Thank you for the A’s: The ‘R’ Word

The Oakland A’s had one pre-midnight UK time game this week and it came on Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The big story around the game concerned the A’s Sonny Gray. He is the leading starting pitcher on the potential trade candidates list and, as I noted on Monday, coming into the week there were no guarantees that he would still be wearing the Green and Gold by the time of his next scheduled start, let alone by the end of July.

He did face the Rays on Wednesday, and once again pitched well, but the ovation given to him by the Coliseum crowd showed that many expect him to be moving on very soon.

He’ll be following relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle out of the door after they were traded to the Washington Nationals a week ago. That trade prompted Billy Beane to finally use the ‘rebuild’ word after years of the team avoiding a full new start and to acknowledge the frustration many fans feel. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Beane said:

“Really, what’s been missing the last 20 years is keeping these players … The frustration isn’t that we’ve had success; the frustration is that after success, we haven’t kept them. And we need to change that narrative by creating a good team and ultimately committing to keeping them around, so that when people buy a ticket, they’ll know that the team is going to be there for a few years … This is my 20th year on the job. There are only so many cycles that I can go through before I get as exasperated as everybody else”.

The crucial change for the A’s is that, at last, a clear plan to getting a new stadium built is becoming clear after years of talk, talk that has often threatened the team’s future in Oakland. The organisation is now committed to Oakland – until they’re not, at least – and aim to have a proposed site announced by the end of the year.

The promised new ballpark has long been a factor in the A’s transactions. The ideal scenario is to have a good young team lined up with the opening of a new home and the uncertainty over where and when that will be has meant that Oakland have been looking at the short-term, keeping a certain amount of talent around so that they can take advantage if there is a chance to contend for a couple of seasons.

Now it seems a full rebuild is on the cards, which is not a great deal of fun to go through but A’s fans only have to look at the high-flying AL West rival Houston Astros to see how such a move can transform a club.

However, the pessimistic part of me has always been concerned by the way some talk of a new ballpark as something that will vastly change the A’s fortunes. It will help, unquestionably, but I’m not so sure it’s suddenly going to mean that we’ll have significant enough increases in revenue to bridge much of a gap.

Off-Target Field

The Minnesota Twins have been in a similar bracket to the A’s over the past 20 years. Baseball fans in Minnesota had to put up with the threat of their team being voluntarily terminated by their owners, as MLB considered ‘contracting’ down to a smaller number of teams, before hope was finally found in a new open-air ballfield to replace the Metrodome.

As with the Coliseum, the Metrodome was a dual-purpose facility, thought by many to be an ugly child that was only loved by its family.

Minnesota government officials and tax-payers were promised that a new ballfield would transform the fortunes of the Twins from a small-market team that couldn’t keep hold of its best players to one could that contend more often than not.

Which sounds familiar to this A’s fan.

The reality can be seen in the table below.

YearWL40-man Year End$ RankAttendanceAtt Rank
201659103$122,601,625201,963,91223
20158379$108,275,245202,220,05420
20147092$ 91,071,286242,250,60619
20136696$ 76,132,483242,477,64417
20126696$101,165,992132,776,35412
20116399$115,419,10693,168,1164
20109468$103,039,407103,223,6406
20098776$ 73,068,407232,416,23714
20088875$ 65,096,667252,302,43121
20077983$ 71,938,505212,296,38321
20069666$ 64,809,258212,285,01819

The 2006 to 2008 Twins had a 40-man roster spend in the lower-third of all MLB teams and a home attendance of the same level. That amounted to an average of $67m and a combined attendance of approximately 2.29m.

There was an increase in attendance in 2009 in the final year of the Metrodome and then there was the big leap when Target Field opened in 2010. The leap wasn’t just in attendance, but also in 40-man roster spend. The supposedly small-market Twins were now in the top-third.

