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The Myth of the Small-Market Window

MLB teams that cry poor should look in the mirror instead of at their allegedly empty wallets

“What you’ll find is that the window for a small-market team will grow smaller and eventually go away completely.”

AUGUST 2, 2011

Billy Beane loves to talk about Windows. The Window is the short period of time in which small-revenue clubs supposedly have to compete. Right now, the Window is closed in Oakland. The Window was open once, and the A’s general manager did everything he could to keep it that way just a little bit longer. But changes in the game, we’re told, have made it harder and harder to prop open the Window even a crack … much less wide open, allowing years of fresh air and pennants to waft in.

There is a nugget of truth behind this Window obsession. Smaller-revenue teams have a tougher time signing premium free agents, or retaining their own top players past their initial six years of team control. That puts extra pressure on these poorer teams to bring up a bunch of great prospects all at once, then hope they get good at the same time before they get expensive.

But far more often it’s a bullshit excuse. It’s a vague, faraway goal that always seems several years out of reach. It’s a cover for cheap, greedy ownership, lousy scouting, drafting, and player development, and myopic trades. It’s a weak attempt to placate a fan base screwed over by years of management incompetence and indifference.

Or in the case of the Oakland A’s, their recent fire sale and justification for said fire sale, it’s a bold-faced ploy by one opportunistic owner to win territory from another opportunistic owner so that another city can hand out another $500 million check for another boondoggle stadium.

Real estate developer and A’s owner Lew Wolff is champing at the bit to build a new ballpark in San Jose. It’s a move that’s supposed to boost interest in the A’s and attendance for their games. The Giants’ owners are holding up the deal, claiming territorial rights in San Jose. The Giants won those rights two decades ago, when then-A’s owner Walter Haas Jr. ostensibly did them a favor. Whether or not the Giants owe them repayment of that favor and whether or not the commissioner’s office should step in to broker a deal, the way it did when the Expos moved to D.C. in relation to the Orioles’ territorial rights, is an open question.

While all this gets debated, A’s fans will get treated to some lousy baseball. And some sad talk about Windows.

“[Beane] said he’s eager for his young players to grow up and ‘take advantage of that brief window you have in this market.'”

APRIL 3, 2010

Proclaiming Moneyball to be dead has been a favorite pastime of curmudgeonly writers since the book came out. Which is to say, 2½ years before Jonah Hill jonesed for sparkly boots in his second-ever feature film role, and 8½ years before he played Paul DePodesta-but-not-actually-Paul DePodesta. The arguments range from get-off-my-lawn rants that baseball lasted a century without any statistical advances and doesn’t need them now, to crediting Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder (and Jason Giambi, and Miguel Tejada, and Eric Chavez) with the A’s success, not the relatively minor contributions of Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford. To the first, couldn’t agree more, which is why the American Medical Association still recommends leeches to cure any and all ailments. To the second, Moneyball was a well-told story by a gifted writer who’s great at distilling complex concepts into enjoyable works of nonfiction, even if it means omitting some key facts. Take it up with him and his giant stack of money.

Starting in 2000, the A’s made the playoffs four years in a row, part of a sustained stretch of success in which they finished first or second eight years in a row, averaging 94 wins a season. The following is a list of teams that did one or both of those things during that time frame, or since: Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Braves.1 Five years of losing don’t nullify eight years of excellence, much less on perennially puny payrolls.

But 10 years might. Oakland’s trades of Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey last month signaled a rebuilding process within a rebuilding process. All three pitchers come with flaws. Cahill doesn’t strike out enough batters to be a front-line starter. Gio Gonzalez walks too many to be a front-line starter. And Andrew Bailey is a reliever, which limits a pitcher’s value, unless that pitcher is Mariano Rivera, Blessed Be His Name. Still, Cahill is 23, Gonzalez is 26, and Bailey is 27, all three had multiple years of controllable service time left, and they were three of the best players a thin A’s team had. Along with 2011 breakout star Brandon McCarthy and rehabbing lefty Brett Anderson, these are the kind of players you’re supposed to collect when trying to squeeze into that elusive Window.

Problem is, those five pitchers weren’t enough to challenge the very rich, very talented Angels and Rangers. Fueled by monster TV contracts slated to kick in over the next couple of years, both teams have aggressively pursued big-name players. The Angels nabbed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson in their quest to reclaim AL West supremacy. The Rangers hope to add Yu Darvish, the Japanese sensation for whom they’ll likely spend more than $100 million in combined posting fees and salary, in their drive for a third straight AL pennant. Mariners fans can lobby for Prince Fielder and A’s fans can wish for … pretty much anyone who can hit, but neither team looks likely to catch the big two at the top, not this year, and in Oakland’s case, maybe not for a long time.

You can excuse the A’s for falling back after their great eight-year run. You can even understand them taking a step back in the face of fierce intradivisional competition. But let’s not kid ourselves about what’s going on here. Years of iffy personnel decisions have turned the A’s into a bad team with little hope for the foreseeable future. Yet they’re spinning this as something else.

“I don’t think there was a move we could have made that would have put us in position to compete with Anaheim and Texas and what they have,” Beane said after the Gonzalez trade.

OK, sure.

“For us to compete, we’re going to have to have a new stadium.”

Uh, hold on a second there, doctor.

“It used to be you could be strong for three, four, five winning seasons in a row, but the window of opportunity is much smaller now. The Rays have done a great job — in fact, I think their greatest achievement wasn’t getting to the World Series, but winning their division. But they’ll be the first to tell you how hard it’ll be to sustain that.”

