Billy Beane and the rest of the A’s front office got famous for being the most visible sabermetric organization, and as Matt noted, it served them well for the first half of the decade. They exploited opportunities in value to build contending teams on the cheap, and were able to win in spite of low payrolls and general fan disinterest.
Unfortunately for the A’s, the proverbial cat is out of the bag. The list of organizations that could now be described as stat-centric is longer than ever. Everyone is now reading from the same general playbook, and while there will always be inefficiencies to exploit, they are now much, much harder to monopolize. When the A’s were going for OBP or defense, they didn’t have many people bidding for those types of players – now, they’re fighting big market franchises with similar ideals when they try to pursue players like Adrian Beltre.
Beyond just a league wide acceptance of the principles the A’s have built their organization on, their division is now an ineptitude free zone. The Mariners went from disaster to contender at the same time that the Rangers built a monster farm system and have committed themselves to spending wisely rather than wasting money on big money contracts for mediocre pitchers. And, of course, there’s the Angels, flexing their big market payroll and keeping the talent flowing from their minor league system.
The AL West is no longer an easy division to win, and it’s only getting stronger. While the A’s are still a very well run team, their relative advantage over their peers has all but evaporated, and now they’re fighting an up hill battle to contend against better resourced smart teams.
Unfortunately for the A’s, their best chance to win is now to hope they catch a few breaks, and that’s the direction they’ve headed. They bet their 2010 season on the health of Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer; if it works, they could contend, but if they both land on the DL, there’s not enough talent in Oakland to keep up with the rest of the division.
If this was just a one year thing, that would be okay, but this is essentially what the A’s are going to have to do on an annual basis. They can’t afford low risk premium talent, so they’ll have to bet on guys with baggage to get the necessary upside onto the roster. It will work sometimes, but other years it will fail spectacularly, because the A’s playoff hopes are now going to inevitably be tied to keeping injury prone guys healthy (or hoping that whatever other risk they’ve taken on doesn’t come to fruition).
You can’t blame the A’s for adopting this strategy, given the circumstances. It will allow them to contend, just not annually. Given their budget and the relative strength of their competitors, that might be the best they can hope for until they get a better stadium, better attendance, or both.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.