As we await the beginning of, most likely, the defining series of the Oakland Athletics 2010 season, I'd like to take a little full-scale view of why I think the winter of 2010 and the 2011 season will be the defining year(s) of the Athletics franchise as we know it.
Like it or not, it certainly seems like the Athletics ownership group - which now includes Billy Beane - has placed an "all-in" bet on moving the franchise to San Jose. Lew Wolff has repeatedly contended that he has no interest in pursuing a new stadium option anywhere but San Jose.
What This Means to Me: If MLB does not allow the A's rights to Santa Clara County and also does not broker an immediate deal with Oakland/Alameda County on a stadium deal, then I believe there will be a cascade effect that will overhaul the entire organization. If MLB says that the A's must find a stadium option in Alameda County without brokering a deal favorable to ownership and within a very tight window of time, I believe that Woff/Fisher will sell the team at the earliest possible juncture. I just can't see a scenario where businessman Wolff does a polite U-turn and starts from scratch with Oakland and tries to heal all the wounds in the greater Oakland community created by his processes of the past few years, all on his own and with his own cash. The guy is getting older and is looking for a "legacy" project...he is looking to getting a San Jose deal done, retiring and then spending the rest of his years congratulating himself from his owner's box at the brand new ballpark he created. He's not going to labor for 2, 3, 4 or 5+ years and sink more capital into the team just for the sake of trying to work it out with Oakland. It's San Jose, a major immediate handout from MLB and the City of Oakland...or bust.
Now...since Beane is part of the ownership group and is also likely out for a "legacy" project before likely retiring from the GM position for good...I think that any ownership group change will mean the end of the Beane era in Oakland. I just can't see the team getting sold to an entirely new group, maybe buying out Beane's ownership stake and then offering him a job where he would have a diminished role to the one he currently has. Even if they were to retain him as minority owner, I just don't think he'd be open to staying on with the new group. I think he'd say, "No thanks...cash me out. I'm going to buy a soccer team and revolutionize that sport."
What This Means to the Product on the Field: In my opinion, this organization is also "All In" with the current "core" group of players...mainly the pitching staff. If the front office can't find a way to surround this pitching staff with at least a halfway decent offense that can get this team into the playoffs, then within 2 years I predict that another massive rebuild will be necessary for the organization - especially if a San Jose or Oakland stadium deal does not come together within the next year. I highly, highly doubt that Beane would stick around to guide that particular rebuild process, especially if ownership changed and knowing that he'd probably be stuck in the Coliseum for the rest of his career.
That being said...the clock is already ticking on this "core". It's great that ownership seems committed to keeping most of these guys together, especially Anderson and Suzuki - I also fully expect Cahill to get an extension soon too. The pitching looks to be taken care of for the next few years. What we all know is not taken care of - the offense. We all know that there are some intriguing bats in the mid and upper levels of the minor league system. However, as we saw a few weeks ago, even the best of that crop probably isn't even fully ready for the big leagues (Carter). It might be a full 2 years before those bats on the farm fully establish themselves as legitimate big league hitters.
This pitching staff and this ownership group simply doesn't have that much time, in my opinion. The lip service about "doing everything organically, from within" is great and it really is the only way small-market teams can sustain long-term performance success...but every now and then, an injection is needed from outside the organization (and I'm not talking about steroids). Right now is one of those times.
I do not believe that this influx of offense can or will come via trade...every team will be asking for Oakland pitching in return for any star-level player. As I've said numerous times on this site...there is no such thing as "adequate depth" of starting pitching, especially for this calamity-prone organization. Over the next several seasons, Oakland will need every good, young starting pitcher currently in the higher-levels of the system, which, on first glance would include Anderson, Cahill, Braden, Gio, Mazzaro, Mortensen, Ross and Outman...at the very least. Even with all those arms, a trade of one of those guys would leave the Oakland staff one significant injury away from non-contention.
I guess it's theoretically possible that a deal for a star could be put together for some combination of other prospects, but I just don't think the Dodgers will trade Matt Kemp for Travis Banwart and Travis Buck...do you? Maybe they could do something with Ian Krol and a position player prospect or two, but that would just absolutely devastate the farm system for years. Why not just spend the money (while you have it) and keep the depth and cost-controlled talent?
So I think in terms of free agents...this winter presents both Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, both of whom - as grover points out in his thread - could be afforded for many, many years by this ownership group under current budgetary constraints and both of whom would provide immediate upgrades to this offense. I'd favor Werth under a shorter contract, but it doesn't really matter all that much. The point is: Beane needs to get one of them this winter. He can and should do this (in my opinion) by simply offering both more money and more years for either player.