MARCH 2, 2009

That Beane quote came after the Rays won the AL pennant, their first playoff berth in franchise history. They’ve since made it back to the playoffs twice more in three years, while competing in the toughest division in baseball. There’s no “used to be” about being strong three, four, or five years in a row now. The Rays are living proof.

If there’s one team that can feel Oakland’s pain when it comes to a stadium quagmire, it’s the Rays. They have 16 more seasons left on an oppressive lease in the worst-located ballpark in the league. Only 16 more years to convince a scattered fan base to come to games, when the greatest four years in team history and the greatest comeback in the history of the sport couldn’t do it.2 But the Rays keep winning. And thanks to the deepest stable of young pitching in the game, a roster full of team-friendly contracts, and shrewd decision-making throughout the organization, there’s hope for more.

Before Target Field opened and bestowed its taxpayer-funded gold on the Pohlad family, the Twins were another small-revenue success story, bagging four AL Central crowns in five years on a shoestring budget. The first of those four division titles came in 2002, a year that seemed so futile for the Twins’ quest to escape the Metrodome that baseball threatened to contract the team. Yes, Target Field opened the door for much greater spending and a chance to retain the team’s best players.3 But the Twins found success in the new park for the same reasons they succeeded in the old one, and the same reasons the Rays and A’s made it work in their lifeless buildings: They did a better job of finding great players than most everyone else.

“I think Billy saw a window of opportunity, as far as the West is concerned.”

FEBRUARY 17, 2009

Beane even inspired his players to contemplate the Window. When Eric Chavez spoke of his boss’ plans three years ago, he was discussing the move Beane made that offseason, one of the most shocking transactions of the past decade. The tiny-revenue A’s, champions of Dumpster-diving, had traded three young players for Matt Holliday. The very good, very expensive, very one-year-away-from-agency Matt Holliday.

For years, Beane had prided himself and his staff on their ability to sniff out young talent and acquire it cheap. But other teams’ increased recognition of said talent and its value put a major dent in Oakland’s plans. “Is it a more challenging environment? Absolutely,” Beane told SI‘s Tom Verducci. “Ten years ago teams didn’t value young players, other than as chips or assets to get the players they needed. Now, even the large-market teams with great resources, everybody values their young players. You have large-market teams valuing young players exactly the same as Tampa Bay, Kansas City or any small-market team.”

Though those comments came last summer, the Holliday trade illustrated Beane’s early recognition of the industry’s shift. If everyone was going to go nuts hoarding A-ball pitchers and rookie-league second basemen, then screw it. He’d zig while everyone else zagged, and spend prospects to get a legitimate star.

The problem wasn’t in the general thought process so much as in the circumstances behind it. The A’s were coming off a 75-win season. Even with Holliday in tow and an intriguing young core of players, vaulting to the top of the division was going to be a long shot. Sure enough, by July, the A’s were out of contention, leaving a flip-job on Holliday as Beane’s best bet to get back decent value, in lieu of simply collecting compensation draft picks at year’s end. To date, Shane Peterson, Clay Mortensen, and once-touted minor league slugger Brett Wallace — the three players Oakland got in its midseason Holliday trade — haven’t amounted to much. You might recognize a couple of the players the A’s gave up to get Holliday eight months earlier, though. One, Huston Street, has become an effective closer. The other, Carlos Gonzalez, is now one of the game’s best outfielders.4

For as much pitching success as the A’s have had in recent years, they’ve been terrible about developing good hitters, with Gonzalez’s departure exacerbating the problem. No A’s position player yielded more than 2.2 Wins Above Replacement last season (an average full-time position player is typically worth about 2 WAR). Oakland’s best offensive players over the past few years have typically been not-young sluggers like Jack Cust and Josh Willingham, useful complementary players, but not the kind to shove you through your Window. Whatever Oakland magic fueled the last big run — scouting and player development in the case of Giambi, Tejada, and Chavez, smart shopping in the case of bargains like Hatteberg and, let’s say, John Jaha — it hasn’t shown up at the Coliseum in years.

The A’s aimed to address that lack of position player strength when they reached a two-year, $14 million deal Tuesday with Coco Crisp. There’s nothing wrong with Crisp per se: He’s a capable defender in center field who runs very well and hits enough to be respectable, a combination that netted 5.5 WAR for the A’s over the past two seasons. It’s just a curiously large investment for a 32-year-old outfielder on a team that’s thrown up a big, white flag for all the world to see.5

Greater emphasis on young talent by rival teams and a lousy stadium situation might be partly responsible for the A’s Window being slammed shut. But the far bigger reason is the same one that has left Pirates fans without fresh air for 20 Bonds-less years, the same one that’s got Royals fans only now starting to get a little optimistic after a 26-year playoff drought: The A’s have a bunch of cruddy players because management didn’t do a good enough job of getting non-cruddy ones.

So stop telling us about your damn Window. It’s an excuse to field terrible baseball teams and pocket tens of millions of dollars in revenue-sharing cash. Just once, it’d be great to hear the GM of a bad team drop the euphemisms. “I fucked up, and my boss wants a new stadium so he can make lots of free money. These things are not related.”

There. Much better.

♦♦♦

The original version of this story implied that a proposed new stadium in San Jose would be largely built with public funds. In fact, current plans call for the stadium to be privately financed, with the city offering a generous discount on the land involved. Given the routine broken promises and cost overruns involved with stadium deals, we remain skeptical that the city’s contributions end there.

Filed Under: MLB, Jonah Keri, People, Sports

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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