Oakland Athletics v Milwaukee Brewers

Springtime Storylines: Did the Athletics add enough offense?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The San Jose A’s (pending committee review).

The Big Question: Did the Athletics add enough offense?

The A’s were 11th in the American League in runs scored last year. In comes Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus and Josh Willingham. Out go Jack Cust, Gabe Gross, and Rajai Davis.  This is improvement. How much of an overall improvement, however, depends on whether the solid-yet-not-spectacular returning starters hold their own and/or improve.

Daric Barton had a nice season last year and one presumes that entering his age-25 season he could build on that, even if some projections are pessimistic.  Mark Ellis was another relative bright spot last year but I’m more pessimistic about him, as his 2010 season was out of step from his previous handful of seasons.  Kevin Kouzmanoff and Kurt Suzuki each had pretty dreadful years at the plate. Neither will ever win a Silver Slugger Award, but each has a bit more than they exhibited in 2010, and even a bit of upward-trending noise will help.

All of which gets to the heart of things for Oakland: with the pitching staff (more about them below) no one requires offensive heroics from this bunch.  What they need to avoid are total sinkhole seasons from multiple players like they had last season.  Getting rid of Gross and returning Coco Crisp to the lineup eliminates a couple of sinkholes. Adding Willingham and DeJesus brings in some upside (and also some injury risk).  Everyone else needs to at least be competent. It’s not a tall order for a team that will frequently be playing in low scoring games.

So what else is going on?

  • Obviously the rotation is a team strength. Trevor Cahill  was fantastic last year. Brett Anderson was too, and if he’s healthy this year — a big honkin’ if given his recent elbow troubles — he could really be something special.  Gio Gonzalez has looked phenomenal this spring and some people around the A’s camp think that he’s going to explode in 2011. I’m not sure if they do irony in the 209, but the guy that threw the perfect game last year may be the weakest of the A’s top four pitchers. Young pitching can break your heart, but if the members of the rotation can avoid being mentioned in the same paragraph as Dr. James Andrews this year, there is every reason to think they’ll be the best bunch in the American League.
  • Besides the offense, a weak spot last season was the team’s bullpen, but Billy Beane addressed it this winter, adding Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour to the mix. With Andrew Bailey, those three combine for an outstanding late inning troika.  The concern, of course, is health.  Bailey has already missed time this spring. Balfour and Fuentes aren’t young. But really, the bullpen has been significantly improved. Throw in Michael Wuertz, Craig Breslow and Joey Devine and the A’s are competing with the Yankees for the deepest bullpen in the league.
  • Helping both the starters and the pen is some pretty spiffy defense. Barton is one of the best defensive first basemen around and Ellis and Cliff Pennington are solid up the middle. Kouzmanoff isn’t what he once was with the glove, but he’s no slouch. The only bad thing about all of this is if the A’s win the West, we’re going to hear from every person who ever misunderstood “Moneyball” about how crazy it is that the Moneyball A’s won with pitching and defense. That is always a tedious conversation.
  • We’re coming upon the two-year anniversary of Bud Selig’s announcement of the formation of the committee to study whether the A’s should move to San Jose. So far the committee has yet to make a peep, but its existence — and the specter of the team moving south — has done much to dampen fan enthusiasm. Between that nonsense and the desecration of the Oakland Coliseum with those seats for Raiders game — which simultaneously blocked what used to be a nice view of the hills and prevented any Anaheim-style renovation of the place to make it a pleasant ballpark — I’m struggling to think of a fanbase that has been more abused than that of the A’s. It’s a shame given that the A’s should be pretty damn good this season.

So how are they going to do?

Quite well.  Indeed, while I’m still picking the Rangers — a pick about which I am less enthusiastic given yesterday’s announcement that Neftali Feliz is returning to the bullpen — I think Oakland will challenge Texas all year and it wouldn’t shock me at all if they took the division instead.  For them to do it, though, will take health, the continued progression of their young rotation and some relative upside years from a few otherwise limited hitters.  And one tends not to get rich betting on luck, health and young pitching.

Call them second place in the West, but second with a bullet. If things break right, playoffs.

Bryce Harper reportedly wants a $400 million extension

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 13: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals reacts after hitting a single in the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game five of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 13, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports the Nationals are “balking at Bryce Harper’s demands in early talks about a long-term contract extension” and are thus prepared to let him walk when he becomes a free agent following the 2018 season.

What would make the Nationals balk? According to Nightengale’s source it’s a deal that “will exceed 10 years in length and likely pay him in excess of $400 million.”

That might seem crazy given historical norms and given that Harper is coming off a disappointing season, but if Harper returns to anything close to his 2015 form in which he won National League MVP honors while hitting .330/.460/.649 and hit 42 home runs, $400 million is going to seem quite reasonable. That sort of production was not some crazy fluke for a guy with Harper’s talent, after all. And he’ll be 26-years-old when he hits free agency, which is far, far younger than your typical free agent. Indeed, he’ll be entering what have, historically, been the prime years of most superstars’ careers.

