Gammons: A's faced with obstacles
Stadium, budget issues force GM Beane to be creative
It's not like Oakland was ever a baseball town like St. Louis. Even when the Athletics were in the midst of winning three consecutive World Series titles from 1972-74, owner Charles O. Finley had members of the front office distributing box lunches in the press box, and the Coliseum was hardly ever filled.
Then, after they won their fifth consecutive divisional title in 1975, Finley saw with free agency coming that he couldn't survive by trying to hold onto his very talented veteran players. He cited how Connie Mack twice won and then dismantled the team in Philadelphia and tried to follow his lead, attempting to sell Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Yankees and Red Sox on June 15, 1976 -- a month before a historic labor agreement took effect giving teams six years of Major League control over players before they could go to free agency -- only to be blocked by then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. By the late '70s, the Coliseum had been nicknamed "The Mausoleum" and about all that was memorable was M.C. Hammer giving Finley the play-by-play via a press box phone.
The Haas family bought out Finley in 1980 and through the creative genius of team president Roy Eisenhardt and his subsequent hiring of a brilliant attorney named Sandy Alderson, the franchise was revived in the early '80s. Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart and the now-Bash-terisked "Bash Brothers" team won one World Series, three pennants and four division titles from 1988 to 1992.
They once again stripped the roster down and Alderson and general manager Billy Beane rebuilt the club. With Beane at the helm, the Athletics began a run in 1999 of eight consecutive winning seasons, including five playoff appearances.
Hey, the A's have a 110-year history of being down at the crossroads of relocation in Philadelphia, Kansas City and Oakland (Finley once tried to move the club to Louisville, as well), and after three seasons averaging 75 wins, they are back at that crossroads, a day away from where they want to be.
The Coliseum has been trashed by the NFL's answer to Hell's Angels. The A's drew slightly over 1.4 million fans last season, the fewest in the Majors. Matt Holliday hated the place. Beane offered more years and more money to free agents Adrian Beltre and Marco Scutaro than did the Red Sox, and both ended up in Boston. Unless a compromise can be struck with the Giants on territorial rights in San Jose, to save the franchise owned by his college roommate Lew Wolfe, the future may once again raise the specter of contraction.
Beane is trying to restore the Athletics to take the Bay Area's eyes off Tim Lincecum and The Kung Fu Panda, Pablo Sandoval. It's not as if they were dreadful; they won 75 games, more than eight other teams, and their run differential (-2) was better than 13 teams. Andrew Bailey won the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
But because their payroll must remain in the mid-$50 million range, their resources are far from that of the Angels ($120 million), Mariners ($100 million) or even the Rangers ($80 million). Beane signed Ben Sheets for $10 million, Coco Crisp for $5.25 million, and then ate $1.3 million in the Aaron Miles-Willy Taveras deal to grab left side utilityman Adam Rosales. He then re-signed Michael Wuertz and Justin Duchscherer to deals that were two years, $5.25 million and one year at $2 million, respectively.
Yet, whether it's Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA or the numerology used by different teams, the A's are considered serious contenders in the AL West. These prognostications for the upcoming season show the A's win totals ranging anywhere from 80-82 and six games out of the AL West, to one team's formula, which has them winning 89 games, more than any AL team not based in New York, Boston or St. Petersburg.
What Beane tried to do in 2009 was get Holliday, Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera and some veteran players to join what turned out to be the youngest pitching rotation in the league. That didn't work; after winning two of their first three games (against the Angels), the A's never got over .500 for the rest of the season. But some development occurred, as Brett Anderson became one of the best young left-handed pitchers in the league and Bailey (1.84 ERA, 49 hits in 83 1/3 innings and a 91-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio) closed for a bullpen that was one of the two best in the league, with Wuertz (52 hits, 102 strikeouts in 78 2/3 innings), Brad Ziegler and Craig Breslow. And this bullpen should be better with Joey Devine coming off injury.
Now with Sheets, Anderson, Duchscherer, Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill and Vin Mazzaro, the staff should be good from start to finish.
OK, the offense didn't work, finishing ninth in the AL in runs, last in homers and 12th in OPS. But between the ninth, first and second holes, manager Bob Geren can play around with Crisp, Ryan Sweeney and last year's revelation, Rajai Davis. Kurt Suzuki can hit second or third, Kevin Kouzmanoff, DH Eric Chavez, Jack Cust and Daric Barton can all bat somewhere in the middle. The pitching, theoretically, will cushion the pressure as they bring their young position players up from Sacramento during the season. Some of the prospects who could see time in Oakland this season are outfielder Michael Taylor (acquired from Philadelphia through Toronto in the Roy Halladay trade this offseason), first baseman Chris Carter (92 home runs over his last three Minor League seasons), infielder Adrian Cardenas, first baseman-outfielder Sean Doolittle and second baseman Jemile Weeks, a former first-round Draft pick.
"By the late part of the season, we should have a pretty good young team," Beane said. "We just have to have some patience."
If the Athletics do win the division, perhaps it will attract enough attention to give the franchise the hope of a real ballpark. But it will not be easy. The Angels are always good. Seattle and Texas turned their teams around last season with serious defensive upgrades, and the Mariners now have Cliff Lee to go with Felix Hernandez. The AL West had the best record outside its division of any of the six in baseball.
The Athletics are 160 games above .500 over the last dozen seasons, and if the stadium had been maintained and honed as a baseball-only facility, maybe it would have worked. Even with the possibility that the A's could be the best team in their division in 2010, right now there doesn't seem to be much hope that the franchise can ever be much more than fattening frogs for snakes.
Too bad. Intelligence and competence should matter, but in this case it doesn't, which is how the Raiders rule and the A's are pleading to find a way to get them into San Jose, or out, period.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.