First and foremost, let me wish a happy 94th birthday today to the amazing Betty White. Still acting, still beautiful, still able to put a better xFIP than Jim Johnson. I feel like Betty White is such an icon that tomorrow, they ought to just declare it a Federal holiday.
What I marveled at over the past two decades was the A's front office's uncanny ability to identify players who could, younger and cheaper than their higher profile peers, provide comparable value. In Moneyball, Scott Hatteberg became a poster boy for the concept as Oakland sought not to replace Jason Giambi but rather to replace his production. Enter Hatteberg, whose high OBP and excellent defense wound up making him surprisingly comparable to Giambi at a fraction of the cost.
While the A's were flipping Trevor Cahill to the Arizona DIamondbacks for the younger and cheaper Jarrod Parker, pundits were busy forecasting a losing season for Oakland. As teams were shelling out too much money for mid-rotation starting pitchers like Matt Garza, the A's were quietly acquiring Jesse Chavez to perform similarly for a bargain. Division rivals Texas and LAA were fighting for the right to overpay Josh Hamilton as Farhan Zaidi was pitching his "Brandon Moss manifesto" to his colleagues and the A's were leaving the Rangers and Angels in the dust.
There is some chance involved, of course, in finding hidden treasures. No one really saw J.D. Martinez' surge to greatness coming; one team just got lucky. There is also some skill involved, such as when the Astros saw through some unsightly numbers from Collin McHugh and focused instead of some more obscure ones -- such as RPMs -- and made a shrewd signing. Of course they're the same team that let J.D. Martinez go. It's not an exact science.
The theory, though, is sound: For every well-paid player there is often a younger, cheaper, and more cost-controlled likeness out there. Your job is to eschew the overpaid versions and find the bargains who can give you that same level of production.
When Oakland signed Billy Butler to a 3 year, $30M contract, they were betting on a bounce-back to Butler's career. So far so bad, but even had he bounced back you have to wonder why the A's didn't think they could get that kind of production for a whole lot less. After all, Butler is severely limited by his inability to run or play defense so his upside is strictly as a "good hitting DH" -- and you can cobble that together without paying $10M.
As an example, a guy who is likely to open the season at AAA, and possibly get stuck there waiting for an injury, is Rangel Ravelo. Is it hard to imagine that Ravelo could be an above average batter, not to mention a useful fielder at 1B and not a complete liability on the bases? What's certain is that he costs 1/20 the salary of the A's incumbent DH and that he is several years away from even hitting arbitration.
What the A's used to do is to let other teams pay the Butlers while they quietly put the Ravelos in the lineup. They would let other teams hang on too long, and too expensively, to their Coco Crisps, while Billy Burns took over the same production at league minimum salary. They would forego John Axford at $5M/year knowing they could get the same stuff for $1M from Fernando Rodriguez. It seems that for a stretch of time, the A's forgot what they're good at doing -- or perhaps it's more apt to say what they're good at not doing.
There is hope that "vintage Moneyball" -- at least the Scott Hatteberg chapter -- is not just an art of the past. Mark Canha has a chance to be a "cheap gem" and all he cost was a house in Austin. It's a long shot, but if the winds of fortune are blowing back the A's way perhaps Andrew Lambo has some Brandon Moss in him. Marcus Semien: pickin' (and throwin') machine!
It's not that the A's aren't still seeking cheap diamonds in the rough -- every team always is, no more so than the low budget Athletics. It's more that Oakland has fallen, multiple times lately, into precisely the trap they have so adeptly side-stepped while others were following the smell of cheese. And cheese ages better than most expensive players do.
Just as no one ages better than Betty White. Happy January 17th, everybody!