Not too long ago, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane could count on his peers to make him look smart. An entire book was written about Beane's brilliance at attacking market inefficiencies while his brethren waltzed with tradition, and Moneyball resonated because that premise, by and large, was sound.
So to hear Beane talking from his office Thursday was to hear a man who recognizes the seismic change baseball has undergone in this financial boom era. No longer is the hoarding of quality young players – baseball's equivalent to the minimum-wage worker – the domain of well-managed low-revenue teams such as Oakland and Minnesota.
"People are actually understanding the economics of the game," Beane said. "There are a lot of smart guys running clubs. Properly valuing the assets you have is really part of the business now."
Large market teams, too, count their pennies at the same time they dole out the big bucks. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the Capulets and Montagues of the game, have two of the best farm systems around. And with both Los Angeles teams also flush with prospects, it has created the biggest trade market baseball has seen in ages, all leading up to Monday, when the sport's who's who gathers in Nashville for the winter meetings.
Yes, it's the reason Minnesota all but placed the game's best pitcher, Johan Santana, on eBay, payment in prospects instead of PayPal, and why Florida is dangling Miguel Cabrera, a Hall of Famer in the making, before his 25th birthday. It's why Beane will always take a phone call, even if the voice on the other end wants Dan Haren, last year's American League All-Star starting pitcher, or Joe Blanton, a 200-inning horse who turns 27 in December.
The Yankees and Red Sox are among a group of six or seven teams that can afford Santana at $20 million a year or more, yet if their organizations were barren, the trade market would shrivel like a grape in the sun.
"Usually there's a lot of talk that there will be a lot of trades and it seems to disappoint," Beane said. "I don't think it's going to this year. There seems to be a better chance there will be ones this year."
It's bittersweet for Beane. While he appreciates that his methods worked so well that others copied them, he would rather see the big-money teams throwing their weight into free agency, a volatile market if there ever were one.
Oh, well. Imitation, flattery, etc.
Anyway, the A's do stand to benefit from this development. Haren, you see, is not just Haren. He is the Eminently Affordable Dan Haren, the three years and $16.25 million he's owed representing perhaps the game's second-best contract to Jose Reyes' three years at $18.25 million. Accordingly, Haren is even more valuable than other pitchers of his caliber, worth nearly as much as Santana, who will need a team to dent Fort Knox to waive his no-trade clause.
Only San Diego's Kevin Towers and San Francisco's Brian Sabean have held GM jobs longer than Beane, who over his 10 years built Oakland into a fearsome organization. The A's grew prospects like Chia Pets. Eventually, of course, they would leave, Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada the most prominent free agents lost, and that only hastened Beane's propensity to deal. Hey, if the Yankees want to offer a three-player package around Phil Hughes, the Red Sox with Jon Lester or the Dodgers featuring Matt Kemp, he'd gladly listen.
This, however, is where the trade talks could muddy. Remember, the large-market teams get it now. Prospects aren't just trading chips; they're big-money buoys. The GM who counteracts every stupid free-agent contract with a kid at $400,000 a year for three seasons is a genius.
Especially with the toaster leavings from this season's free-agent class. Andruw Jones … Aaron Rowand … Carlos Silva … Kyle Lohse – and it's still going to cost an arm, leg and lung to sign any of them.
"Oh, gosh, I can't recall (a free-agent market this bad)," Beane said. "Then again, I'm not the best guy to ask because I'm not in that market anyway."
Beane instead thrived in his Never Never Land, where all was safe because a scant few understood how he put together such good teams on such a cramped budget. Now, he can only hope this offseason is an aberration, that one move starts a chain reaction among the big-money teams, that they play anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better, and, thus, prospects start going everywhere and return the neediest teams their leverage.
Oh, and that he cashes in while he can.
Because even though this year's meetings haven't even taken place, next year could take us back to the day of the bonanza free-agent class, the kind where teams spend like the drunk at the bar with an open tab. There's Santana and C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets, Mark Teixeira and Adam Dunn and (potentially) Manny Ramirez. Want a closer? Try Francisco Rodriguez, Joe Nathan and Brad Lidge. Defense? Orlando Hudson, Mark Ellis and Rafael Furcal.
It could be a return to bad old habits, and those meetings are scheduled in Las Vegas, whose characteristics match free agency's: bright, shiny, looks great, but once you're inside, money has a funny way of disappearing.
For now, they'll make do in Tennessee, where for years people have partaken in the Nashville Handshake, the sly maneuver of slipping a demo tape or CD in a music executive's hand. The newest version of the handshake could enter into the city's annals this week – the sealing of a deal between baseball's haves and the have-nots, who, in reality, look a lot more like each other than they used to.