8 record and led second-place San Francisco by 1½ games.
Then they won in May. And in June. And in July. By August 25, the Padres had extended their lead to 6½ games with 37 games to go. Talk of a fluke became less credible as the season stretched on and the Padres continued to play remarkably consistent baseball. Their longest losing streak had been three games, when they were swept by the Dodgers in San Diego over the weekend of May 14-16.
So when the Padres dropped an 11-5 decision at home to Arizona on August 26, nobody thought much of it. Same after a 12-inning loss the following night against the Phillies. Another one the next day? Hey, you don't get through an entire season with just one three-game losing streak.
They wouldn't win again until September 6. Meanwhile, the Giants played some of their best baseball that month. Much as the Rockies had done in 2007, they proved to be too much for a San Diego team that mistakenly “thought it could.”
The A's, meanwhile, had a little more money to work with than the Padres. Read that sentence again because it applies to almost no other team. In 2011, Oakland's payroll was $67.1 million. That bought them a 74-88 record in a tough division whose winner, the Rangers, went on to reach the World Series.
This culminated a five-year run in which the A's had won between 74 and 81 games each season, once finishing as close as nine games back of the frontrunner. Even with that “good” year, they averaged finishing 19 games out over that stretch. If anything could be said of the A's coming into 2012 with much certainty, it was that they probably would win about 75 games. Even that seemed optimistic as the payroll plummeted to $52.9 million.
Their big moves of the off-season were:
- Signing free agents Jim Miller, Brandon Moss, Bartolo Colón, Johnny Gomes, Yoenis Céspedes, and Manny Ramirez
- Trading Craig Breslow and Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks for Ryan Cook, Collin Cowgill, and Jarrod Parker
- Trading Robert Gilliam and Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone, Derek Norris, and Brad Peacock
- Trading Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney to the Red Sox for Miles Head, Raul Alcantara, and Josh Reddick
- Trading Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman to the Rockies for Seth Smith
Billy Beane was much more aggressive than Padres GM Jed Hoyer had been before his team's surprising run, but even still, none of these moves screamed “win now.” The losses of Cahill, Gonzalez, and Bailey were expected to hurt the team short-term, although the players received in each of those trades ended up playing significant roles in Oakland's success. That's why Beane was named Sporting News’ 2012 Major League Baseball Executive of the Year and everyone else wasn't.
The free-agent signings? Gomes was a bit player, Miller and Moss less than that. Colón and Ramirez were has-beens whose continued employment baffled observers. Céspedes? Well, he had that video, but people were less than convinced of his ability to make an immediate impact on the club.
What was the Short-Term Outcome?
Gonzalez was his usual brilliant self, with newcomers Torrealba and Denorfia helping more than expected. Trade deadline acquisition Miguel Tejada enjoyed a surprising resurgence after coming over from Baltimore. Garland pitched well, if too slowly, and youngster Mat Latos emerged as the staff ace. The bullpen, led by the back end of Luke Gregerson, Mike Adams, and Heath Bell, was ridiculous.
The team, as we've seen, played with consistency throughout the season except for one unfortunate stretch that cost them the division. And not all of Hoyer's moves worked. Ryan Ludwick, acquired two days after Tejada, was intimidated by Petco Park and didn't perform well at all.
Depending on one's perspective, the ultimate outcome can be viewed as a rousing success or as yet another disappointment. On the one hand, a team that was picked to finish last in its division wasn't eliminated from post-season contention until the final day, losing to the eventual World Series champs. On the other, a team that had dominated its division for the better part of five months blew a comfortable lead by playing poorly when it mattered most.
The season was mostly a success, albeit one that left a bad taste in the mouths of San Diegans.
The A's, as we've noted, took the opposite approach. They started slowly and were 13 games out of first place after losing at Texas on June 30. Then they went 57-26 and waltzed—well, Bernied—their way into the playoffs.
Céspedes, Reddick, and Gomes paced the offense. They got assistance from Moss, Smith, and midseason callup Chris Carter.
On the pitching side, Milone and Parker made up for Cahill and Gonzalez. Colón did a solid job before being suspended in August for PED use. Cook was terrific out of the bullpen, as was converted first baseman Sean Doolittle (how's that for a market inefficiency?). Miller did his part as well.
In other words, everyone contributed. Household names? The A's didn't go out and sign Albert Pujols or C.J. Wilson, or even Yu Darvish—the more heralded of the two main foreign imports to sign in the AL West before the season. They just brought in guys that could play once given the chance. And those guys kept winning games until they ran into Justin Verlander in Game Five of the ALDS.
What was the Long-Term Outcome?
The Padres still haven't recovered from their late-season meltdown. They lost 91 games in 2011 and 86 more last year (although some expected them to lose 100, so there's that). At the same time, who's to say they wouldn't have struggled even after winning the division in 2010? And who's to say that the disappointment from that fall wouldn't have been even greater?
Sure, they traded Gonzalez to the Red Sox, but he was as good as gone anyway. In fact, one could argue that had the Padres won in 2010, they might have let Gonzalez spend his walk year in San Diego and not gotten Casey Kelly and Anthony Rizzo for him.
Then again, the team re-signed Ludwick, and brought in Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett. So maybe getting close enough to sniff victory was enough for a contact high. And it's not like any of those moves hamstrung the Padres in the long run. They were more annoyances than anything.
Of greater importance to the franchise going forward (aside from the improved ownership situation) is the fact that the farm system is loaded. Even as the Padres were trying to seal the deal in 2010, they didn't come close to mortgaging the future. Wynn Pelzer? Corey Kluber? Eh, whatever.
The stumble at the finish was disappointing but not devastating. The health of the organization remained strong thanks to a front office that remained focused on the bigger picture even as it pursued its short-term goals. It's easy to envision worse scenarios in which top talent was unloaded for bigger names than Tejada and Ludwick, who nonetheless failed to push San Diego over the top.
It's also easy to envision the Padres holding on to win the division, then doing what the Giants did en route to a World Series title. But not really.
As for the A's, the smart money for 2013 is on regression. Moss and Gomes had career years. Colón, who re-signed after the season, turns 40 in May. Milone, a weird hybrid of Rheal Cormier and post-surgery Atlee Hammaker who pitches like a LOOGY, should slip a bit. And as much as I want guys from my alma mater to succeed, Griffin probably isn't a serious long-term rotation option.
On the bright side, Céspedes and Parker appear to have bright futures. That, and the fact that reports of Beane's demise before last season were exaggerated, bode well for the organization's well being.
Convincing the Giants to allow a move to San Jose is a different challenge, but even if their cross-bay rivals continue to be a roadblock on that front, the A's again have shown that playing home games in a revenue-limiting mausoleum isn't enough to stop them. When smart people make decisions, you are always a threat. For that, blame Beane.
Which brings us to our final point. If anything binds the 2010 Padres and the 2012 A's more closely than their financial situations and improbable success, it's this: Both teams were run by smart people. And although Hoyer has been replaced by the similarly capable Josh Byrnes since then, the fact remains that teams like the Padres and A's cannot be underestimated. They may not enjoy success for extended periods or become dynasties, but in any given season, they will have the capacity to surprise. This makes them dangerous, although we don't know how or when.
Because, you know, surprise.
Thanks to Graham Womack for inspiring this article.