With apologies to Andrew Friedman in Tampa Bay or John Mozeliak in St. Louis or Neal Huntington in Pittsburgh or Ruben Amaro Jr. in Philadelphia (just kidding, Phillies fans!), if I win $750 million in the lottery and purchase a major league franchise, Billy Beane is the guy I'd hire to run my franchise.
Although I may try to steal some of the stats guy from Tampa, St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
The Oakland A's clinched their second straight American League West title with Sunday's 11-7 win over the Minnesota Twins, further proof that Beane can build a winner minus Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. Maybe the ideas behind "Moneyball" have been replicated and expanded -- find a market efficiency and exploit it and hire smart analysts to help you find those inefficiences -- but Beane has won the past two years in sort of an old-fashioned way: Make good trades and scrounge around the discount sales pile for cheap buys.
The A's aren't built around expensive free agents; we know that. But they aren't built around a stockpile of high first-round picks either. There is no David Price or Evan Longoria on the Oakland roster, no Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez or Gerrit Cole. The only homegrown first-round pick to make a significant contribution this season is Sunday's starter, Sonny Gray, the team's first-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2011 who improved to 4-3 with a 2.90 ERA in nine starts. It wasn't his best outing -- seven hits and four runs in five innings -- but it was good enough to probably cement his place in Oakland's postseason rotation.
But even Gray was just the 18th overall pick of the first round, low enough that you're well past sure thing territory. Even in the post-Moneyball era, the A's never sank to rock bottom the way the Rays or Pirates had to; their worst record under Beane was the 74-88 mark in 2011. The only top-10 pick the franchise has had since drafting Mulder and Zito in 1998 and 1999 was Michael Choice, 10th overall in 2010 (Choice has had 17 plate appearances this year with the A's).
Only four A's are making more than $5 million -- outfielders Chris Young ($8.7 million), Yoenis Cespedes ($8.5 million) and Coco Crisp ($7 million), plus starter/reliever Brett Anderson ($5.75 million). Compare that to their division rival Rangers, who have 10 players from their Opening Day roster making $5 million-plus, or AL East champion Boston, which has 12.
Crisp was one of the stars on Sunday, going 2-for-4, including a three-run homer in Oakland's six-run second inning. Crisp has been a big surprise in the power department, with 22 home runs and 65 RBIs out of the leadoff spot, 13 of those coming in 53 games since the All-Star break. Crisp was originally signed as a free agent after an injury-plagued season with Kansas City in 2009, when he hit .228 and played just 49 games. Beane bought low, as he did with minor league free agent Brandon Moss and past-his-prime starter Bartolo Colon. In other cases, he sold high, as when he dealt established mid-rotatin starter Trevor Cahill to Arizona for Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook.
Beane's smartest transaction this past offseason was plugging the team's shortstop hole. Oakland shortstops had hit .203 with a .585 OPS last year. Beane acquired Jed Lowrie from the Astros for three players, including first baseman/DH Chris Carter, who had provided an effective right-handed platoon bat for the A's in 2012. Lowrie has a good bat for a shortstop, but had been injury-prone and doesn't have the defensive profile you might expect from an Oakland shortstop. But Beane knew he needed more offense from his infield and Lowrie has played 149 games and hit .288/.344/.443 -- the highest OPS among all regular shortstops (Troy Tulowitzki and Jhonny Peralta are higher but haven't qualified).
But Beane doesn't stop there. In late March, he picked up Nate Freiman off waivers from the Astros (he'd been a Rule 5 pick from the Padres). Freiman was a 26-year-old minor league vet. Why the interest in a guy who couldn't make the Astros? Freiman had hit .348 against left-handers in Double-A in 2012. He's provided the A's with a right-hander to replace Carter. That's not the discount pile, that's the discard pile.
Now all Beane and the A’s have to do is prove their stuff works in the postseason.