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Friday, February 25, 2011
A's built on their strengths in offseason

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- General managers throughout Major League Baseball have budgets, organizational mandates and short- and long-term strategies to pursue. But 29 of those executives aren't about to be portrayed by Brad Pitt in a movie based on a New York Times best-seller. If Billy Beane goes out and signs a player for the Oakland Athletics, he can't just be signing a player, can he? It has to be part of some cosmic, far-flung strategy that's going to revolutionize the industry. Doesn't it?

Beane is a very bright, engaging guy, and he hasn't lost any brain cells during Oakland's run of one playoff appearance in seven years. Beane's reputation as the smartest guy in the room persists in part because he's well-versed on topics ranging from Wall Street to international soccer and has a lexicon a world removed from the standard ballspeak.

Brian Fuentes
The A's signed Brian Fuentes to a two-year, $10.5 million contract in January to be their primary left-handed setup man in 2011.

Lots of general managers talk about the need to develop from within and cultivate homegrown players. Beane, meanwhile, waxes eloquent about Oakland's "organic" young pitching staff.

"Moneyball" came out eight years ago -- long enough for Paul DePodesta to go from Oakland to the Dodgers to the Padres to the Mets -- and it's ludicrous to think that Beane and his front office have a monopoly on innovation. The A's are as progressive as ever in their team-building methodology. But they make mistakes just as everybody else does, and they have a smaller margin for error than most because of a lousy facility and relatively meager resources.

"When you come into spring training with the A's, people go, 'Is there this master plan?"' Beane said. "In many cases, what we do is a reaction to not being able to do some things other clubs can do. If we actually got to do Plan A every year, we would look a lot like the Yankees and the Red Sox."

Beane has a payroll that's about 25 percent of the size of Brian Cashman's, his friend and New York counterpart. But the men who run the A's and Yankees were brothers in rejection during the offseason: They both experienced how it feels to take no for an answer.

Cashman and the Yankees made a spirited run at Cliff Lee only to lose out to the Phillies. With their No. 1 option off the board, they decided to strengthen their pitching staff from the back end, signing Rafael Soriano to a three-year, $35 million deal.

Beane and assistant GM David Forst, who always need to stay light on their feet, entered the offseason with a lengthy checklist of alternatives. They pursued starter Hisashi Iwakuma, who elected to return to Japan. They courted Lance Berkman, who signed with St. Louis. And they tried to throw gobs of money at free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre only to watch him snag a guaranteed five-year, $80 million deal with the Texas Rangers.

After being rebuffed in triplicate, the A's zigged instead of zagging and concentrated on fortifying their strengths instead of addressing their weaknesses. Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. And sometimes teams come perilously close to running out of plans.

After finishing second in the American League West with an 81-81 record last season, the A's made a bunch of incremental improvements. They upgraded the corner outfield spots with trades for David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, and signed DH Hideki Matsui to a one-year deal. Godzilla's bat speed might be waning, but he arrived in Arizona to a massive Japanese media corps that's poised to chronicle his every blink and casual nose scratch.

Once the offense was addressed, Beane did something out of character. He signed lefty reliever Brian Fuentes to a guaranteed two-year, $10.5 million deal and added righty reliever Grant Balfour for two years and $8.1 million. Both contracts include club options for 2013.

Beane's reasoning? "They were too good to be out there, and we had the money to afford them," he said.

General managers typically have to grit their teeth before spending big money on middle relievers, because their performance can vary so much from one year to the next based on workloads. That's why Beane, like bullpen-building maestro Kevin Towers and other colleagues, likes nothing better than to uncover hidden gems who can contribute effective one-inning cameos at a reasonable price.

Billy Beane It's a zero-sum game, and we had a good pitching staff last year and we should have a better one this year. The less runs we give up, the less we have to score. In a nonlinear way, we have improved the offense.

-- A's general manager Billy Beane

The A's have been quite successful in that regard. Closer Andrew Bailey is a former sixth-round pick out of that baseball bastion, Wagner College. Sidearmer Brad Ziegler pitched for the independent league Schaumburg Flyers and suffered two skull fractures on line drives before sticking in the big leagues. Michael Wuertz came over from the Cubs in a trade for Justin Sellers and Richie Robnett. And lefty Craig Breslow, who kicked around with San Diego, Boston, Cleveland and Minnesota before finding his niche with Oakland at age 28, is an inspiration for fellow Yale molecular biophysics majors who dream of moonlighting as baseball pitchers on the side.

But the growing importance of middle relievers -- and the scarcity of effective arms -- has a way of driving up the price. When Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain all sign three-year deals in the same offseason, you can argue that Fuentes and Balfour are relative bargains.

"It's a zero-sum game, and we had a good pitching staff last year and we should have a better one this year," Beane said. "The less runs we give up, the less we have to score. In a nonlinear way, we have improved the offense."

The A's are generating a lot of buzz in Arizona primarily because of their starters. Last year, Oakland's rotation, with Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden and Gio Gonzalez at the core, posted the best ERA for an American League contingent (3.47) since the 2002 Red Sox. That's particularly impressive given that the pitchers range in age from 23 to 27 and should continue to get better.

Despite their youth, the Oakland starters pitched deep enough into games to take the strain off the bullpen. Oakland's relief corps contributed a total of 439 2/3 innings last year, 12th-most among the 14 AL clubs. But there was a carryover effect from the A's bullpen logging the second-heaviest workload in the game in 2009, and some of these guys were running on fumes by late summer.

Bailey, who missed a month with an oblique injury after the All-Star break, had his elbow cleaned up in mid-September. Breslow posted a 1.29 ERA in September, but he's made a whopping 152 appearances the past two seasons. That's the most by any lefty reliever not named Pedro Feliciano.

Oakland's two free-agent arrivals help bolster the bullpen depth while bringing unique strengths. Balfour averaged 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings in the past three seasons in Tampa Bay while proving his mettle against some challenging AL East lineups. He also brings a tough, earthy exterior and a sense of humor to the Oakland 'pen.

"I know he gets intense once the games start," Bailey said. "But in the locker room he's very carefree. He's like a one-line machine. And it's funnier because of his [Australian] accent."

Fuentes, 35, has 187 career saves and will be perfectly comfortable closing on days when Bailey is unable to go. Contract notwithstanding, Fuentes liked the thought of working in a pitchers' park in Oakland, with a strong rotation in front of him, a deep bullpen beside him and a sure-handed defense behind him.

"These guys reminded me of the Colorado team I played on that was on the cusp of being competitive [and then went] to the World Series [in 2007]," Fuentes said. "It was something I wanted to be a part of."

Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball," of course, was rooted in Oakland's quest to finding undervalued assets rather than uncovering players who could draw walks and post high on-base percentages. But the baseball landscape is constantly shifting, and sometimes the pursuit of winning is more about expediency than making a grandiose statement. Sometimes the art of adaption takes a team in a direction where it never planned to go.

"I think Billy & Co. recognize that we have to play to our strengths," said Breslow, the former Yale Bulldog. "We play in a big ballpark. We have a lot of foul territory. Pitch and play defense -- that's what's going to win games. To take a guy who's going to hit 45 home runs somewhere else and have him hit 25 or 30 in Oakland … you're probably better off securing your defense and shoring up your pitching staff and having some depth."

As Breslow watched Oakland's winter unfold, step by intriguing step, he thought of some boilerplate terminology more commonly associated with football than baseball.

"I kind of thought of our offseason like a draft," Breslow said. "Sometimes you just have to get the best player available. In a lot of ways, that's what we did."

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.