Because they had a book written about them, and because they remain darlings of the sabermetric world, and, yes, because Brad Pitt portrayed their general manager in a movie, a certain perception chases the Oakland A's: Whatever they are doing, they're ahead of the curve.
It brings a small sense of delight to the men who run the organization that has won back-to-back American League West championships with a meager payroll and a roster full of Q-rating-deficient players. Sometimes it's true. Sometimes their small baseball-operations staff does unearth the little inefficiencies that persist in an increasingly intelligent game.
In this case – the one in which the low-revenue, small-budget A's commit $15 million to two relief pitchers and guarantee two years to another coming off surgery – there was no algorithm, no flaw in the logic of teams that spit at the excessive price of bullpen help, no situation in which the A's pulled a fast one. The great Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus posited that relievers might be undervalued due to their work in high-leverage situations, and perhaps the A's were taking advantage of that.
Nope. This was nothing more than the A's exercising one of their core principles: spend wisely. With $15 million of leeway in their budget, Oakland didn't face much of a choice at all. The best everyday players wanted in the range of $15 million per annum for multiple years, a commitment the A's were unwilling to make. Nobody recognized how badly the market for Nelson Cruz, Ervin Santana and Kendrys Morales would collapse. Armed with those facts and happy to fortify a bullpen with the sixth-best ERA in baseball last year, Oakland traded for a $10 million closer (Jim Johnson) and $5 million setup man (Luke Gregerson), then added left-hander Eric O'Flaherty in hopes he recaptures his pre-Tommy John surgery dominance.
"Ultimately what we're trying to do with the money we have is get the most bang for our buck," A's general manager Billy Beane said. "Even if we've got a strength, we'd rather add a good addition for a dollar."
Beane let out a chuckle.
"If you pull back the curtain," he said, "you'll see the obvious."
This isn't a Wizard of Oz situation, not like the A's fast-tracking the sport's statistical revolution. A confluence of factors conspired for the moves to make sense.
First was the money. The A's had it to spend. They want to win now, knowing the richer Texas Rangers and richest Los Angeles Angels could shatter their window of opportunity at any moment. Money not spent today may not be there tomorrow, so spend it they would, and as much as the idea of spending eight figures on a closer pained them – and rest assured it does – the A's value judgment skewed toward relief when other positions' markets grew.
Second was how well the A's matched up with their trade partners. Baltimore resolved to get rid of Johnson rather than pay him the $10 million or so he would earn through arbitration, and it was either non-tender him or trade him. Oakland offered second baseman Jemile Weeks, a fungible piece. San Diego wanted a left-handed outfield bat to potentially spell right-handed hitters Carlos Quentin, Chris Denorfia, Cameron Maybin and Kyle Blanks. Oakland's surplus of outfielders, and a near-even salary with Gregerson, made Seth Smith the perfect return.
Third, and perhaps most important, was the length of the deals. The aphorism that there's no such thing as a bad one-year contract especially applies to relief pitchers, whose year-over-year inconsistencies leave teams struggling annually to cobble together an effective bullpen. It's why the free-agent market for relief pitchers cratered this offseason. There's Mariano Rivera, and there's everyone else, and almost everyone else has trouble stacking consecutive dominant seasons. O'Flaherty's deal – $1.5 million this season, $5.5 million next – is more like a 1 ½-year deal, getting cost certainty by taking on the risk of a post-op pitcher.
Fourth was the sneakiest part of the trades. Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle are two of the A's best relievers. Both offer compelling reasons to close games. When Grant Balfour left as a free agent, it was assumed if the A's chose not to pursue a ninth-inning pitcher, either could step in. The problem: Once closers hit arbitration, their salaries skyrocket to unsustainable levels. It's why Baltimore dumped Johnson. Cook is arbitration-eligible after this offseason; Doolittle is eligible following 2015. A good closer's first-year arbitration salary is in the vicinity of $4 million. To avoid a year of paying that with Johnson was akin to buying a car with a rebate. Johnson's greatest save may be the $3 million extra Oakland would've had to give Cook next season.
Fifth was what proved true last week. Opening-day starter Jarrod Parker underwent his second Tommy John surgery. Starter A.J. Griffin is out with an arm injury, too. To have the sort of bullpen depth the A's do is absolutely vital in staving off injuries. They had no problem absorbing Jesse Chavez and Tommy Milone's defection to the rotation. They've done fine without Cook, who's nursing a sore shoulder. Johnson and Gregerson and Doolittle and Dan Otero and Fernando Abad and Evan Scribner and others give them plenty of faith that this expensive bullpen will be every bit as good as last year's.
"I didn't think our relievers could get much better," Oakland catcher John Jaso said. "Then we trade for those guys, and it's like, ‘No way.' They want to make it a five- or six-inning game for the starters, and that's fine by me."
Much of Johnson and Gregerson's appeal stemmed from their reliability. Johnson is a workhorse, even as a closer. Gregerson eats innings, even throwing a slider more than half the time. Putting faith in bullpen pieces when everyone else in baseball is running from them highlights how even when they're not trying to go against the grain, the A's prove counterintuitive.
"How do you group a whole position?" Johnson said. "It's more about the person than the position. I think it's because they need somebody to blame. You do your job and nobody knows about it. You screw up and you're on SportsCenter because you suck."
Johnson got a little riled up. He's tired of hearing relief pitchers are overpaid and that the A's put their money to questionable use. His locker is next to Gregerson's and O'Flaherty's. By mid-summer, they could provide a devastating 7-8-9 combination – and that's before factoring in Cook and Doolittle.
It's just the A's doing what they do. They didn't try to get fancy, didn't stretch beyond their means. They had a budget, targeted what fit best, kept it short, saved some money in the future and bought insurance. Maybe they were ahead of the curve. If so, chalk it up to a happy accident.
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