Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ben Sheets, Billy Beane & Teflon Economics

News Item: On Wednesday, the A's announced SP Ben Sheets will miss the remainder of the season with a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow.

For those scoring at home, this is the same injury that shelved Sheets for 18 months following the 2008 season. The 32-year-old right-hander has quite possibly thrown his last pitch in a Major League uniform.

According to most accounts, Sheets has been pitching through pain, inflammation and swelling around his elbow over his past 2-3 starts. This would explain both his decrease in velocity and our boy-genius General Manager's curious "we're not inclined to trade Sheets because he's great with our kids" public position. It's not like Billy Beane could come clean and own up to the most short-sighted, ill-conceived free agent signing of his tenure.

When my A's signed Sheets to a one-year, $10 million contract this past January,
I wrote:

Every hour since this deal went down; I've found new ways to hate it even more.

Six months later and it keeps right on giving.

The predictable ending to the Ben Sheets era sparked an equally predictable response from some A's fans and beat writers who believe in Billy Beane. To them, the last few years of failure -- built around a somnambulant offense, a kiddie-corps pitching rotation and a zillion trips to the disabled list -- has nothing to do with poor amateur drafts and a questionable medical staff. They swallow our GM's repetitive pabulum about small markets, old stadiums and competitive disadvantage with an accepting shrug.

On July 24, Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle

I know there will be a lot of criticism about signing Sheets in the first place, but the A's knew the risks and even though it is a $10 million deal, the commitment is only for one year, and the upside seemed worth it. Also, they couldn't give their money away - they tried to sign Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro - no one was interested. They had it to spend, it's not like there's somewhere else that's suffering because they used that for Sheets. I don't get the worry about the investment. Where was it supposed to be going? It's not like ticket prices went up to sign Sheets. If there's concern about the A's bottom's their budget, their risk, they're still at the bottom of the league in payroll. The Sheets money just doesn't even seem like much of an issue.

I like Slusser's work, I follow her on Twitter...really, I don't have any ax to grind. It's just that this kind of hands-off commentary is maddeningly consistent on the A's beat. Let's address a few of her points:

"The A's Knew the Risks..." -- Back in January, Sheets auditioned for several teams during a workout in his native Louisiana. Along with the A's; the Reds, Nationals, Diamondbacks, Cubs, Rangers, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Brewers, Dodgers, Mets, Giants, Pirates and Phillies were all
reportedly in attendance. In 2009, the Nationals had the worst ERA in the National League, yet they passed on Sheets. The Brewers finished next-to-last in ERA last season and employed Sheets for eight years...they passed, too. Many of the teams that watched Sheets test his surgically-repaired elbow were desperate for pitching help, yet they ALL opted to look elsewhere. Those are the teams that knew the risks. In 2009, the A's finished fourth in the AL in ERA and instead paid a premium for "the risks".

"They Had Money to Spend..." -- When did Major League Baseball become Brewster's Millions? Just because a team has $10 million in its pocket -- and can't lure any offensive upgrades to Oakland -- doesn't mean it should spend for the sake of spending. I said it in January and I'll say it again: the A's didn't need Sheets. And, Slusser's contention that there's no other aspect of the team that's suffering due to the money allocated to the Sheets contract is indefensible. The A's are next-to-last in the AL with 66 home runs in 2010. They're third from the bottom in SLG and scored the fourth fewest runs. Why didn't the A's go to Spring Training with the components of the promising 2009 rotation? Then, they could use March to assess other team's offensive options while determining how much of this $10 million slush fund they could use for the 2010 salary of an upgrade at the plate.

"It's Their Budget..." -- And, these aren't the Yankees. Some teams can sign Carl Pavano to a 4-year, $39 million contract without wincing when it blows up in their collective faces. While the Ben Sheets signing -- in a vacuum -- isn't necessarily cumbersome on a single season's budget, it follows the A's recent pattern of filling prominent roles with aging or injury-prone players. It's one thing when DH Frank Thomas is signing for barely the league-minimum (and a load of incentive clauses). It's another when SS Orlando Cabrera and 1B Jason Giambi are making something south of $5 million. And, DH Mike Piazza is signed for $8.5 million. By the time we get to Sheets, "budgets" start looking like a tradition of bad deals.

"$10M is the Going Rate..." -- This wasn't in Slusser's write-up, but it's something I've heard from a few A's fans. They'll name-drop guys like the Yankees' AJ Burnett or the Red Sox's John Lackey (two recent high-profile, high-dollar free agent signings who've struggled to keep their ERAs under 4.50 this season). You'll never hear these fans mention White Sox SP Freddy Garcia. He's started just 23 games combined from 2007-2009 and he's making 1/10th of Sheets' salary this year (4.74 ERA in 18 starts).

"The A's NEEDED Sheets' Veteran-osity" -- Starting this weekend, the A's starting rotation will be: Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Dallas Braden, Gio Gonzalez and Vin Mazzaro. Now, guess which five starting pitchers led the A's in games started in 2009. Hint: their names are in this blurb.

Just to recap: my Oakland A's signed an injury-prone Ben Sheets to a ridiculously large contract, despite knowing the risks and slightly more than half-way through the season, they're handing their rotation over to the five guys who they should've trusted with the keys to the car in the first place.

That about cover it, Mr. Beane?


SHough610 said...

1) The free pass that past success generates, especially in a town that isn't known for a vicious sports press, can last for a while. I'm surprised there hasn't been a backlash of people questioning if Billy Beane really is a genius.
2) Forgive an outsiders view, but have the A's committed to a single plan in terms of rebuilding? The Phillies built around a youth movement and took their lumps. The A's seem to be in limbo. They have their young players (like their rotation) but then want to have these high-risk veterans like Sheets. Either rebuild or don't.
3) I think Ben Sheets' injury was good for you and I, Cam. It allows the A's to focus on the youth movement pitching wise and forced the Phillies to go after Roy Oswalt.
4) This is from the last entry, re: your feelings about Apple products based on Simpsons digs. I think that's pretty common. I've never been a fan of pink shirts and have only recently realized it's probably because of the episode I watched when very young (five or six) when Homer is institutionalized for wearing a pink shirt. And the country has a negative attitude towards nuclear power, I'm sure in no small part (at least for my generation, which missed out on 3 Mile Island) because of the Simpsons.

Aaron C. said...

1.) It's fascinating, really. The first REAL Beane backlash came nationally with the "Moneyball" book. But, the hate from Joe Morgan, etc. actually bought Beane MORE goodwill with A's fans.

Then, he traded away Mark Mulder (for D. Barton/D. Haren) and Tim Hudson (for a sack of crap) and A's fans started grumbling. The Frank Thomas signing in 2006 (39 HRs for $500K plus incentives) won the detractors back for the 2006 season, but the last 4 1/2 years have REALLY been tough to sit thru.

Still, Beane's got his hardcore loyalists among the fanbase and media.

2.) Check out my 1st Sheets post in late January that shows Beane's "plans" from 2007-09. Depressing.

3.) I just wanna be past it, already. If I read one more serious media story about Sheets' "veteran influence" or how he "makes you smile", I'm gonna gag. $10 million for SMILES?!

4.) I've actually read stuff about the nation's negative opinion on nuclear power and The Simpsons' influence. For me, it was watching "The Day After" when I was 8 years old.