Jonah Keri on the A's and Rays

By Jason Wojciechowski on January 5, 2012 at 5:30 PM

I'm in the Oakland airport on the free wifi with my work computer and it's 5:30. My flight boards in one hour. Let's make this happen.

First up, Jonah Keri's provocatively titled essay at Grantland on how the A's are crying poor to try to force Bud Selig's hand and get the team to San Jose. There's plenty to agree with here. The A's most certainly are crying poor, and it's awfully convenient that they're punting this season just as the discussions about whether to transfer San Jose from Giants "territory" to A's "territory" are coming to a head.

But there's plenty to ... well, maybe not disagree with, but at the very least question. The core problem Keri has with Billy Beane's argument is that he doesn't believe "windows of opportunity" for low-revenue clubs are shrinking. This is a position Beane has taken repeatedly over the last few years. Now, Keri does write that "[t]here is a nugget of truth behind this Window obsession" because these teams have trouble retaining the young stars they develop. But, to pull Keri's thesis:

It's a cover for cheap, greedy ownership, lousy scouting, drafting, and player development, and myopic trades.

There's a lot there! A's ownership certainly seems cheap, although it's hard to say for sure without good financial data. Major-league salary spending isn't the only spending there is, and this is the same ownership that let Beane sign Michael Ynoa with the largest signing bonus in history to that date. I feel like I've read that Beane has put together the best grounds crew in baseball to try to deal with the massive disruption caused by Raiders games, but I'm having trouble Googling it up. In any case, I don't know whether this ownership crew is (unreasonably) cheap. I would question whether Keri does, either. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think Keri actually cites anything beyond basic major-league salary for this contention.

Greedy? This is a nice insult in theory, if the ideal owner treats the team as some sort of public trust that exists for the benefit of the local community, but I'm not sure that reflects reality. By which I mean: show me an owner who isn't greedy.

As for the player development and scouting team, the A's certainly are guilty of not having turned out a cavalcade of stars to match the Mulder-Hudson-Zito-Chavez-Tejada-Giambi run, or, more to the point, the Longoria-Upton-Zobrist-Price-Shields-probablymissingsomeone run in Tampa. The thing I'd like to know, though, is how to disentangle luck, drafting position, and skill such that we can make competent outsider judgements. It's surely not reasonable to simply say "the players coming up aren't as good, so the front office has done a bad job," right? I mean, do you remember how highly Grant Desme was rated before he QUIT BASEBALL TO JOIN THE PRIESTHOOD?

I'm sorry for the allcaps, but my gosh, what a stroke of poor luck. I'm still frustrated about it, which is why I yelled. But anyway, my point is that luck obviously plays a part. There are aspects that are, plain and simple, out of the control of management. How much? I don't know. The issue is that I don't think Keri knows either.

I want to be clear, because I've been unnecessarily sarcastic and angry toward Jonah on this blog before: I don't think his argument is stupid or dishonest. I just think it falls prey to a particular problem that I see a lot of in baseball analysis: a lack of respect for the massive lack of information we, as outsiders, have.

There are other quibbles I could bring up (e.g. Huston Street was already an accomplished reliever when he was traded to Colorado and, if anything, he's taken a step back since his A's days), but the only other thing I really want to delve into is the question of whether the Rays are already a counterexample to Beane's Shrinking Windows theory. (Malcolm Gladwell, come interview me.) They'e been a good team for four years now. They retain their core, and thus ought to be good again this year. This means they're basically in the position the A's were in heading into 2003. Oakland made the playoffs that year, won 91 games the next season without Miguel Tejada but missed the postseason, traded Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, won 88 games and missed the postseason, went to the ALCS the year after, then lost Barry Zito and saw Eric Chavez's career (and their massive-for-the-A's investment) come tumbling down around them.

Note that what happened, basically, is that the A's stayed competitive through a second wave: Dan Haren came in a trade, Joe Blanton, Nick Swisher, and Bobby Crosby came up from the minors, Erubiel Durazo and Mark Kotsay were savvy finds, and so forth. Note the degradation, of course: beyond Haren, the A's pitchers weren't as good as the previous generation; Tim Hudson's trade returned nothing useful; Crosby is no Tejada; and so on. Beane patched and filled to replace the guys he couldn't keep as best he could, and he did a good enough job of it (and got lucky enough) to keep the team competitive after the initial wave of young players had crested and broken. The Rays haven't had to do this yet. They've made moves, of course, trading Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson (and getting good returns for both, though the Garza trade hasn't matured yet) and losing Carl Crawford, and they've brought up players like Matts Moore and Joyce (the latter obtained in the Jackson trade), but, as far as I can tell, David Price and Ben Zobrist could leave after 2013 (or be traded before then), and James Shields is starting to look pretty expensive. If their world doesn't fall apart in these next two years, then they have a claim that their window didn't shrink. If they're still contenders for the two years after that, then they've equaled the A's.

I'm not even down on the Rays. What they've done is amazing, and I think it's entirely within the realm of possibility that they'll at least match Oakland's longevity. My point here is just that it's hardly a fait accompli, and making the following statement:

There's no "used to be" about being strong three, four, or five years in a row now

when the Rays haven't actually won for five years in a row yet doesn't convince me.

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