The Sacramento River Cats and their major-league brothers, the Oakland Athletics, win with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball
For a gritty, outspoken, West Virginia-raised slugger, Oakland Athletics’ first baseman Nick Swisher is kind of a pretty boy. He sports designer shades and a goatee, and his long auburn locks—which he’s growing to donate to cancer patients—have a certain Cybill Shepherd shine, falling down the back of his neck like sheets over the foot of a bed.
Of course, this frou frou mattered not when Swisher, a class of 2004 Sacramento River Cat, led off the sixth inning during the A’s vs. River Cats spring exhibition match on March 29. He rooted his left cleat in the batter’s box, checked the sweet spot of his Louisville Slugger, then locked in on River Cat pitcher Santiago Casilla’s right hand, looking for fastball seams.
Crack! The fastball arrived, and Swisher put it over the outfield fence—a home run.
The A’s won 11 to 10 at Raley Field that Thursday evening, but both teams have spent most of the decade manhandling their opposition, winning almost 60 percent of their respective games. Although the A’s have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, they have the third-best record since 1999. A’s general manager Billy Beane doesn’t have the luxury of a $200 million war chest, à la the spendthrift New York Yankees, so how does Beane keep on winning?
Michael Lewis’ 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game documented Beane’s shrewd, sea-change, market-based approach to running a sports team. Beane does not scout players by gut instinct, rudimentary stats and physical appearances. Instead, he uses rigorous analysis of statistics, or sabermetrics, to objectively determine each player’s potential.
“[Beane] runs [the A’s] like a business, as opposed to the old-school way of thinking,” explained Tyler “Blez” Bleszinski, president of Athletics Nation, the most popular professional-sports-team Web site on the Internet. Lewis’ book let the cat out of the bag, however, and lately it’s been more difficult for Beane to find an edge. The Boston Red Sox have recruited their own sabermetricians. Other organizations hired Beane protégés to run their teams, young Ivy League graduates like 28-year-old Jon Daniels of the Texas Rangers.
The goliaths of MLB became more extravagant. The Red Sox shelled out $51.11 million just for the right to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. The San Francisco Giants inked former A’s ace Barry Zito for a record $126 million contract.
With his $60 million annual payroll, Beane can’t afford the Matsuzakas and Zitos of the baseball world. Yet he keeps on winning, leading the A’s to the American League Championship Series in 2006.
Now, five years since Moneyball, there’s a whole new batch of young talent waiting to carry on the tradition of Beane’s culture of winning in Oakland—to become the next Swisher. A lot of these prospects are here in Sacramento with the River Cats, and their careers will determine whether Beane’s future as a moneyballer will be as successful as his past.
River Cats manager Tony DeFrancesco relaxed at his office a few hours before the first pitch on opening day. His elementary-school-aged son, a catcher (a future prospect?), patiently waited for some clubhouse grub while his father discussed this season’s team.
“[Daric Barton] could be the complete package,” DeFrancesco said. “But if he’s going to be a first baseman, he’s going to have to increase his power numbers and drive in runs.”
Barton might be the next Swisher: A 20-year-old leftie prospect from Southern California, he’s patient at the plate and can hit for both power and average. Barton was acquired in 2004 from the St. Louis Cardinals as a “throwaway” prospect in the Mark Mulder trade. Three years later, his acquisition is another in a long line of gangbuster deals orchestrated by Beane.
“[As for] plate discipline, I think Barton is probably one of the best we have in this organization,” DeFrancesco said, noting how Barton fits the mold of the prototypical A’s player—emphasizing on-base percentage and walks over home runs and batting average.
After batting practice that day, Barton said he’s on the same page as the coaching staff: “My philosophy is their philosophy. Take a lot of pitches, get a lot of walks.”
Less than two hours into the first game of the season, however, Barton proved that he also can hit for power—and trigger a comeback. In the sixth inning, Barton took a juicy low-and-inside fastball, turned on it and gave it the five-iron treatment, knocking it over the right-field fence into the Raley Field bullpen. His home run sparked the River Cats, who rallied for four runs and ended up coming back to beat the Tacoma Rainiers eight to seven on opening day.
Another prospect, River Cat catcher Kurt Suzuki, also was instrumental in the opening-day win. He had two hits, an RBI and scored three runs, including the game winner.
“I love Suzuki,” Blez said. “I remember his very first spring training. He made an impression immediately because he hit a couple of ringing doubles at a game I was at.”
The 23-year-old from Hawaii was a second-round draft pick for the A’s in 2004 and has spent the past couple years in Vancouver, Stockton and Midland, running the gauntlet of Oakland’s farm system. This is his first year with the River Cats, a season that will determine whether he’s prepared to take over the reigns for current A’s catcher Jason Kendall, whose contract expires at the year’s end.
“[Beane’s] big on a culture of winning,” Blez explained of the A’s minor-league philosophy, “so that when you have a prospect come up like a Swisher or a Suzuki, they learn how to compete and what to do to be a professional on an everyday basis.”
Because pitching is so expensive in the major leagues, Beane has lined up a wealth of talent in the arms department throughout the minor-league system. It’s a lot cheaper to nurture prospects in-house amid competitive play than to pay, say, $55 million for an unproven veteran arm like Gil Meche.
Consider Jason Windsor, the River Cats’ opening-day starter. Windsor was dominant last year in Sacramento, winning 13 games and only losing one. “People think that he only has the curve, fastball and change-up, but his change-up is phenomenal,” said Blez of the 24-year-old right-hander’s signature pitch, which is thrown like a fastball but held differently, so that there’s quirky movement and a slower velocity. “It’s a Bugs Bunny kind of change-up,” Blez quipped.
“He’s got a clutch change-up,” DeFrancesco agreed. “But for the major-league level, he needs to have a little more command.”
A’s pitching coach Curt Young concurred, but acknowledged that breaking through to the majors depends a lot on good fortune and opportunities. “With the year Jason had, he understands,” Young said. “That’s the position you’re put in when you’re in the minor leagues: You’ve got to be successful to get an opportunity.”
Where else are the River Cats showing their claws?
“Right now, it’s got to be our bullpen,” said DeFrancesco.
“The guys that are in the bullpen are guys that have been here, and they’ve been part of the organization for two to three years now,” Young said of relievers like Justin Duchscherer in Oakland and River Cat Marcus McBeth, who are more affordable than starting pitchers but just as valuable when it comes to winning games. “We’re going to feel real good going into games late with a lead or tied, or even behind,” Young confided.
This weekend, David and Goliath will go at it again as the Yankees come to Oakland for a three-game series.
“This A’s team, honest to God, could finish anywhere from first to last in their division,” Blez conceded. But it’s exactly this uncertainty—the lingering doubt that comes with being an underdog year after year—that makes watching the A’s so gratifying, as opposed to being a Yankees fan, with a team that enters each season expecting to win the World Series.
Back at the Raley Field exhibition game, when someone asked Swisher how many home runs he’ll hit this season, he assumed the modesty of a perennial underdog.
“Aw, I don’t ever guess how many I can hit,” he shrugged. “I’ll let you know at the end of September.”