Why Hand These Guys a Blank Check?: Basically...because we all know they need to, for a variety of reasons including the home facilities. But I digress. As I detailed above, I really do think that this window of great pitching needs to be taken advantage of, because it likely won't reoccur for a long, long time. This team needs IMMEDIATE hitting help...not nearly-ready prospects that may or may not "develop" into great hitters. They need guys that can and will hit well in the major leagues. Also, the great pitching will likely be cost controlled for at least a year or two from now, which is why it's very important to spend the money now.
What will happen in 3-4 years when these guys are old and expensive? Well, from the perspective of the A's ownership group...who cares? At that point, either the A's organization will be in a new facility that will allow the organization a little budgetary wiggle room...or, the team will have been sold to a new group who will inherit that particular contract(s). The point is...they need these guys now, and the problem will take care itself later.
So What Does it All Add Up to and Why Next Year: Well, the clock is ticking both on and off the field for this franchise. At some point later this year or next, the league will issue it's recommendation regarding the stadium issue and T-rights. This will be the absolute most critical development to happen to this franchise since they first moved to Oakland from KC, IMHO. A recommendation for San Jose would probably be the most expeditious for the further development of the team, as there would be a chance a few members of the current team may still be around to open a San Jose stadium. On the other hand...a recommendation to keep T-rights status quo and keep the A's in the East Bay will likely extend any type of new construction of an East Bay stadium at least a few years, making it incredibly unlikely that any current A's will open a new East Bay stadium in the later parts of this decade.
Note: I am about as 100% neutral in the whole Oakland vs. San Jose dispute as anyone. Personally, I like Oakland as a city more, but I also see all of what San Jose has done so far, and goddamn it, I just want a new stadium built as quickly as possible somewhere in Northern California.
For better or worse, any binding development that would keep the A's in the East Bay would likely mean the end of the current ownership group, in my opinion. There is the possibility that a viable stadium option in Oakland is being worked on at this moment behind the scenes...which is all well and great, but if that were the case, and Wolff was privy to it, I don't think it would change things too much. I still don't think he'd want to invest his $500 million in Oakland without some major city and MLB support...which is just not going to happen in this economic climate.
Also in 2011: Billy Beane will become an international celebrity with the release of the Moneyball the movie. I'd imagine that the 2011 A's will receive at least some sort of increased attention or even scrutiny from the national media when the movie comes out...it would be a pretty embarrassing thing if, when that movie comes out, the A's are a sub-.500 team still struggling mightily to score runs. Of course...I doubt Beane would make personnel decisions based on his perception in a movie...but still, good teams generate good PR, and the effect of a good team plus a good movie on the perception (and dare I say value) of this franchise would likely be very positive. So I think from an ownership/marketing perspective, having a good team on the field in 2011 makes a lot of sense.
So What Are you Getting At, Taj?: Basically...that the A's have the money, the need and the long and short-term incentives to be major shoppers in free agency this winter. And especially this winter and especially with two marquee players that will fill major holes on this team for many years AND who could be the piece or pieces that send this team into the playoffs and beyond.
But What About Draft Picks?: See a few notes above...either this team will be good and rich enough to where a lost 2011 draft pick will not severe disadvantage a 2014 or 2015 team...or the entire problem will be someone else's, after an inevitable ownership change. Also...a new CBA will come into effect after 2011 that may reshape the draft as we know it, even allowing teams to trade draft picks...which could theoretically allow the A's to trade for the draft pick (or a 2012 equivalent) that they originally lost for signing a free agent in the first place...what a concept!
So How Will it End?: Really, it seems like no one knows. In a perfect world - speaking purely in terms of the most expeditious way of making the A's as rich and competitive as possible - the A's sign Werth or Crawford this winter, the T-rights issue is resolved this winter or in early 2011, a special election partially funded by MLB is held in San Jose in the Spring of 2011, the public overwhelmingly agrees with the measure, Moneyball hits theaters and euphoria sweeps over the A's, the Coliseum is packed for it's last few years of use as a baseball facility, the A's routinely head to the playoffs during their last 3 years in Oakland, all of the land and infrastructure stuff is resolved and the A's begin playing in Cisco Field in 2014.
Of course...there is just a ton of things that have to go right for that scenario to play out. And at this point, the ONLY thing entirely (or at least pretty close to entirely) under the control of the A's is the first step in that process: the A's can and should sign a marquee free agent this winter.
Unfortunately...the rest of the team's fate is not under the control of the ownership group or us the fans. All that can be done by the A's to take advantage of this great pitching and get some guaranteed offense as soon as possible. I guess we'll just have to see what happens...it's certainly going to be a wild next 15 months!