No team fueled the madness that was Monday and Tuesday in the baseball world quite like the Oakland Athletics. Their general manager, Billy Beane, is arguably the game’s most aggressive, and with a roster in need of some patching and renewal, he decided to be proactive. In roughly 24 hours, Beane added Scott Kazmir, Jim Johnson, Craig Gentry and Luke Gregerson to his roster. Here’s how:
Kazmir signs two-year, $22-million deal
In baseball, teams spend too much time weighing, then paying for, pitchers’ track records. Pitchers are fickle. Pitchers face the near-constant risk of catastrophic injury. Pitchers throw harder at 20 than they ever will again. Pitchers can make any of a hundred adjustments, and it can either derail their career, or resurrect it.
Scott Kazmir’s track record is a mess, but Beane didn’t care. Kazmir fanned 162 of 672 batters faced last season, and his 4.04 ERA probably wasn’t even a fair reflection of his strong season. The A’s got Kazmir more cheaply than the Twins got Ricky Nolasco, even on an annual-average basis, when Kazmir is a demonstrably better pitcher. They got him cheaper, by $1 million, than the Giants got Tim Hudson. They got him much, much cheaper than the Giants got Tim Lincecum, who hadn’t even hit free agency in full yet when San Francisco heaped $35 million in front of him for two seasons. Kazmir is the best pitcher in that group, for 2014, if I’m a betting man. In fact, I bet he’s also better than fellow notable free-agent signees Phil Hughes and Josh Johnson. By refusing to discredit Kazmir’s great 2013 on the basis of his trip to Hell and back from 2010 through 2012, Beane got a steal.
Jim Johnson Gets Barely Tendered
He went very much the other way with his next acquisition. Jim Johnson, the Baltimore Orioles’ closer and two-time American League saves champion, is at more or less the very peak of his value. In fact, the arbitration process so richly rewards the numbers he racked up that the Orioles felt keeping him wasn’t worth what it would cost. He’s likely to draw an eight-figure salary, despite a non-elite strikeout rate. Although Beane had only to surrender lost former prospect Jemile Weeks in order to land Johnson, the money Oakland must now pay in order to retain him is a significant issue, especially for them.
Or is it? That might have been the most interesting single implication of all of Oakland’s moves, and it might be a microcosm of the offseason’s most interesting phenomenon: the infusion of new national TV money (and other revenue) into the game is allowing small-market, even virtually impoverished teams like the A’s to compete much more for players whose costs were once prohibitive. That shows up in the Kazmir signing, and in the Jarrod Saltalamacchia pact with Miami, and with the Minnesota Twins’ twin pitching additions, and in the Rays’ decision to add roughly $7 million to their payroll the last two days. The teams that had the least in the first place are deriving a disproportionate benefit from the equally-apportioned revenue increase throughout the league.
For that matter, Johnson is more worth that money than people give him credit for, anyway. Her’s one of the best ground-ball pitchers in baseball. He walks no one whatsoever. If he falls a bit short of the dominance that marks an elite closer, so what? The A’s made just a single-season commitment by dealing for him, and for one year, Johnson should be well worth the upgrade he represents to the Oakland bullpen.
Craig Gentry Comes at a High (but Fair) Price
Those two moves happened Monday evening. On Tuesday, Beane doubled down on them. First, he dealt outfield prospect Michael Choice and second-base prospect Chris Bostick to Texas for outfielder Craig Gentry and pitcher Josh Lindblom.
Gentry was the point, of course. Beane adores Gentry, and with great reason. Gentry, who turned 30 this past week, is a delightful player. He doesn’t hit for power and he doesn’t draw a dramatic number of walks, but he doesn’t strike out, either, and he gets hit by pitches a lot, and he plays terrific defense in center field and he runs the bases really well, including being an efficient base stealer. He’s like Chris Young, but with on-base skills instead of Young’s power. He’s perfect for the A’s, who not only just lost Young but have the aging Coco Crisp as their primary center fielder.
Under team control for three more seasons, Gentry will help the team weather Crisp’s fade, and perhaps his departure—Crisp is a free agent next winter. With a .392 OBP against left-handed pitchers since 2011, Gentry also fits Bob Melvin’s platoon structure perfectly.
If that sounds like a heck of a player, an underrated addition that should cost something good, well, it is. So Beane gave up Michael Choice, a patient right-handed slugger who could be the Rangers’ starting left fielder as soon as this spring. Choice will swing and miss sometimes and has a poor arm, but those are the worst things about him. The best are his approach, his solid power and his good overall athleticism, which feeds good range in a corner spot.
He got just a whiff of the big leagues last season, so the Rangers have him for another six seasons. Beane probably traded a few wins in 2016-18 for a few in 2014-15 with this trade, but if the gambit pays and Gentry plays well, it will have been well worth it. Gentry improves the defense of a team that is clearly renewing its focus on run prevention. That’s a well-planned move.
Luke Gregerson Completes Bullpen Overhaul
To complete the whirlwind tour, then, and to clear some clutter from the outfield picture after acquiring Gentry, Beane flipped Seth Smith—a lefty bat and corner outfield option whose two seasons in Oakland proved he can hit for steady, unspectacular power even outside Coors Field—to the San Diego Padres for Luke Gregerson. With that, the A’s could be completely finished building their bullpen, at least for now.
Gregerson is a slightly better version of Johnson. He’s not the ground-ball maven Johnson is, but he has, if anything, an even better command profile, and he strikes out between 20 and 25 percent of his opponents—a number Johnson can only dream on.
It doesn’t take much digging to explain any of the moves the A’s made this week. They had a little bit of money to spend, and a spare piece or two, and some good players whom other teams didn’t value terribly highly popped up. None of these guys is going to turn into a great story, a scouting find or a turnaround or a minor adjustment that changed everything. For none of them was there something that badly in need of change. There are hard numbers proving that each of these four players can produce for the A’s in the short term, and Billy Beane grabbed them because their teams either had other options they liked better, or didn’t properly value the players themselves. While the headlines said it was a denouncement of Moneyball, it looks a lot like Moneyball to me—only with money. The A’s have a chance at a third straight AL West championship in 2014, and a third straight shot at the World Series. This flurry of additions improves their odds.Next post: Ryan Hanigan and Heath Bell Join Tampa Bay Rays, the Franchise They Were Born to Play For
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