The closest comp to star hitting free agency at that age was Alex Rodriguez, who was 25 when he signed his first $250 million deal following the 2000 season. Top big league deals going from $250 million to $400 million in the space of two decades is not really all that crazy when you think about it. Especially when you realize that, between 2001 and 2018, baseball revenues will have increased by a factor of three, assuming current growth holds.

UPDATE: My first thought after reading all of this was “I wonder if the Nats leaked the $400 million thing, whether it was an actual demand or not, in order to turn the PR in their favor if they deal Harper?” Question answered:

At least one quarter of the Today’s Committee owed Bud Selig a solid

Bud Selig
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OXON HILL, MD — The 16-member committee that voted Bud Selig and John Schuerholz into the Hall of Fame — the “Today’s Game” Committee — consisted of the following members: Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Bobby Cox, Andre Dawson, Dennis Eckersley, Pat Gillick, Ozzie Smith, Don Sutton, and Frank Thomas, major league owners/executives Paul Beeston (Blue Jays), Bill DeWitt (Cardinals), David Glass (Royals), Andy MacPhail (Phillies) and Kevin Towers (Reds); and media members/historians Bill Center, Steve Hirdt and Tim Kurkjian.

That’s certainly a venerable list of names. A quarter of that electorate, however, could be characterized as having a pretty notable conflict of interest when it comes to Bud Selig. At least if anyone cared about things like conflict of interest when it comes to baseball.

Whatever the case, two of those 16 guys became owners — and even more wealthier as a result — due to his affirmatively choosing or approving them to join sports’ most exclusive club. Two others were personally chosen by Selig to assist him over the years, raising their profile and importance in the game and giving them resume pieces that will one day be part of their own Hall of Fame cases.

  • Royals owner David Glass: Became the Royals CEO and Chairman in 1993, right after Selig became the acting commissioner. Glass was a key ally for Selig’s efforts to impose a salary cap and take a financial hard line in negotiations with the union, which eventually led to the 1994-95 strike. In 1999-2000 he became the full owner of the Royals after Selig personally stepped in to stop a bid for the club by a competing ownership group and is thus widely refereed to as Selig’s handpicked man. Glass is on the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors, on which Selig served for decades.
  • Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr.: Bought his club in 1995, after Selig had taken over and thus would not be a baseball owner without Selig’s approval. DeWitt was a point man for Selig on a host of his pet projects, including the Wild Card and interleague play. He likewise led the charge for revenue sharing and other potentially divisive financial matters which tended to be in the interest of smaller market clubs, the sort of which Selig himself championed when he was a mere owner. DeWitt chaired the committee to find Selig’s successor, which eventually served to validate Selig’s desire to have his hand-picked choice, Rob Manfred, succeed him.
  • Phillies President Andy MacPhail: Selig’s handpicked choice for the labor negotiating committee in 2002 which, at the time, continued speculation that MacPhail would one day be on the short list to succeed Selig. A few years before that MacPhail was public in saying that Selig would be the right choice to become permanent commissioner at a time when many were concerned that a team owner assuming that role was a conflict of interest.
  • Former President of the Blue Jays, Paul Beeston: In the late 90s, Beeston resigned as president of the Toronto Blue Jays following a successful reign to accepted baseball’s newly created position of president and chief operating officer. The move was widely seen as a means of giving Selig a top lieutenant — a defacto deputy commissioner — which would help him smooth his transition from acting commissioner to permanent commissioner. Many thought at the time that if Beeston was not hired for that gig, Selig may have declined the full-time commissioner’s role. Selig was described in the press at the time as a strong admirer of Beeston’s. In 2014, Beeston reflected glowingly on Selig’s legacy, saying, “I absolutely admire him on this steroid thing.” Beeston is on the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors, on which Selig served.

Is there anything necessarily wrong with that? No. Baseball is a small world and Bud Selig existed in it for a long, long time, so having a relationship with Selig was pretty unavoidable for almost anyone with any sort of profile in the game. No technical rule or historical baseball norm was violated by virtue of this vote or the composition of the committee itself. Indeed, the old Veterans Committee to the Hall of Fame was widely seen as a group of good old boys voting their old friends. Worth noting, perhaps, that that iteration of the Veterans Committee was abolished precisely for that reason, but I suppose we’ll leave that go for now.

I wonder, however, what the vote totals would have been for some of the other candidates if 25% of their electorate consisted of people who owed personal and professional debts to them the way Selig’s electorate owed him. Maybe Barry Bonds’ agent could get a Hall of Fame vote? Roger Clemens’ mechanic? Mark McGwire’s interior designer?

I suppose we’ll never know.