When a low-payroll team trades one of its better, higher priced players, or a player who is on the brink of becoming a high-priced player, it is usually greeted with a derisive sneer as a salary dump. Given that the Oakland Athletics had traded two of their three best pitchers in 2004, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, with that accompanying view, the Athletics invited a “there they go again” reaction last winter when they traded their two best starters, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, and their closer, Andrew Bailey.
Lew Wolff, the man who pays the Athletics’ salaries and other bills, rejects that knee-jerk assessment.
“I guarantee it had nothing to do with payroll,” Wolff said on the telephone last Thursday. “Each move was really well thought out. We just weren’t trading for the sake of trading. Those decisions were not casual. We had a meeting to do with the budget. These were well talked out. I think the team has benefited.”
The Athletics, with their major league-low $59 million payroll, had the best record among wild-card contenders for 12 consecutive days earlier this month and still maintain the second-best record, which means if the season ended today, they would have a spot in the post-season. Never before has the team with the lowest payroll reached the post-season.
This season is another testament to the front-office talent of general manager Billy Beane.
“I think he can do more with a dollar than anybody,” said a grateful Wolff.
Beane, however, doesn’t always emerge from his moves awash in glitter. He holds the distinction of trading this season’s first 20-game winner, Gio Gonzalez, who won 31 games with a 3.17 earned run average for the A’s the past two years. Despite Wolfe’s claim to the contrary, Gonzalez seemed to be traded because he was eligible for salary arbitration for the first time and was due for a hefty salary. As it was, the Nationals signed him to a 5-year, $42 million contract two weeks after obtaining him.
To Beane’s credit, one of the four players he received for Gonzalez has helped offset Gonzalez’s absence. Tommy Milone, a 25-year-old left-hander, has a 13-10 record for Oakland, making him the team’s biggest winner. Right behind Milone at 11-8 is another rookie, 23-year-old right-hander Jarrod Parker.
The A’s most seasoned starter was Brandon McCarthy (8-6), but his season was a cut short by a line drive to the face Sept. 5.
Milone and Parker are not the only benefits the A’s have derived from the trades. In the deal for Cahill with the Diamondbacks, they acquired a relief pitcher, Ryan Cook, who has been a busy and reliable pitcher with a 6-2 record, 14 saves and a 2.38 e.r.a. in 63 games.
And there’s right fielder Josh Reddick, acquired from Boston for Bailey. Reddick, in his first full season, leads the Athletics with 29 home runs and 79 runs batted in.
Last winter’s trades have turned out to be more productive than the 2004 trades of Hudson and Mulder, who with Barry Zito formed the big three of Oakland’s pitching. From 2000 through 2003 the A’s won the division title three times and the wild card once. After they finished second in 2004, they traded Hudson and Mulder.
From Atlanta for Hudson they got pitchers Juan Cruz and Dan Meyer and outfielder Charles Thomas, for Mulder from St. Louis pitchers Dan Haren and Kiko Calero and first baseman Daric Barton.
Thomas played in 30 games and hit .109 in 2005, then was out baseball. Meyer had arm trouble, didn’t pitch for two years and then pitched two unspectacular years for the A’s, mostly in relief, before the Marlins claimed him on waivers.
Cruz spent one season with Oakland, relieving in 28 games, then was traded to Arizona for Brad Halsey, who started an interleague game against San Francisco May 20, 2006, and in the second inning threw a pitch that a designated hitter named Barry Bonds slugged for his 714th home run.
The A’s got more mileage out of the players they got for Mulder. Haren started for them for three years, compiling a 43-34 record. Calero relieved for them for four years, pitching in 179 games. Barton batted .252 in five years with them. Haren and Calero pitched for them in the 2006 post-season after they won the division title.
Now the A’s are looking for their recruits of last winter to play in the approaching post-season.
Wolfe, who has owned the team for eight years, said he has enjoyed his run whether or not the A’s have won.
“I really have enjoyed being in baseball even with our struggles with our venue,” he said, referring to his continuing effort to move the team to San Jose. “I enjoy every aspect of it at this stage in my life. Even in years that we didn’t do well, we had bright spots. It’s been exciting.”
Speaking about his team’s performance this season, he said, “Early in the year Billy laid out a plan for this year and the next two, three years. I didn’t expect this, but I expected the team to be competitive.”
Wolff is especially pleased with the managing job Bob Melvin has done. Melvin, who was hired in June 2011, previously managed Seattle and Arizona, winning a division title in 2007 with the Diamondbacks, but was then fired only 29 games into the 2009 season.
“Melvin is terrific,” Wolff said. “This is an intellectual guy who learns from experience. We couldn’t be more fortunate than to have Melvin and Beane.”
SELIG STILL STALLS ON SAN JOSE
Not everything, however, is rosy in Lew Wolff’s world. There is still that San Jose matter.
“I’m hoping finally to get some decisions sooner rather than later,” he said, “but I’ve agreed not to talk much about it.”
