There. I said it. Sounds almost blasphemous, doesn't it? After countless years of praising Beane's savvy "Moneyball" approach to running a small-market baseball team, relying on strong statistical analysis and scouting departments to find diamonds in the rough, time after time, and getting fair hauls for countless pricey stars during his tenure, it's become ingrained in us all that Billy Beane is brilliant, a genius, one of, if not THE BEST, front office executive in pro sports today. Countless articles, blog posts, and even bestsellnig books, have been written about Beane's approach to the game, his stockpiling of young assets rather than a roster with both superstars and gaping holes like many other teams.
The Oakland A's have, admittedly, had a run of success above and beyond what could be expected of a small-market team with a payroll dwarfed by that of the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, division-rival Angels and their ilk. Since Beane took over in 1997, the A's have won 4 AL West titles and a wild-card berth and have appeared in an ALCS. This is certainly an impressive resume, but you might notice that the A's have neither appeared in nor won a World Series under Beane. Go ahead and complain about the financial imbalance of the major leagues, of how the big guys snatch up all the best players and the small-market teams have to scuffle for every bit of success they get.
At the end of the day though, there are still facts to contend with. Working with a payroll more miniscule even than Oakland's, the Florida Marlins have won the World Series TWICE in Beane's tenure, while the A's have not yet reached it. The NL may be weaker, but given the massive rebuilding efforts following each win and the fact that the Marlins are still very much in contention in the tough NL East despite their shocking payroll which is hovering around $20 million even after star SS Hanley Ramirez signed a lucrative $70 million extension. Clearly, the Marlins front office knows how to build winners, even if it means a few very, very lean years in between. The debate between whether sustained yet moderate success (Oakland A's) is more valuable than a boom-or-bust cycle (Florida Marlins) is a philosophical one, but the facts remain.
Despite a seemingly bottomless farm system only deepened by the recent trades of starters Rich Harden and Joe Blanton, it is not clear to me that Beane will ever have a true World Series contender on his hands. At this point, I don't even think he needs to. He is so venerated by his fanbase and by baseball fans in general who have bought into his philosophy that he could go on running this team for decades without ever winning a championship. He has certainly revolutionized the way personnel decisions are made in this game, but he will never be a winner with this philosophy. Over the years, Beane's biggest moves include trading Kenny Rogers, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Danny Haren, Nick Swisher, and the aforementioned Harden and Blanton. He also has declined to sign stars such as Miguel Tejada and Barry Zito (perhaps his best decision yet). While I am in no way trying to diminish his impressive run of moderate success over more than a decade or the countless prospects he has added to his system, I am wondering if Beane's plan has ever involved winning a World Series.
The A's are constantly in a rebuilding mode, as along with Harden and Blanton, Beane is looking to possibly move the absolutely electrifying reliever-turned-starter Justin Duchscherer and good young closer Huston Street. Oakland has once again outperformed expectations this year, as this team, predicted to be one of the worst in baseball, is over .500 after the All-Star break, though quickly falling out of contention. Given the trades this year, it is clear that Beane is not planning on contending this year, which is understandable. Once again, I don't know if he's planning to contend in any year. In order to win, sometimes you have to sacrifice the future for the present. I know I'm sounding obvious and repetitive here, but I don't think Beane has ever gotten past the temptation of tantalizing young talent to see that his team is capable of contending for a title with the addition of a few key pieces. Certainly, the A's have the wherewithal in their farm system to afford a top rental or two to give them an asset as they make the playoff push down the stretch. I'm not saying this year was the year to do that, but Beane has to pull the trigger sometime.
The Milwaukee Brewers' payroll is much bigger than the A's this year (Milwaukee: $81m, Oakland: $48m), but the A's payroll was as high as $79m last year, so it's clear they can carry a bit more weight than they choose to. While the A's are clearing their assets as per normal, the Brewers have recognized that they have a very strong young core of players geared for a playoff run and have since gone out and picked up top starter CC Sabathia and a solid veteran presence at second base in Ray Durham. The Brewers' front office, led by GM Doug Melvin, saw that this was a playoff-worthy team missing a couple pieces, and went out and sacrificed a couple of future prospects to go for broke this year. If the Brewers manage to win the World Series this year (and given how hot they've been since the Sabathia trade, I certainly wouldn't count them out), I think it's safe to say that Melvin is a better GM than Beane, because unlike Beane, his savvy rebuilding reached its end result: bringing a championship to a city that hasn't had one since the Packers in '97 and whose beloved Brewers haven't even made the playoffs in 26 years.
Beane's trade record is dazzling in many ways, but I think his constant-rebuilding act is beginning to wear thin. I'm sure A's fans are tired of being on the cusp so many times but never pulling the trigger and going for the big prize. It seems to me that the A's success has been purely coincidental, a consequence of the fact that Beane's plan is constantly cycling between acquiring young assets, letting those assets mature, and trading them at peak value for more assets. That mini-dynasty the A's had at the beginning of this decade was simply a result of Beane waiting for his players' value to peak, not any concerted effort to improve the team in the present.
The cult Beane's "Moneyball" method has created has led A's fans to not only understand, but applaud Beane's constant overhauling of the roster by shipping top talent off for the potential of youth. It has led to posts like this one, which suggests the A's should sell off their remaining trade chips for one of the best young talents in the game, an uber-prospect on the level of a Jay Bruce or even an Evan Longoria. Such a trade would help the other team shoot for a title while the A's, once again, rebuild their roster for the inevitable sell-off to come.
I've been pondering Beane's value and legacy for some time now, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point to this article as my inspiration to post my thoughts today.