Oakland A’s: Finding Value in the End
The film Moneyball brought a lot of attention to Billy Bean and the Oakland A’s. The movie, starring Brad Pitt, illustrated the General Manager’s talent in finding low-priced, yet valuable talent to form a competitive team. Oakland competes in a small market, making it difficult to compete with teams in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Rather than spend money on high-priced free agents, the team must develop talent through their minor-league system, or find players through trades and free agency who provide value at their respective positions. One of these value additions illustrated in the film was the acquisition of David Justice in 2002. The A’s acquired Justice in a trade that year with the New York Yankees paying a sizable portion of his $7 million salary. Justice, at age 36, was at the end of his career, but had been a good player in 13 major league seasons. He had a .280 career average before the trade, and had hit over 40 HR and 100 RBI on multiple occasions, but his 2001 season was down, as he hit only .241. Oakland was able to bring him in to provide a veteran presence, and Justice delivered respectably, hitting .266 and double-digit home runs, with an impressive on-base percentage of .376. Justice was at the end of his career, and the A’s hoped to squeeze what little baseball a former three-time All-Star had left. While not every Oakland season is memorialized in an Academy Award-nominated film, the A’s have had a history of bringing in once-great players at the end of their careers.
After Justice in 2002, the best example, and probably the one that started the trend, of Oakland finding strong value at the end of a former great player’s career came in 2006 with Frank Thomas. Thomas, now a member of the hall of fame, won two MVPs with the White Sox, and hit over 500 HR in his career, to go along with a .301 batting average, and ridiculous .419 on-base percentage. He had struggled with injuries over his last few seasons in Chicago, earning over $9 million at his peak. Oakland brought him in at age 38 for a third of that salary ($3 million). He responded by hitting 39 HR and 114 RBI along with a .381 on-base percentage. That kind of production would command $25-30 million in today’s open market, yet Oakland was able to get it for $3 million. Thomas turned this season into a lucrative deal with Toronto, and at age 40, Oakland tried getting the last bit of juice Thomas had to offer. He was injured most of the year, but still was able to get on-base at a rate of .364 in 55 games, with Oakland only paying a portion of his salary.
Mike Piazza is one of the best, if not the best, hitting catchers in the history of baseball. He compiled a .308 career average, while hitting over 30 HR an incredible nine times. He consistently drove in 100 runs at a position where most manages would settle for a player who can hit .250 with 10 HR and 50 RBI. Piazza was earning up to $16 million per year until 2005, and at the end of his career, Oakland brought him in at age 38 for half of that in 2007. While his power numbers dipped, Piazza still was able to hit .275 and drive in a run about every two games. Certainly not his former greatness, but Oakland still got relatively strong production from a future Hall-of-Famer at the end of his career for much less money.
In 2009, the A’s tried to see what was left of two formerly great players in Jason Giambi and Nomar Garciapara. Giambi was the A’s best player from 1995-2001, but signed with the Yankees as the A’s couldn’t compete with his salary requirements. Giambi was the AL-MVP in 2001 with Oakland, and regularly hit over .300 with more than 30 HR and 100 RBI. His production continued with the Yankees, as they paid him as much as $23 million dollars in 2008. Oakland brought Giambi back for a fraction of that, paying him $4 million at the age of 38. He posted a respectable .332 on-base percentage, with 11 HR and 40 RBI in only 83 games. Over an entire season, that would place him at a productive 20 HR and 80 RBI, and not too far off what he was being paid $23 million per year to produce. The team also brought in Nomar Garciapara that year. Nomar was one of the best all-around players in baseball in his prime. In 9 years as the shortstop for the Red Sox he hit .323, while regularly hitting 30 HR and driving in 100 RBI. He even won two batting titles. Oakland brought him in at age 35 for the low price of $1 million. Injuries kept him from playing a full season, but he still hit .281 in 65 games, a strong number for a middle infielder, particularly one whose 35 and only being paid $1 million.
In 2011, the A’s hoped to find a little baseball left in 37 year-old Hideki Matsui. Matsui came to New York after a great career in Japan. In seven seasons in the big apple, he hit .292, while driving in over 100 runs four times. The Yankees were paying Matsui $13 million per year during the last four years he was with them. The A’s brought him in that season for a little more than $4 million, and Matsui drove in 72 runs, good for second on the team. He also hit 12 home runs, and posted a respectable .321 on-base percentage. Not a bad return on a $4 million investment.
The most recent example of this occurred in 2012 when the A’s brought in pitcher Bartolo Colon. He was 39 years old when he signed with the A’s, and had enjoyed an impressive career up until that point. He had won at least 15 games six times, including two 20-win seasons, and won the Cy Young Award in 2005. In his first season with Oakland, Colon made 24 starts, compiling 10 wins with a very respectable 3.43 ERA, his best mark in 10 years, including the year he won the Cy Young. The following year with Oakland, at age 40, he was even better, winning 18 games with a career-best 2.65 ERA. Oakland paid Colon $5 million combined for these two years of work. In 2007, the Angels paid Colon $16 million.
It was also in 2012 that the A’s took a chance on 3B Brandon Inge. Inge was a long-time Tiger who was an all-star in 2009. While Inge had hit as many as 27 home runs on multiple occasions, the Tigers had grown tired of his inconsistency and released him that season. The As’s quickly signed him, while only having to pay him $410,000 of his $5.5 million salary (the Tigers paid the rest). In 74 games with Oakland, Inge hit 11 home runs and drove in 52 runs. At that pace, over a full-season, Inge would have hit 24 HR and drove in 114 RBI. Not bad production from a guy that was paid over $5 million to not play for another team. The A’s even signed 40-year old Manny Ramirez, arguably one of the greatest hitters of all-time. Although they ultimately never brought him to the major leagues, it still didn’t stop them from trying to find value in the last traces of productivity of a once great player. In 2014, they traded for Adam Dunn, who with over 400 home runs, announced he would retire at the end of the season. While he only played in 25 games, the White Sox paid almost all of his $15 million salary, and Dunn homered in his first game in an Oakland uniform.
Not all players experienced glory at the end of their careers in Oakland like Frank Thomas and Bartolo Colon. However, many players who were once at the top of the sport came to Oakland to provide respectable productivity, while playing for fractions of their former salaries. Oakland has always found great value in underrated free agents and in their minor league system, but few remember just how many former greats (including hall of famers) came to play in Oakland over the last decade. Moneyball emphasized finding value in many forms, but didn’t address how much value Oakland has received by getting the last bit of baseball out of players who were once at the top of the game. It’s a trend that has worked for Oakland, and will likely continue. I better pre-order my 2029 Mike Trout Oakland A’s jersey.