It was dank and dark Wednesday afternoon in the Bay Area, which does dank and dark as well as anywhere.
In the home of the Oakland A's general manager, three-week-old twins were awake and hungry, two bottles were warming, a pair of dogs were barking at a stranger's stirrings at the front door and the telephone was ringing. A tiny daughter in one arm, sustenance in the other, the phone wedged between his shoulder and ear, Billy Beane laughed at the moment of chaos.
He could. Amid personal bedlam, there was professional order.
After all, he's 11 pitchers ahead this offseason, having acquired 13 by major-league trade, minor-league trade, small free-agent signing or waiver claim and lost two (Dan Haren being the notable one).
Meaning, ultimately, the free-agent starters out there – the likes of Bartolo Colon, Josh Fogg, Livan Hernandez, Freddy Garcia, Kyle Lohse, Steve Trachsel, et al – will be somebody else's to sign, repair, pay, hope for and live with.
So, even with a season ahead that looks a lot like a rebuilding exercise for the A's, there won't be any flyers on Colon's elbow, anxiety over Garcia's shoulder, trepidation over Lohse's ERA, or concern for Odalis Perez's lifestyle.
Beane has his own issues – Rich Harden's health, Joe Blanton's standing at the top of the rotation, Chad Gaudin's toe/hip, Dallas Braden's assimilation – but generally at a fraction of the cost, say, that Lohse is expecting or Hernandez might pull.
In the weeks leading to the offseason, general managers began expressing their dissatisfaction with the options available with which to rework – or even supplement – their starting rotations. And now, in late January, we appear to be experiencing the rare offseason in which GMs and their owners resist the burdens of the overpriced and over-rated starting pitcher. Of course, one man's refusal is another's collusion (and more than one agent has recently attempted to further such a notion), but it's just as likely everyone, for the moment, saw enough of Carl Pavano, Jason Schmidt, Matt Clement, Eric Milton and Adam Eaton to draw their own conclusions.
So, we see the Arizona Diamondbacks talk Beane out of Haren. We see the market juiced by the availability of Johan Santana and Erik Bedard. We see a couple big free-agent deals – Carlos Silva got $48 million over four years from the Seattle Mariners and Japanese import Hiroki Kuroda three and $35.3 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers – but otherwise we see restraint, at least as far as baseball practices it.
As they've played it thus far, general managers are wary of the injured and skeptical of the statistical spike. Sure, Hernandez pitches a lot of innings, but how many of them are good ones? Sure, Fogg slayed a few dragons, but the man's a career .500 pitcher (with a 4.90 ERA). Somebody's been slaying him back.
Beane probably won't have a great rotation, particularly if Harden can't get and stay healthy, but he won't be overpaying it, either.
“It really came down to the cost of free agents, period, and the cost of pitching,” Beane said between living-room dustups. “It's nothing new, but it's even more critical if you're a club like us.”
Rather than patch the rotation with back-end starters hoping for mid-range (or higher) salaries, Beane chose to feather in prospects. A lot of them.
Of the free-agent market in general – and this one in particular – Beane said, “It was part of our thinking. We have to almost entirely home-grow our pitching. And we're going to deal in bulk.”
The same decision is being made by many large-market clubs. The New York Mets have dabbled in – and still could end up signing – Lohse, Hernandez or another free agent, but thus far seem more inclined to take a chance with Mike Pelfrey or Philip Humber. Across town, Yankees GM Brian Cashman could go Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy three through five, which is far more desirable than dragging in a veteran pitcher or two who A) might be only marginally more effective, at best and B) would cost 10 or 20 times more.
Rick Hahn, assistant general manager for the Chicago White Sox, said there are factors dampening the values of free-agent starters.
“Obviously, revenues are up and player compensations are up, so I believe the expectations for all players are up,” he said. “There are higher expectations because of the revenues in the game. But, while players at the elite level are fine, there doesn't seem to be similar growth on the back end. So, there might not be a meeting of the minds as far as expectations go.”
Then, the still-bubbling availabilities of Santana and Bedard might have conspired to keep a few starter-starved teams – the Yankees, Mets, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds – from turning to the free-agent arms. Teams appear willing to spend on a premier pitcher, but perhaps aren't as enthused to use some the same resources, either cash or players, until it becomes absolutely necessary.
And, as Beane said, “In this environment, there's no such thing as a bad one-year deal.”
Even that, he'll leave to the other guys.
- Billy Beane