A year ago, I wrote about how weird it was to have the New York Yankees, the historical power and biggest spender in Major League Baseball, playing the role of seller at the trade deadline. They seemed poised for a rebuild, and I was confident Brian Cashman was smart enough to see that through, but it did not feel right. 2016 was a weird year, and the Yankees bracing to rebuild does not even come close to the top fifty strangest things that happened last year, but 2017 appears to be reverting to what we know as normal, at least in a baseball sense. The Yankees are back, and for some reason, I’m okay with it.
After dealing Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians and Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs, setting up the crucial late inning match-ups the World Series, there was the rise of Gary Sanchez. Sanchez, a catcher, batted .299 and hit 20 home runs in just 53 games, and finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Two great months from a rookie catcher do not immediately make a team a contender, and the expectations for New York were still that of a team building through the farm system to be great in a couple years heading into 2017. Then Aaron Judge happened.
If you told me the next great Yankee was an outfielder as big as Rob Gronkowski, who hits the ball harder than Giancarlo Stanton, and who is so humble he’s more likable than Derek Jeter and Mariano River combined, I would have thought you were crazy. There could not be a human like that. Aaron Judge is such human. Last year, he was a strikeout machine, and this year he has transformed himself into a baseball crushing machine who is quickly becoming one of the faces of baseball. It was only a matter of time before the Yankees had another transcendent icon of the game. They always land on their feet in that regard, but who would have thought it would be one like this? Baseball players aren’t supposed to be that big, and if they are, they become pitchers. All I can do is sit back and be amazed.
With their rebuild fast-tracked by a baseball unicorn, the Yankees resumed their normal role of buyers at the trade deadline, and they bought, and bought, and bought. They acquired third baseman Todd Frazier, starting pitcher Tommy Kahnle, and relief pitcher David Robertson from the Chicago White Sox, relief pitcher Jaime Garcia from the Minnesota Twins, and capped it all off by acquiring right handed ace Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics. The Yankees did not get the biggest names that moved this trade season, as the Texas Rangers sent Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the White Sox sent Jose Quintana across town to the Cubs, but they acquired quality in volume and filled the most needs of any postseason contender. It also helped their cause that they made trades to bolster third base and the bullpen, taking players off the market in the most glaring places of need for their forever rival Boston Red Sox.
These are the Yankees I remember.
As much as I hate to admit, the Yankees being good is good for baseball. They are the lightning rod for the hate of the other 29 fan bases. The villain role in sports is something that should be embraced. As a Patriots fan, I embrace it. The Yankees are better at being the bad guy than anyone else in Major League Baseball. In the years since they last won the World Series in 2009, several teams have had the chance to take the Iron Throne of Evil from the Yankees, but the fit has never been quite right. The Red Sox, in spite of their three World Series titles since they last met the Yankees in the postseason, cannot get out of their own way year to year. The San Francisco Giants won three World Series titles in five years, but were irrelevant in the off years. The Dodgers, for all their regular season success and high payroll, have not won the National League Pennant since 1988. The Cubs only got good in the last two years and before 2016, the last president to be alive for a Cubs championship team was Lyndon Johnson, who was born two months earlier in 1908. They are not ready for that kind of role. The Red Sox are 13 years removed from becoming winners, and they aren’t even ready for it.
The team that came the closest was the St. Louis Cardinals. They have won the most titles of any team in the National League, they rub other fan bases the wrong way with their “best fans in baseball” mentality, and their was an actual FBI investigation into front office members hacking the Houston Astros (and somehow Deflategate got more coverage?). They should have become the most hated team in baseball, but animosity towards the Cardinals translated more into Cardinal fatigue more than Cardinal hate for me. It just wasn’t the same.
The Yankees are the Alabama football or Duke basketball of Major League Baseball. Nobody is indifferent to these teams. If you follow that respective sport, you have strong feelings one way or the other, and that keeps you engaged even if your own team is not a contender. I should be upset that the Yankees were not bad for a longer period of time, but hating a middling team or a team with a losing record is just not as much fun.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Oakland Athletics earned critical acclaim and notoriety for fielding competitive baseball teams in spite of their noncompetitive payrolls. The success with the deck stacked against them made Billy Beane the poster boy of the baseball analytics movement and Michael Lewis’ 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game spawned a genre of outside-the-box-front-office-strategy books from Jonah Keri’s The Extra 2% about the Tampa Bay Rays, to Molly Knight’s The Best Team Money Can Buy about the Los Angeles Dodgers, to Travis Sawchik’s Big Data Baseball about the Pittsburgh Pirates, to Steve Kettmann’s Baseball Maverick about Beane’s mentor Sandy Alderson and the job he rebuilding the New York Mets into a contender. Fast-forward to 2016, and the A’s still have not reached the World Series since 1990, yet they still have the reputation of baseball intellect that has carried them through the lean years as The Ringer’s Claire McNear so aptly pointed out earlier this week.