Unfortunately the impressive team built to launch Target Field only lasted one season before the losses kept piling up again.  Not only has 40-man roster spend gone back down into the bottom third of MLB in the past four seasons, attendance has fallen with it. Last year was the first time since 2004 that the Twins fell below the 2 million attendance mark.

The new ballpark bounce hasn’t lasted long in the Twin Cities.

Quite simply, you can have as many great viewing spots, food-outlet options and jumbo HD screens as you like, but if the team isn’t any good then the casual fans will find somewhere else to spend their time and something else to spend their money on.

Back to the A’s

The Twins’ team plans haven’t worked out over the past five years and they’ve reduced their payroll accordingly as they look to get younger and bring through talent like Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios, Byron Buxton and Germany’s Max Kepler. That’s understandable, yet it goes to show that putting up with several years of terrible teams in the hope of building a great one isn’t always going to work out.

None of this is to say that I’m against rebuilding. The A’s are never going to be big spenders and so having a medium term plan to develop a group does make sense. What I don’t like is the idea that we should punt even more seasons for a future that may never come.

The full-on rebuilds undertaken by the Cubs and Astros in recent years are a model people point to and you can see why, but it’s not the only way to go and, frankly, I don’t want the A’s to take that route.

Quite how the Astros not only got away without penalties for spending just $30m on their roster in 2013, but were actually rewarded for it with the number one draft pick in 2014(*) was scandalous. If we’re going to trade away Sonny Gray to them, the least they could do is share a few of their top prospects to make up for it!

Anyway, there is already some promising young talent now emerging in Oakland. Maybe the likes of Ryon Healy, Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Jaycob Brugman, Franklin Barreto, Sean Manaea, Daniel Gossett, Jharel Cotton and others won’t quite make it, but I want to see the A’s give them the best chance to do so rather than let them go to waste.

Why not spend?

The full-on rebuild idea is to get rid of pretty much anyone earning more than the MLB minimum – other than a few one-year veterans who you might be able to trade on at the deadline – so as not to spend any more money than is needed.

But don’t let anyone tell you that’s necessary, not when you see the revenues that are being generated in MLB.

The current A’s ownership group bought the team in 2005 for $180m. Forbes valued the team at $880m in April this year and whilst MLB likes to dismiss such valuations, the recent talk around the Miami Marlins impending sale, for around the $1.2bn mark, shows just how much these franchises are now worth. Add a new ballpark to that (just like the Marlins did) and the A’s value in five years’ time could be in the same region.

Not a bad return on their investment, and that’s before considering that the A’s majority owner John Fisher, son of the owner of GAP, is reportedly worth $2.2bn already. He can more than afford it.

So, when you put all that together, and account for the A’s presumably investing money into the new ballpark, why can’t the A’s keep the payroll at a reasonable level before they move into their new home? If that means Fisher sticking his hand in his pocket and putting an extra $25m into the payroll for each of the next five seasons, so be it.

That will still put Oakland at the lower end when it comes to spending, but it would give us more of a chance to have a watchable team on the field. Crucially, it would give the young talent we currently have a chance of keeping some ready-now talent around them over the next couple of seasons so that they’re not trying to develop in a team losing 90+ every year.

Needless to say, you don’t get rich like Fisher by throwing money around and he’s not going to care less what fans like me think. Still, the idea that you have to strip everything down and put up with several years of misery isn’t as true as the billionaire MLB owners like to make you believe.

You can build for the future – and, yes, trade away some talented players you would otherwise like to keep – and still put a decent team on the field. Who knows, you might even get into a Wild Card race or two along the way (the bar isn’t all that high in the AL this year, for example).

I’ll be able to put up with Sonny in an Astros uniform, or Alonso in a Yankee uniform, if I still believe the A’s are trying to win games in the here and now too. It will be great to finally have a new ballpark, but every game left before then still counts to us fans. Let’s hope the ownership and front office feel the same.

* The Astros’ selection Brady Aiken didn’t sign with them and they ended up getting Alex Bregman with the second pick in 2015 as compensation. Not a bad consolation prize.

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