Has it really been just three years since “Moneyball” took the baseball world by storm? In the spring of 2003, Michael Lewis’s provocative tale of how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s statistics-driven approach rejected conventional baseball wisdom to find undervalued players for his cash-poor ballclub altered the way many of us—baseball execs, sportswriters and fans alike—analyzed the game, its teams and its players. Baby boomers like me, whose love affair with baseball had always contained a geeky stats component, suddenly believed that they had squandered their lives running fantasy teams when they could have been doing the same thing for real in the bigs. You didn’t have to be an intuitive judge of talent. You didn’t even have to be able to hit a curve ball (something else we shared with Beane, except he got to demonstrate it in 301 at bats over six seasons for four different Major League teams). You just had to be able to crunch the numbers.
It was too late for me. But a new generation, armed with M.B.A.s and law degrees, now fill baseball front offices confident in their ability to run a team, even if they never ran the bases. In 2002, when Theo Epstein, a Beane admirer and all of 28 years old, was named general manager of the Boston Red Sox, he was the youngest GM in Major League history.
But even as a generation of Beane-counters ascended in baseball’s front offices, Beane himself suffered the inevitable backlash, one compounded by the fact that he wasn’t the kind of guy who could hide his light under a domed stadium, let alone a bushel. It was difficult to tell if his detractors were provoked more by the theories or by Beane’s new celebrity. It didn’t help that the 2003 season didn’t prove to be a vindication of a new formula that would enable small-market teams like Oakland to compete with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Beane’s critics rejoiced when the A’s blew another first-round playoff series, and Oakland hasn’t returned to the postseason. They chastised Beane as a man who was taking far too much credit for some revolutionary ideas that had preceded him, in the game and even in Oakland. And there was plenty of skepticism about those theories, a feeling that all the fancy talk was just a new excuse for slashed budgets.
As we begin the 2006 season, the most notable new book about baseball management is “Built to Win” by Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz, whose credentials—14 straight National League division championships—are impeccable and whose philosophy can be described (and was by every reviewer) as the antithesis of “Moneyball.” Though Schuerholz is at the helm of a decidedly modern franchise, his book is something of a paean to the traditional baseball man whose assessment of talent is more innate or at least learned within the game than formulaic and learned at Harvard Business School.
I have no quarrel with either man or either approach. But I have a hunch that this is the year that Beane gets the last laugh. Not only do I foresee a season in which the Braves’ division championship streak finally ends—to the Mets and their GM, Omar Minaya, who has played a different kind of moneyball. But this is the year that the Oakland A’s finally reach the pinnacle of baseball—or American baseball—by winning the World Series. (After the schooling given our baseball players in the World Baseball classic, is it time for a name change? Super Series, anyone?)
For the A’s, it has to be this season. After years of watching the team’s major stars—Jason Isringhausen, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Keith Foulke, Miguel Tejada, Tim Hudson—depart annually for more money elsewhere, Oakland has for once held on to all of its key veterans. Pitching ace Barry Zito wasn’t traded, even though he will be a free agent next season. Nor was Mark Kotsay, despite an effort by the Yankees to make him a far cheaper solution to its center-field woes than the $52 million paid to Johnny Damon. At the same time, all the A’s young studs (Nick Swisher, Dan Johnson, Huston Street, Bobby Crosby, Dan Haren, Rich Harden, Joe Blanton) have enough seasoning to make major contributions. For the small-market A’s, it is baseball’s equivalent of the perfect storm.
Sensing the moment, Beane also took a chance and spent some of his team’s relatively limited cash on two high-risk players. The first is the talented, oft-injured and always-tempestuous outfielder Milton Bradley. The other is ex-White Sox designated hitter Frank Thomas, who was on his way to Cooperstown before a succession of crippling injuries caused him to miss almost three of the last five seasons while batting a pedestrian .257. If Bradley can stay off the disabled or suspended list and Thomas, who will soon be 38, can recapture, if not the fountain of youth, maybe just a few last sips, the A’s could dominate.