The landscape of Major League Baseball has changed since 2002, with revenue sharing and even a change in ownership in Oakland, yet the A’s are still content to act poor to show the world how smart they are. They found themselves as sellers at the trade deadline for the second straight year, which to be fair, is something big budget teams like the Red Sox are more than capable of doing as well, and there are more than a couple of former Oakland A’s making meaningful contributions to contenders in 2016. A popular move in the Billy Beane playbook has been to trade away a star player for prospects before he has to pay them like a star. Josh Donaldson being dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays the winter before his 2015 American League MVP season was just the most recent in a long line of stars Oakland fans got attached to even though they knew they should not have. In 2014, they traded Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox at the deadline for Jon Lester, who was set to become a free agent at the end of the season. Before them, it was Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Nick Swisher, Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi. In Oakland, there will always be good players, but the front office does not want to invest enough in them for fans to justify investing in that specific star’s jersey.
In my opinion, the Lester/Cespedes Trade was the one the A’s missed on the most, even more than the Donaldson Trade. As a Red Sox fan, it’s not like I’m over the moon about the way that whole situation played out (The Sox had low-balled Lester in contract extension negotiations after he had led them to the 2013 World Series, then traded him and John Lackey away at the deadline with no immediate solution to replace them. They ended up flipping Cespedes that winter to Detroit for Rick Porcello, and while Porcello has been Boston’s most consistent pitcher this year, he’s no Jon Lester.), the A’s gutted the heart of their lineup during a pennant race for a pitcher they were not going to be able to re-sign. Had they stood pat with Cespedes, their rotation was already pretty good with Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija, and Scott Kazmir. Maybe they aren’t playing in the play-in Wild Card game against Kansas City, and their postseason doesn’t end after one game. The failure of the 2014 Jon Lester Era A’s ultimately led to Beane blowing up the team with the Donaldson Trade. Sure, Toronto gave up a fan favorite in the form of Brett Lawrie, but like everyone else, Lawrie did not stick in Oakland, while Donaldson has thrived with the Blue Jays. Not only was he the 2015 American League MVP, but he helped end a playoff drought that had been going on since the Jays won the 1993 World Series. If the result of the Lester/Cespedes Trade was a wash, the Donaldson/Lawrie Trade was a clear win for Toronto.
There is something to be said about being on the cutting edge of your industry. There are different metrics to measure success. Is it better to be more popular, or be recognized for doing what you do smarter? Jay Leno consistently had higher ratings, but David Letterman made a bigger cultural impact. Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s fancy themselves as Letterman, if Letterman was doing his show in his mom’s basement on a cable access channel like Wayne Campbell, when the reality is he’s on CBS. Other small market teams have broken through and won the World Series, with the 2015 Kansas City Royals being the most recent example. Other executives have applied analytical practices and won at a high level, perhaps most notably Theo Epstein with the Red Sox and Cubs, and yet a common perception that analytics are synonymous with Beane and the Athletics still persists. Billy Beane does not have a monopoly on smart ideas in baseball, and his teams have not even won an American League Pennant, but he’s the one who gets to be played by Brad Pitt in an Oscar-nominated movie. How is that fair?
I subscribe to the idea of critically acclaimed teams. When people look back at the champions in any sport fifty years from now, that will not tell the whole story. The Steve Nash Era Phoenix Suns, for example, never won a title, or even made the NBA Finals, but they were a fun and exciting foil to the Lakers and Spurs of the mid-2000s, and paved the way for a team like the Golden State Warriors of the last two years to exist and thrive. They never won themselves, but they were a game changer. The A’s of the early 2000s were a game changer, but they’re still clinging onto an identity that made them innovative over a decade ago, but now they’re just another team that hasn’t won anything while others have.
