Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball is famous primarily for its description of how the Oakland A’s, a team with extreme salary restrictions, was able to compete in an unfair and unbalanced market.
It’s the ultimate Cinderella story, the epitome of David vs. Goliath, what have you. But just one thing is missing from this fairy tale: the A’s don’t win the championship, or as GM Billy Beane describes it, “The last game of the season.” In fact, arguably the best Beane quote in the entire book doesn’t exactly go hand-in-hand with the plot.
“My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs,” says Beane. “My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck.”
Beane said those words in 2002, the same year the A’s won 103 games and captivated all of baseball with a 20-game win streak, but lost to the Twins in the Division Series. Ditto that result in 2001, when “fucking luck,” otherwise known as Derek Jeter, intervened with a glove flip for the ages that swung the momentum of the series.
Since the turn of the century, the A’s have won six division titles and made the playoffs seven times, but have gotten out of the Division Series just once – in 2006, when they were promptly swept by the Tigers in the ALCS.
If you read Moneyball, watched the movie or follow the A’s, you know what Beane’s “shit” is. Not once did the A’s rank higher than 20th in the league in payroll during those seven playoff years. Instead, Beane has to be the anti-Yankees, finding cheap players and mixing-and-matching his way to building a roster. Remember in the movie when Beane replaced Jason Giambi with Scott Hatteberg, David Justice, and Jeremy Giambi, three players he picked off the scrapheap because their on-base percentage matched that of Giambi? Yeah, that’s how he rolls.
Except, as history as shown, it doesn’t work come playoff time. You can tip your cap if Derek Jeter does Derek Jeter things, but that was 13 years ago. For the past two seasons, the A’s have failed to advance past the first round in large part because the Tigers have Justin Verlander, a $219 million franchise pitcher. No matter how much mixing-and-matching and platooning they do, the A’s don’t have the star-power at the plate or on the mound to combat a Verlander or a Miguel Cabrera. (Bartolo Colon, anyone?)
But this Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester and Johnny Gomes deal changes everything. If Beane didn’t already make it clear by bringing in Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, he’s trying to not only get his team to the playoffs, but actually win in the playoffs. This is Beane standing toe-to-toe with the Tigers, able to put four aces in a row out on the mound in any given playoff series. This is Beane sacrificing his stud outfielder for what could very well be a two-month rental of Lester, because he realizes that good pitching trumps good hitting in the postseason. This is Beane showcasing his balls of steel, which as Grantland’s Jonah Kerl describes in a killer lede, require a “gold-plated protective case.”
It has taken Beane seven playoff failures to decide that this is the year – the year that he is going all in, trying to make his “shit” work in the playoffs. He is no longer responsible solely for getting his annual Cinderella squad to the postseason and letting luck decide its fate. No, he is going to dictate what happens in the postseason because he has assembled a monster of a pitching rotation, perhaps better than the Zito-Hudson-Mulder trio.
Which is why this is a risk. There’s no guarantee that it’s going to be an easy march to the World Series – the aforementioned trio never got past the first round, either. But the way Beane has conducted business means the A’s better win now, as in, this year. They have already mortgaged 2016 by trading Addison Russell. Now, by trading Cespedes, they have mortgaged his 2015 season because Lester probably won’t re-sign. Plus, Samardzija is a free agent in 2016, and Hammel hits the market this offseason. There’s also no guarantee that they’ll get the same production out of Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez next season (Chavez has already started to struggle), and Kazmir is a free agent after next year. With Tommy Milone getting dealt to the Twins yesterday for Sam Fuld, that leaves Sonny Gray as the lone locked-in member of the starting rotation beyond 2016, and we haven’t even talked about the rest of the roster. The A’s championship window is closing now – literally, right now – and it might not stay open beyond this season.
Beane surely understands that risk. The last thing he wants to see is for the A’s to lose the division to the Angels, have their season end in the one game Wild Card play-in, and never even get to use Lester in the postseason before he bolts back to Boston to join Cespedes – who’ll probably love Fenway Park, by the way – and have that duo lead the Red Sox to the 2015 World Series while Beane is forced to trade Samardzija for prospects before his contract expires. No, that would be just awful to think about, and probably 10 times worse than how trading for Matt Holliday turned out.
This is Beane, for once, saying, “Screw the future.” With this trade, he’s putting all his chips on the table, and banking on hitting the jackpot. But if for some reason it doesn’t happen – if this doesn’t work in the playoffs – then I don’t know if Beane can try anything else.