A decade ago, the Moneyball A’s were built by finding undervalued talent. Much of the credit went to the team’s moves with respect to trades and free agency. Of course, the true foundation for those teams was six or seven homegrown kids accounting for 30 WAR each season. They surprised the baseball world and created such a stir that a very talented writer documented their tale in a book. The A’s competed with the Yankees and Red Sox in the playoffs, and gave each of those teams a big scare before succumbing. Other teams eventually caught on to the A’s plan, and ever since Oakland has had to discover new ways to find talent on the cheap.
In the last few years, the Rays have been founded by finding undervalued talent. They’ve done so in the most cost effective market in baseball, the draft. They’ve supplemented their talented prospects with bargain free agents and unappreciated players via trade. Their best pitcher is a former #1 overall pick, and their best position player is a former #3 overall pick; they also have a #2 overall pick in the outfield, a #4 overall pick in the rotation, etc. The Rays surprised the baseball world and created such a stir that a very talented writer documented their tale in a book. They’ve made the playoffs three times in four years while competing in the same division with the Red Sox and Yankees. Other teams have begun to understand the value of players under their control.
There are other similarities of course. Both teams have trouble drawing fans even when they’re good. Both teams want a new stadium and are even willing to pay for some of it.* The comparison I’m currently most interested in though is not about the teams themselves, but rather who they’ll be competing with for playoff berths. The Rays are in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, the two big boys in baseball. Two teams that feel entitled to playoff spots and expect championships. The Blue Jays are also in the division, a team with deep pockets that’s on the rise and has been stuck in the shadow of the two giants for awhile. The Orioles suck, but boy can they spend money fruitlessly, and every now and then they put just enough pieces together to make some think, "maybe this year."
*It’s so dumb to me that cities bend over backwards to keep/lure professional sports teams. Every significant study has shown that building sports stadiums/arenas with public funds are bad investments. I know we're in the middle of a chase ourselves, so before this aside runs on for 1,000 words, I’ll get back to my point.
The A’s are chasing the Angels and Rangers, each of whom have made significant financial investments both this offseason and for the past several years. They're not Boston and New York, but they look an awful lot like them from the A's lowly perch. The Angels spent $330 million on one day to reign in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, and Arte Moreno has poured money into his team for years, often in really silly ways. The Rangers took Adrian Beltre from the A’s last offseason with an $80 million dollar contract and just spent $52 million more just for the right to negotiate with Yu Darvish. Nolan Ryan and his ownership team have made it very clear that they will make the financial commitment their front office thinks is necessary. Of course, both those teams can spend crazy dollars on free agents and still make money. If the A’s tried that, they’d be so deep in the red you’d think they were following Moses.
Don't sleep on the Mariners either. They're a terrible baseball team, for sure, but they have the pockets to make a splash whenever they need to. Their roster as currently constructed consists of three or four superstars/potential superstars and 50 feet of crap (TM). It seems they've finally come around on the fact that they need to be rebuilding. And I couldn't come up with a better analogy for the Astros, who will of course be joining the AL West in 2013, than the Orioles, who have spent a ton of money to win 72 games per season over the last decade. Which one is Miguel Tejada playing for next year?
The A's are positioning themselves to be ready to contend when they get their new ballpark, which they hope occurs for the 2015 season. Trading Trevor Cahill, exploring the market for Gio Gonzalez, and staying quiet in free agency all suggest that. It's quite a bit different than this time last year, when the A's added Josh Willingham, David DeJesus, Brandon McCarthy, Rich Harden and Hideki Matsui in a five-week stretch, then added two bullpen pieces in January. Last year, I believe the front office looked at the division and saw it as wide-open, causing them to go into "we can win this thing" mode. No team was projected to run away with the division.
Now, I think they know that 88 wins isn't going to be winning the AL West any time soon, and if they're going to contend, there may need to be some ugly times while acquiring a set of talent that will be ready to contribute at the same time. Giambi-Tejada-Chavez-Hudson-Mulder-Zito aren't walking through that door, but that needs to be the mentality. And if it needs to get ugly before we get there, so be it. I'm all for it, because there's nothing worse than watching your team win 79 or 84 games every year. Ask a Blue Jays fan.