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Sunday, December 02, 2007

The New Moneyball Icon

A few years back, in 2003, Micheal Lewis published a book called Moneyball which became synonymous with a new approach to baseball strategy at the general managing level. The subject of Moneyball was, specifically, Oakland GM Billy Beane, generally considered the mastermind behind this new approach, though he would likely give due credit to the many sabermetricians, like Bill James and Rob Neyer, and modern baseball geniuses, like John Schuerholz and Tony LaRussa, who have in some way or another participated in revising the way a baseball roster is viewed during the past decade.

It is accurate to say, as many have, that Moneyball preaches an increased allegiance to statistical analysis as a way of evaluating individual players and the teams that they play for. Standing alone, naturally, this is a gross oversimplification of Beane's philosophy, but it is undeniable that Moneyball helped popularize statistics like OBP, OPS, and WHIP, and that it was due, at least in part, to said statistics that Beane pursued players like Scott Hatteburg, Erubiel Durazo, Nick Swisher, Chad Bradford, and Mark Ellis. None of these players are superstars (though perhaps Swisher is on the cusp), but they have all been inexpensive contributors in the Athletics franchise, which has gone 901-718 (.557) since Beane took over the reigns in 1998. He has led them to five playoff appearance, and posted the franchise only back-to-back 100-win seasons since 1931. 2007 was the first year a Beane team finished under .500 since his first year as GM. All this despite the fact that Oakland has never had a payroll higher than $80 Million or 16th best in the major leagues. When they won 100 games in '01 and '02, their payrolls were 29th and 28th, respectively.

Several of Beane's proteges have moved on to GM jobs of their own. Most notably, current Blue Jays GM J. P. Riccardi, who figures prominently in Moneyball. Many successful GMs, from both big and small markets, have adapted Moneyball tactics to fit there needs, including Theo Epstein in Boston, Kevin Towers in San Diego, and Walt Jocketty in St. Louis. They are both Beane disciples and innovators in their own right.

The simplest way to describe the Moneyball strategy when it comes to acquiring players via trades and free agency, is to say that it targets players who are "slightly damaged." That is, there is something about them that is going to raise the eyebrows of potential suitors, whether it is age, a weight problem, a weak throwing arm, a reckless temper, a history of injuries, an awkward delivery, a tendency to strike out, a defensive liability, a bad platoon split, or just plain slowness. Ideally, such a player also has a strength which is likely to go overlooked: discipline at the plate, reliability, endurance, bat control, or a good platoon split.

Here are a few examples:

Prior to the 2003 season, Beane masterminded a four-team trade, acquiring Erubiel Durazo from the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Athletics gave up the only player in the deal who never reached the majors, a relief pitcher named Jason Arnold. Durazo was slow, fat, and apparently unable to hit left-handed pitching, which is why he'd never been a full-time starter in Arizona. During his next two seasons in Oakland, playing everyday as the designated hitter, he hit 43 HR, scored 172 runs, and drove in 165 more. He even received a few votes for MVP in 2004. In 2003 he actually hit lefties better than righties. Over the course of those two seasons the Athletics paid Durazo a total of just over $3 Million. As a comparison, the Yankees paid Jason Giambi, a former Athletic, approximately $24 Million in '03-'04. He hit 53 HR, scored 130 runs, and drove in 147 RBI.

Between 2004 and 2005, Beane dealt two of his "Big Three" starting pitcher, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. For Mulder, he received Dan Haren, Daric Barton, and Kiko Calero from St. Louis. The Cardinals saw Haren as, at best, a back-end of the rotation starter, they were concerned about his lack of intensity on the mound and his tendency to give up the long ball. During the 2004 season they had even converted him into a reliever. Beane immediately inserted the 24-year-old into his rotation. Haren pitched upward of 200 innings in each of the next three seasons, going 43-34. Calero has been a valuable middle reliever, and Barton is likely to start next season as Oakland's first baseman. Meanwhile, Mulder has gone 22-18 in three injury-plagued seasons in St. Louis, while earning around $18 Million. Oakland has paid the trio of Haren, Barton, and Calero somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 Million.

In 2006, the Athletics signed Frank Thomas, the future hall-of-famer who'd watched from the disabled list as the White Sox, the team he'd spent 15 seasons with, won the World Series in 2005 and decided they no longer needed him. He was 38, coming off back-to-back injury plagued seasons. Beane signed him to be the A's DH for a measly $500,000, one sixteenth of what Thomas made from Chicago the year previous. He finished 2006 with 39 HR, 114 RBI, and a 925 OPS. He was fourth in the running for the MVP and led the Athletics to the playoffs, while the White Sox fell short on a return trip. Thomas' replacement, Jim Thome, was roughly his statistical equal, but he cost Chicago 28 times more money.

