As fans, we have a love-hate relationship with the reality of a low payroll. For one, Beane has been able to consistently find talented players despite his payroll limitations. With that, A's fans have embraced the idea of the scrappy, do-more-with-less A's. The Rays before it was popular to be like the Rays, if you will. On the other hand, fans lament the harsh reality of operating in such an environment. The departure of key players to free agency and large paydays (Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Barry Zito), or more recently, the trade of beloved players BEFORE they hit free agency (Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill) has no doubt created the impression that the A's are a team of transients. More than any other MLB team's fans, it is the case that A's fans root for the laundry.
A comment in baseballgirl's story yesterday asserted that the A's would dominate if given a Giants'-sized payroll. That got me thinking what it would be like had Beane not made the shrewd moves he did, and instead considered re-signing his homegrown stars. My thoughts on how that might look like follow.
The most controversial moves he made were shipping off both Cahill and Gonzalez, two pitchers who had combined for 409 innings in 2011. In return, he netted several key players for the 2012 stretch run: Ryan Cook, Tom Milone, Derek Norris, and Jarrod Parker. From a pure numbers (WAR) perspective, Beane basically executed a wash: 8.7 (if you include Cowgill) vs. 8.8 for Cahill and Gonzalez. However, a more important thing also happened in these trades: while generally talent is most useful consolidated into as few players as possible, Beane also filled the holes in his roster. The two rotation spots, late-inning reliever role, and (eventual) starting catcher role were all taken care of. In other words, rather than promoting replacement-level players to take those spots (as had happened in the past), major-league ready players were available to fill the spots.
A classic Beane move also helped to fill out the roster, when Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney were shipped away to Boston for couldn't-crack-the-Red Sox-OF rotation Josh Reddick, and two promising minor leaguers. Despite shipping away his only MLB caliber outfielder on the roster, Beane definitely won this trade, as Reddick went on to become a top-5 RFer in the game. I think this trade goes down one way or another, given Beane's history of selling high on well-regarded closers. After all, even if he had money, Beane doesn't seem like the type of GM to have profligate ways.
As a whole, the problem with trying to see if the A's would have kept these players with money, though, is that we don't know what the A's knew. Indeed, the A's did ink Cahill to a 5-year extension in April 2011 with two option years, i.e., the kind of extension that a team with money to spend might have done. Beane went on record at the time saying that Cahill had made great strides in his pitching. Naturally, he turned around 7 months later and traded him. So, was this trade a product of the A's seeing something in Cahill that they didn't like? Was it simply that Kevin Towers dangled Jarrod Parker, the A's knew he would be better than Cahill immediately, and sought an upgrade + spare parts? Or was it truly that the A's signed Cahill to an extension, but knew he would become unaffordable relatively quickly? In other words, was it all about the money?
The case for trading Gio Gonzalez is made somewhat more easily during last year's offseason. While Gio has tremendous stuff, his BB% didn't not appreciably improve from 2010-2011 (10.8 to 10.5). Was this Gio's ceiling? Of course, Gio went on in 2012 to lower his BB%, increase his K%, and decrease his HR/FB rate (the latter of which is partially luck-based). At the time of the trade, due to his super-2 status, Gio was due an arbitration award likely higher than the A's were willing to pay. Again, was it that the A's gave up on Gio, or was it that Gio was simply going to be too expensive going forward?
This is not even getting to the free agents that have rebuffed the A's in the recent past. Lance Berkman, Rafael Furcal, Adrian Beltre - all those guys didn't sign with the A's for one reason or another. Certainly, two of those players (injuries notwithstanding) would solidify two positions of recent concern for the A's in 3B and SS.
All of this is to say, the current payroll status means taking the bad with the good when it comes to Beane's creativity. The bad being that the A's will trade away stars at some point, either when the return is too good to pass up or when they become unaffordable. The good being that in doing so, the constant roster turnover means the A's may come out on top in prospect-hoarding trades, as evidenced by this great 2012 season. A future, higher payroll may mean the A's would choose wrongly on which star to keep over the long-term, and which one to let go. Beane is still a top-5 GM in the game, in my opinion, but him having more payroll flexibility doesn't mean he'll never lose. Indeed, it might mean he would be more reticent to make the gutsy moves he did make.