He meant he had promised Commissioner Bud Selig, his college classmate, that he wouldn’t make a fuss over Selig’s excruciatingly long time deciding the issue. The Athletics, playing in an antiquated park in Oakland with a disappearing fan base, want to move 40 miles or so south to San Jose. The Giants oppose the move, saying San Jose is their territory.
The Giants, however, conveniently ignore that the reason San Jose and all of Santa Clara is their territory is that a previous A’s owner, Walter Haas Jr., graciously gave up the Athletics’ share of the territory when the Giants were thinking about moving to Santa Clara. Obviously, in the small minds of the Giants’ owners, one good deed deserves a rotten one in return.
Several years ago a Giants’ managing partner told me the Haas story was an urban myth. If that is true, why are the details of the meeting at which Haas ceded the territory recorded in the minutes of the owners’ meeting? It is the Giants who are the urban myth.
For two and a half years, a committee appointed by Selig has been studying the matter. He has used the committee as an excuse not to make a decision, saying it was still conducting its study. “I haven’t heard Bud say that recently,” Wolff said.
What does Selig say about San Jose? “
“I just talked to Bob Starkey,” the committee chairman,” Selig said on the telephone Friday. “It’s a very complex situation. We’re doing a lot of work on it. I’m not going to speculate on when we might have a decision even though a lot of people would like to know.”
I have suspected that Selig has been delaying hoping that the two teams will work it out between themselves. That, however, will not happen. Owners and officials of the two teams don’t even talk to each other. The Athletics have tried, but the Giants have ignored them.
I have recently come up with another thought. Selig’s treatment of the San Jose dispute is beginning to resemble the way he has treated Pete Rose’s requests for reinstatement from his lifetime ban for betting on baseball. Rose submits an application for reinstatement, and Selig lets it sit. That’s what he’s doing with the A’s application for relocation.
It’s a shameful situation, one that demands that a man being paid $22 million a year make a decision after two and a half years.
“Baseball has its own clock,” Wolff said, his voice filled with resignation.
He added, “The reason we’ve gone younger and made the moves we’ve made is based on our belief that within our ability to keep these players, we’ll have a stadium.”
Meanwhile, the Giants get richer – they have the majors’ sixth highest payroll ($137 million) and the third highest attendance (3.2 million) – and the A’s get poorer – they have the lowest payroll ($59 million) and are 28th in attendance (1.5 million).
If Selig were to apply his favorite clause – the best interests of baseball – the solution would be simple. If the A’s move to San Jose, baseball will be stronger and the Bay area will be stronger. The A’s can thrive in San Jose, the Giants won’t miss it. But what if the commissioner says no to Wolff? What will he do?
“I don’t have a plan B,” he said, adding he wouldn’t consider moving to another region of the country. “We want to be in the Bay area,” he said, “and until we know the decision we won’t consider anything.”
Does he have a guess as to what Selig will do? “I think Bud will do what’s best for baseball,” he said.
POOR PIRATES PLUMMET PITIFULLY
That thud you heard last Thursday was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ falling back under .500, very likely on their way to a 20th consecutive season of losing won-loss records.
The Pirates were on their way to a strong season, having a winning record from June 3, moving into first place in the National League Central for a week early in July, leading the N.L. wild-card standings for two weeks later in July and early August, standing 16 games over .500 (63-47) Aug. 8. But the season was too long.
“Stop the season, we want to get off,” they cried, but no one listened, and they had to keep playing. Beginning Aug. 9 through Saturday, they had an 11-30 record. You can’t lose 30 of 41 games and expect to end a 19-year losing streak.
Three weeks ago, when the Pirates had a 70-60 record, I wrote that their magic number was 11 or 12 – 11 to avoid a losing season, 12 to have their first winning season in two decades. Since then they have won only 4 of 21 games.
The disappointment in the Pirates’ clubhouse over the spoiled season has to be too great for manager Clint Hurdle to motivate a comeback that would produce 7 or 8 victories in their remaining 11 games to finish 81-81 or 82-80.
In recent years, when someone would raise the question of the string of losing seasons, players could evade the question by saying, “That doesn’t mean anything to me. I wasn’t here for all of those seasons.” Next season, though, the players who are still in the Pirates’ clubhouse will have to face the questions about 2012. It won’t be easy.
GETTING THE PENALTY RIGHT
The Toronto Blue Jays got it wrong, and Major League Baseball was just as wrong for endorsing the three-game suspension without pay of the Blue Jays’ shortstop Yunel Escobar. The 29-year-old Cuban was disciplined for writing a Spanish term derogatory to gay men on his eye black for a game. There was a better penalty.
Escobar could have been ordered to stand at home plate at Rogers Centre in front of a blackboard, surrounded by thousands of fans, and write on the board 500 times each, in Spanish and English, “I will not write or make any derogatory remarks about gay people or any ethnic or gender group.”