Commentary

A's suddenly willing to increase payroll

Originally Published: December 19, 2008
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

All around the game, small- and medium-market teams -- mindful of the economic downturn and troubling indicators -- are trimming payroll, managing expectations and searching for inexpensive solutions.

And then there are the Oakland A's.

While others subtract, the A's, to the surprise of many, are adding. Already this offseason, they've traded for Matt Holliday, who will make $13.5 million in the final year of his contract in 2009. And though they were ultimately outbid for shortstop Rafael Furcal, it wasn't for lack of financial commitment -- the A's offered the free-agent infielder approximately $40 million over four years, only to be eclipsed by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

[+] EnlargeMatt Holliday
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesThe A's acquired Matt Holliday from the Rockies in November, and will pay him $13.5 million in 2009.
The A's remain in negotiations with Randy Johnson, who couldn't come to terms on a new deal with the budget-conscious Arizona Diamondbacks, and teams who discussed prospective deals with them in the last month report that the A's, while hardly operating without restraint, are showing a surprising willingness to take on salary -- in the right deal -- and seem willing to spend more in 2009 than they did in '08 when their payroll was approximately $48 million.

A's general manager Billy Beane traces the A's aggressiveness to last offseason, when he dumped the salaries of Dan Haren (to Arizona) and Nick Swisher (to the Chicago White Sox). In hindsight, those moves served a dual purpose -- they cut costs and helped restock Oakland's inventory of young players.

"I think the biggest thing is, we took our medicine a year ago," said Beane.

Beane has always been a master of reading trends, operating a move or two ahead of many of his colleagues. And while it's probably giving Beane too much credit to suggest that he saw the crash coming -- both in the game and the general economy -- his timing is, as often is the case, impeccable. At the precise time when Beane has some money to spend, a flooded free-agent market is awash with some good-value deals.

"He's taking advantage of the market being in his favor," said a fellow general manager. "He's in the right place at the right time."

In that sense, the A's are merely operating on the same philosophy which was first espoused in the best-selling book "Moneyball." While some mistakenly viewed the book as Beane's espousal of a revolutionary method of player evaluation, it was more a look at how a business -- in this case a baseball franchise -- could do more with less.

Somewhere along the way, the message was corrupted. Beane wasn't suggesting that on-base percentage -- or any other statistical guideline -- was the secret to on-field success. What he did reveal was recognition that some skills or traits were undervalued and that by focusing on just such a skill set, quality players could be obtained at below-market prices.

Beane was among the first executives to see the wisdom of holding on to free agents whom he couldn't re-sign (Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Johnny Damon) in order to accumulate multiple draft picks in compensation. Later, Beane shifted his philosophy, dealing off veterans (Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson) to land highly valued prospects, the new coin of the realm.

"Billy's very good at knowing when to buy and when to sell,'' said another major league executive. "And he's never afraid."

"One of the things we've tried to do here,'' said Beane, "is always try to have a plan. But within that plan, we want to be opportunistic. If we see good players available, and can balance that within our [payroll limits], we try to take advantage."

While the Mets and Yankees move into state-of-the-art ballparks and reap additional revenues, the A's find themselves in stadium limbo. They plan to move to Fremont, Calif., but beyond financing issues and concerns about transportation access, an environmental impact study must still be completed. A new ballpark is, it's safe to say, years away.

One of the things we've tried to do here is always try to have a plan. But within that plan, we want to be opportunistic. If we see good players available, and can balance that within our [payroll limits], we try to take advantage.

--A's GM Billy Beane

"We're making progress," said Beane. "But when, how and the details are things we're still working on. It's hard to put a timetable on it. Putting up a stadium any time, never mind now, is not an easy proposition. I'm still optimistic, but these things take time. I'm hoping this group of young players will be playing in a new stadium, but that's just too far to project right now."

In the meantime, Beane continues to search not for specific players or needs, but rather, opportunities, blending the often cross-purpose goals of year-to-year personnel adjustment with big-picture planning.

Holliday is just one example. Beane thought his young pitching staff needed a middle-of-the order bat for support, so he dealt Huston Street, Greg Smith and Carlos Gonzalez for Holliday. It didn't matter to Beane that Holliday can be a free agent after next season, or that he's represented by Scott Boras, who routinely directs his clients to the open market rather than agreeing to contract extensions.

Beane has three options with Holliday: He can deal him at the July 31 trade deadline; he can attempt to outbid other interested teams; or he can offer him arbitration and stockpile two more draft picks if Holliday signs with another team next offseason.

For now, however, the rationale is much simpler.

"It was an opportunity to get a great player," said Beane, "and help our team improve, even as we rebuild."

And who knows? The A's are clearly way ahead of the Seattle Mariners in retooling, have better pitching than the Texas Rangers, and while the Los Angeles Angels appear a cinch to win the American League West for the fifth time in the past six seasons, free-agent defections might leave them somewhat vulnerable.

If there's a team positioned to take advantage, it's the A's, constantly in search of opportunity.

Sean McAdam of the Boston Herald covers baseball for ESPN.com.