No baseball fan sheds a tear for Brian Cashman, the GM of the New York Yankees who inherited a team that already had the infrastructure of Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams when he got the job in 1998, and kept that train rolling for a solid fifteen years with the benefit of one of the most free-spending ownership groups in all of baseball. Cashman’s Yankees were sellers at the deadline for the first time in his tenure, and while it was very strange, he will not get the amount of credit he deserves for the haul he got back for the players he traded away, and the praise for inevitably turning the Yankees around will be muted compared to other teams. On the other side of that coin, nobody should shed a tear for Billy Beane and his predicament in Oakland at this point. He doesn’t have the spending power of the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Dodgers, but he likes the position he’s in. If he wins, he’s a genius. If he loses, he’s a genius in a really tough situation. He cannot lose. It’s good to be smart, but it’s better to win, and if I were a fan of the A’s, I’d be tired of the Moneyball routine by now. It never ends, does it?
Somewhere, Aaron Sorkin is probably going to town on an early draft of a sequel to the hit movie Moneyball, but one that has an ending like Rocky II. He’s probably feverishly typing away at different ways Brad Pitt can have his “Yo Adrian! I did it!” moment on the big screen in anticipation of what could happen in this year’s Fall Classic. Billy Beane has received all kinds of praise for running the Oakland Athletics and keeping them in playoff contention with a fair amount of consistency despite having a much tighter budget than the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, or Detroit Tigers, and it has earned him fame outside the baseball diamond in the form of a bestselling book and Academy Award nominated film. He has drafted well, been fearless at the trade deadline, and has led a revolution in the way baseball players are evaluated, but he still has yet to guide the A’s to the World Series. Baseball is a gamble. Risks have to be taken, and the margin for error for a club like Oakland is much smaller than New York or Boston (who has won three World Series titles since the 2002 season chronicled in Moneyball using player evaluation strategies made popular by the Athletics), and while what Beane has done in Oakland is incredible, he needs to win a World Series to validate his reputation at this point, and he knows it.
Flipping your best hitter in a trade for another pitcher is a huge risk on Oakland’s part, especially when Jon Lester is due to become one of the top pitchers in the free agent market this winter and out of Oakland’s price range in the future, but the A’s are really close this year. Billy Beane is a smart man. He saw Lester pitch for the Red Sox in the World Series last October. The guy has been an elite playoff performer his entire career. The 2007 World Series was just the tip of the iceberg. Lester is a good pitcher in the regular season, but not on the level of Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander, but he has proven time and again that he has the ability to step it up that much more and do his best pitching in the month where every pitch is exponentially more important than they were in the previous six. With Lester set to hit the open market at the end of the season, and the Red Sox playing hardball in contract extension negotiations with their ace, every general manager in the playoff hunt from New York to Detroit to Seattle was salivating over the possibility of acquiring his services, even if it was just as a three month rental.
Beane needed to blow Boston’s doors off with an offer for Jon Lester. The uncertainty of minor league prospects is always something to be wary about, but the Red Sox would also have to deal with the public relations backlash of trading their ace pitcher (and arguably best player on the roster) for players nobody has ever heard of while plummeting towards a second last place finish in three years, just ten months after winning fans’ hearts back with an improbable (and in hindsight, miraculous) World Series title. Acquiring Lester was a priority for the A’s, even if it meant giving up Yoenis Cespedes.
The Lester/Cespedes trade was a bold move by Billy Beane. That’s why he was played by Brad Pitt in Hollywood and not Rick Moranis, even if the Athletics haven’t won anything since Beane took over the baseball operations department. He’s embraced his status as the celebrity sports executive, with a movie that promoted his philosophy and his transformation of the way baseball clubs build their rosters, but he knows if it doesn’t happen this year, the critics will come out in droves to try and take him down. In a year, the A’s would likely lose Cespedes in free agency (and I’m worried I might be writing another “Pay this Man” article about Boston’s newly acquired Cuban slugger this time next year), and they will most certainly lose Lester to one of the rich teams, or poor teams, or fifty feet of crap ahead of them on the MLB payroll rankings, but it will have all been worth it if they win the American League Pennant, or better yet, the World Series.
My Red Sox are more or less out of the playoff picture here in the first weekend of August, so I have no problem being excited about this potential Moneyball sequel in the making. I would love to see Jon Lester carry the Oakland A’s on his back and take them to the same level of baseball glory he took the Red Sox to in 2007 and 2013. I would love to see Billy Beane get the validation he deserves, and prove that his system works and you don’t need lots of money to make Moneyball work (like the Sox already have three times). I would also love to see Lester leave Oakland with this winter and re-sign with the Red Sox, but that’s probably a pipe dream at this point. Time will tell. The law of averages has the A’s going all the way at some point, but regardless of what it says on paper, you still need to play the games. It should be fun.