One might argue that Beane deftness in deals like these (as well as many others) inspired other GMs to take chances on guys like Carlos Pena (can't hit lefties), Dmitri Young (old, fat, tempermental), Josh Hamilton (addicted to meth), and Cris Carpenter (injury-prone).

This offseason we are seeing the backlash. There is no shortage of "slightly damaged" players
Mike Cameron is facing a suspension, coming of an injury and took a small step backward offensively and defensively in 2007. Andruw Jones just had the worst offensive season since his rookie year, appears a little pudgy, and isn't even considered an option by the team he's spent his entire career with. Bartolo Colon hasn't pitched more than 100 innings since he won the Cy Young in '05, he'll turn 35 in May, and weighs well over 250 lbs., regardless of what the media guide says. Barry Bonds, Milton Bradley, Jose Guillen, Eric Gagne, Carlos Silva, Jason Jennings: all come with serious risks. And yet, at least in these opening weeks of the Hot Stove season, few of these players seem resigned to taking a contract that, either in value or duration, compensates for such shortcomings. The somewhat understandable position of baseball agents has become, in the wake of Moneyball, that merely being an established major league player in your late twenties or early thirties means you're entitled to a big payday, regardless of any extenuating circumstances. This may appear to some as indicative of greed and stubbornness on the part of the players and their representation (and there may be some truth to that), but it is also true that the game generally and each individual team is more profitable than it has ever been. The benefits of supportive fans and diversified revenue streams should not be passed on only to the owners and players the caliber of A-Rod, Carlos Zambrano, and Ichiro, but to all the players, particularly those who have paid their dues, as Cameron, Jones, Colon, et al definitely have.

A few years ago, coming off a brutal injury and three straight season of declining productivity, Jermaine Dye, a power-hitting outfielder in his prime, took a two-year deal (with an optional third year) for under $10 Million. Dye turned in two solid, relatively healthy seasons for the White Sox (including an MVP-caliber campaign in '06) and was rewarded with an extension worth more than double the money. This would seem an appropriate template for Andruw Jones. The dollar values would be considerably higher, but the idea would be the same. Take a short term deal, re-establish himself, and then get an even bigger contract when he's 33 or 34. His agent, the ubiquitous Scott Boras, continues to quote Jones' expectations as somewhere between Torii Hunter (5 yr./$90 Mil.) and Vernon Wells (7 yr./$126 Mil.). I think it is almost certain that they will at least get a four or five year deal worth upwards of $15 Million per season. Cameron will likely end up in the range of Gary Matthews Jr. (5 yr./$50 Mil.) and Juan Pierre (5 yr./$44 Mil.), though maybe for less years.

As the market adapts, GMs will have to reconsider their Moneyball tactics. With less players taking short-term deals, there is a much higher price on reliability, even if it is merely reliable mediocrity (witness Jeff Suppan (4 yr./$42 Mil.), Jason Marquis (3 yr./$21 Mil.), and A. J. Pierzynski (3 yr./$18 Mil.)). Likewise, as we have already seen this offseason, we will probably be seeing more trades that have long-term repercussions for both clubs. There will be fewer deadline blockbusters and one-year rent-a-players. If you're giving up three or four top prospects for a Johan Santana, Miguel Cabrera, or Mark Texeira, you intend to sign them to a five or six year extension.

Although there is no guaranteeing that Beane will be at the forefront of the next trend, watch carefully what he does this offseason. He may be on the verge of blowing up his team, a la the Florida Marlins, beginning a full-scale, multiple season rebuilding process of the type that has been generally unpopular during the Moneyball era. If he trades away Joe Blanton and Dan Haren, as rumored, it will definitely be unconventional. Pitching is regarded as a rare commodity, so frontline starters almost never get traded in the middle of their contracts. Both Haren and Blanton have three years left before free agency at prices well below their market value. Beane can reasonable ask for packages equivalent to those being offered for Santana, Jon Garland, etc., because Haren and Blanton will be significantly cheaper investments. If Haren and Blanton get traded, I expect there could be a wholesale auction, with Rich Harden, Huston Street, Bobby Crosby, Dan Johnson, Mark Kotsay, and Nick Swisher all on the block. Beane will be looking for prospects around which to build his new suburban stadium.

So, who is the next Moneyball icon? The player who presents a moderate risk, with a sizable potential for reward? Later this week I'll outline a few free agents (or soon-to-be free agents) that fit the profile.

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