Oakland is in the midst of its second purge in three seasons. The difference this time is EVP of baseball operations Billy Beane hints he’s building a team to come online in time for a new stadium. But is that just more wishful thinking?
Billy Beane is the only executive in baseball history who will ever be portrayed by Brad Pitt in a film. Prior to the Moneyball phenomenon, an actor playing a typical front office guy would be forced into the makeup chair for hours getting spidery nose veins, auxiliary neck folds and sand bags added beneath bloodshot eyes to puff up the old buck-stops-here, cliche-spewing cuss to mangled proportions.
What author Michael Lewis, and Pitt by extension, did was showcase Beane as an affable genius; a man who knew how to mesh analytics with a keen interest in people to come up with a formula that was ground-breaking—one that has come to define the game for the last decade. The Beane of semi-fiction also made the GM seem facile, fit and flexible, an enviable alpha answer to the cigar mashing red ass swelled to Jabba portions replete with dirigible-sized heads and larger than life appetites for women, drink, red meat and, of course, “winning.”
The real Billy Beane legacy, however, is a little more complicated. In Oakland, after ownership gave him a minority stake in the team to prevent him from fleeing to Boston in 2002, he has been hamstrung by budget concerns. As his career rounds third, his triumphs might be best measured by the performance of his successors.
Of the notables, Theo Epstein, Dayton Moore, AJ Preller and Jeff Luhnow, the singular heir apparent is the Los Angeles Dodgers’ GM Farhan Zaidi. Born in Canada, raised in the Philippines, Zaidi is of Pakistani descent and is baseball’s only Muslim GM. (<– Someday, we may live in a country where that’s not important to point out. Today is not that day.) The 40-year-old former wunderkind never picked up a baseball after high school; instead he graduated from MIT and earned a doctorate in behavioral economics from UC Berkeley. Recently, he has publicly broken MLB protocol that GMs should remain apolitical and stood up against Trump’s travel ban.
Zaidi had just finished his 10th season with Oakland—where he rose to assistant GM under Beane’s guidance—when the Dodgers came calling in November, 2014. Unlike his mentor, Zaidi is blessed with the ability to manage the biggest payroll in baseball. Since he came on board in Los Angeles, he has shrunk the team’s outgoing costs each year, getting rid of dead contracts and overpaid/underperforming veterans in the process and bringing Oakland’s ethos, to draft talent and groom from within back to the Dodgers—the organization known from the ‘60s through the ‘80s as the best farm in baseball and the franchise that opened the doors to Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
The thumbnail below shows on a macro level the results of Zaidi’s rebuilding of the Dodgers from within. On the field, the shift to Moneyball ethos has produced rising stars Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Kenley Jansen and Kenta Maeda. Zaidi also made key acquisitions that didn’t take a raft of prospects to acquire (Justin Turner, Alex Wood) and locked up homegrown veterans (Clayton Kershaw, Andre Ethier) to manageable long-term deals. Beane’s protege is now steering the ship of the odds-on favorite to win the 2017 World Series.
Oakland, by contrast, is currently 20 games out of first and at the front end of its most recent purge. Owner John Fisher of the fading GAP empire took over day-to-day duties in November after real estate mogul and baseball’s most notorious slumlord Lew Wolff sold the majority of his share. But so far under Fisher, it’s the same parting out, different year.
The M.O. in Oakland since the late-’90s has been to rake in profit-sharing dollars while grooming All Star components for larger market contenders. The team for the last decade has drawn fewer than 20,000 per game and its current valuation ($880 million) is last in baseball. Its $81 million payroll is currently third from last. As baseball’s second-longest tenured in a front office, (Beane started in 1997, the Giants’ Brian Sabean was hired in 1996) Beane not only hasn’t won a World Series in Oakland, but has managed to advance past the AL Division Series only once (2006).
Though budget-conscious A’s evangelists will note the franchise has made a respectable eight playoff appearances in Beane’s 20 seasons as a small-payroll team—the consistent effort to keep payroll in the eight-figure range has yielded mixed and sometimes stupefying results.
This season’s imminent fire sale is the the team’s second major overhaul in three years. In 2014, after giving up a four-run lead in the 8th inning of the American League Wild Card Game to eventual pennant winners Kansas City, Beane sent the whole team packing. Just three months prior, the A’s delivered a franchise-tying record (1975) seven All Stars to the 2014 midsummer classic. They were Yoenis Céspedes, Josh Donaldson, Scott Kazmir, Brandon Moss, Derek Norris, Jason Hammel and Jon Lester. All were gone via trade or free agency by the conclusion of the following winter talks.
Only one Athletic of that core group, reliever Sean Doolittle, remained on the team. That was until Saturday when Beane traded him along with bullpen mate Ryan Madson to the Washington Nationals for right-hander Blake Treinen and two prospects—left-hander Jesus Luzardo and third baseman Sheldon Neuse.
Beane Sunday said what he usually says during such times of tear down—that the trade “fits into everything in the direction we’re going.” He is likely going to say the same thing when he loses infielder Jed Lowrie, Cuban first baseman Yonder Alonso and right-handed ace Sonny Gray to teams in the hunt by month’s end.
…But then he said something else: “Really what’s been missing the last 20 years is keeping these players. We need to change that narrative by creating a good team and ultimately committing to keep them around.
“This is my 20th year on the job. There are only so many cycles that I can go through before I get as exasperated as everybody else. …Again, I’ve been assured by ownership that that’s what we’re going to do as it parallels with the stadium.”
Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is the fourth-oldest stadium in baseball (1968) and the only one that is about to crumble over a monolith built to late Raiders owner Al Davis. Potential new local locations include Jack London Square or a new stadium build on the current site. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred hinted during the All Star break that he’s willing to see if Fisher can put together a deal in Oakland and is willing to give him “one year” to do so. But the sentiment sounded passive aggressive, reminiscent of then-commissioner Bud Selig as he waited on Dodgers’ embattled owner Frank McCourt to make some moves that weren’t self-dealing before baseball took custodianship of the Dodgers in 2011—eventually finding a new owner, investment firm giant Guggenheim Partners.
So Oakland is on the clock with Portland, Montreal, Mexico City and Las Vegas all in the offing for a franchise. Owner Fisher has other problems brewing outside of baseball. GAP stock is down to $22/share (its all time high was $51 in 2000) and the company is facing store closures and reorganization across its three major brands (GAP, Old Navy and Banana Republic) as brick-and-mortar retail in this country continues to be decimated.
On the political side of things, Oakland City Council refuses to be burned by another stadium quagmire. Oakland is currently negotiating with Alameda County to pay off the balance of its $100 million debt outstanding from the rebuild of the Coliseum that brought the silver and black back from L.A. 21 years ago. The result of that deal is the Raiders are moving, again, this time to Las Vegas to kick off there in fall 2019.
No matter what Beane says or plans to do, the picture is far from rosy in Oakland. It seems unlikely Fisher has the money or the clout to get a stadium deal done in there, else he and Wolff would have by now. And Manfred’s goal of world domination does not include bottom-dwelling franchises that ride the coattails of more aggressive spenders.
If the current tech bubble holds for another couple years, there is enough cash sloshing around the Bay Area that Oakland could land a deep-pocketed investment group a la Joe Lacob (Warriors) who would press right away to finance a new stadium there and give a GM the ability to build a championship-caliber team with which to furnish it. But chances are it won’t happen with the current ownership group—and that includes Beane.