Here are my predictions for the remainder of baseball’s postseason lineup:
AL East: New York Yankees. I can’t remember the Yankees having a staff with more question marks (almost everyone except the immortal Mariano Rivera). And except for the left side of the infield, its defense is suspect, possibly woeful. But the team is an offensive juggernaut that is capable of cloaking all the punctuation marks and all the bad gloves in the baseball universe—at least until the postseason.
AL Central: Cleveland Indians. The Tribe buried themselves with a slow start last year but this year will emerge on top in an increasingly competitive division. Cleveland has the thump, with three genuine MVP candidates in Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner, to leave the champion Chicago White Sox wallowing in nostalgia.
AL West: Oakland.
AL Wild Card: Minnesota Twins. This is a season in which every 2005 American League also-ran appears to have improved. And some, like the Toronto Blue Jays, the Seattle Mariners and the Texas Rangers may have improved enough to contend. The Red Sox have held onto this berth for three years now, but the Twins, with great young pitching and hitting talents ready to contribute, are ready to return to the playoffs, this time in the fourth spot. And recent history has taught us that the fourth spot is just as good as any other.
NL East: New York Mets. The Mets may have overspent for free agents the last couple of years, but at least the team bought talent. The most important acquisition will be veteran closer Billy Wagner. Every time I tuned into a Mets game last season, it seemed as if Braden Looper was blowing a ninth-inning lead. With Carlos Delgado adding thump, Carlos Beltran acclimated after one full NL season and David Wright on his way to superstardom, those leads should be bigger this year. And Wagner will be far better at holding them. Now if Pedro Martinez can only stay healthy, the Braves historic reign will be … well, history.
NL Central: St. Louis Cardinals. The Houston Astros won’t recover from a hitting drought in last year’s series. And the Chicago Cubs, trapped by never-ending injuries to their young pitching stars, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, won’t be able to capitalize on some shrewd free-agent signings. That leaves a solid St. Louis club. The team lost some good veterans, but kept its core stars. And none anywhere shine as bright as the Redbirds’ slugging first basement, Albert Pujols, who will be helped by the return of third baseman Scott Rolen.
NL West: San Diego Padres. The worst division in baseball didn’t get much better, except for whatever the return of Barry Bonds brings to San Francisco. Here’s guessing that mounting injuries, not the relentless pressure of steroid accusations, will ultimately sabotage his quest to catch Hank Aaron as home-run king along with the Giants’ hopes. The Padres made one silly signing—Mike Piazza, a fading hitter and a defensive liability in a pitcher’s park. But the rest of the team is built for Petco and, in a division where .500 is good enough, the team should repeat.
NL Wild Card: Atlanta Braves. A lot of folks have looked silly (and gotten poorer) betting against the Atlanta Braves. I count myself among the past foolish. So I am hedging this year’s wager. As long as the Braves have the Jones boys, Chipper and Andruw, in the heart of the lineup and what seems to be a never-ending supply of minor-league talent (kudos to Mr. Schuerholz), they will remain formidable. It will be interesting, after years of losing pitching stars who went on to do nothing elsewhere, to assess the impact of longtime pitching coach Leo Mazzone’s departure. The track record of the Braves staff—in Atlanta and elsewhere—suggest he is a miracle worker. (He will need to be in his new job with the Baltimore Orioles.) But the Braves, with their experienced leadership and depth, don’t need a miracle to reach the playoffs. That’s when recent history suggests one or two may be required.
A’s over Twins
Indians over Yankees
A’s over Indians
Cardinals over Braves
Mets over Padres
Cardinals over Mets
With apologies to my dear family in St. Louis, the American League is simply superior, as sweeps in the World Series the past two seasons have demonstrated. The NL’s best hope is to finally win an All-Star Game and, at least, open the series at home. But even that won’t be enough. A’s over Cards in five!