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The $70 million powerhouse: How A's built a baseball machine on the cheap - again

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 8/20/2018 Gabe Lacques
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No, it’s not a sequel. Yet, what the Oakland Athletics are doing feels awfully familiar.

A team that lost 87 games in 2017, began 2018 with a major league-low $62 million payroll and still calls baseball’s most utilitarian facility home has climbed to the American League West summit, just one game behind the defending World Series champion Astros.

After winning their weekend series against Houston, the A’s look bound for a playoff return four years after a trade of its franchise player kicked off what seemed an endless rebuild.

Yet, where Josh Donaldson once roamed, another budding MVP patrols third base. A gaggle of homegrown talent, along with odd-fitting items from myriad scrap heaps and low-key trades populate the rotation and lineup.

And presiding over it all once again is executive vice president Billy Beane.

Yet, this is 16 years and dozens of tired Brad Pitt references removed from Moneyball, the book and film that chronicled Beane’s executive brilliance, lending both understanding and misconceptions to how the A’s go about their business.

Saturday, the A’s honored the Moneyball A’s in a pregame ceremony and then won for the 40th time in 54 games, erasing, for now, what was a 12-game Astros advantage.

The timing seemed apropos, as another underdog bunch threatens to upset an AL hierarchy that seemed ironclad as recently as one month ago.

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So, how are these A’s doing it? Can it be sustained? And will Pitt and Jonah Hill return for the sequel?

An answer to some of those questions:

Starters from the bottom

The A’s had a virtual casting call of starting pitchers to start camp this past spring, with eight to 10 viable rotation candidates. Just one – 11-game winner Sean Manaea, who no-hit the Red Sox in April – has been both healthy and effective enough to stick.

March 19 is not typically considered a day playoff berths are won, but the A’s may look back at that day fondly. That’s when they dug into the considerable bin of remaining free agents and signed old friends Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson to low-risk deals.

Cahill was guaranteed just $1.5 million and Anderson virtually nothing, settling for a minor-league contract ($1.5 million in the majors) after making just 16 starts the previous two seasons.

Talk about bargains: Cahill has delivered a quality start in eight of his 15 outings and has dominated at times, such as his seven-inning, one-hit, seven-strikeout beauty against the Astros on Saturday. Anderson didn’t debut until May 2 and hasn’t been as consistent, but has pitched to a 3.90 ERA and delivered surprising length, completing at least seven innings in two of his past three starts.

And lest we forget, the A’s became the 13th club to employ Edwin Jackson after they signed the 34-year-old right-hander on June 6; he makes a prorated $1.5 million in the majors. Oakland has won eight of his 10 starts and Jackson has posted a 2.59 ERA and 1.06 walks and hits per inning (WHIP).

For less than $5 million for three starters, that’s a pretty efficient rotation backbone.

Nonstop relievers

So perhaps the retread starters won’t sustain their success. Those matters aren’t as pressing when the A’s have seemingly collected every reliever west of the Mississippi.

The rebirth of Blake Treinen – who has 45 saves in 52 chances since a July 2017 trade to Oakland – created a solid bullpen foundation. The emergence of rookie Lou Trivino – who boasts a 98-mph fastball and a 1.05 WHIP – deepened the group. And the July and August trades for former closers Jeurys Familia (Mets) and Fernando Rodney (Twins) - which pushed the A's actual payroll closer to $70 million - took the pressure off a struggling Trivino and gives the A’s a daunting late-inning look.

Unsurprisingly, they’re 51-0 when leading after seven innings, 26-10 in one-run games and have the AL’s best bullpen ERA (2.55) since July 3. This, perhaps more than any factor, should worry the Yankees or any club that slots into a one-game wild card against the A’s.

Views

Those who thought Moneyball was merely about on-base percentage would be disappointed in these A’s – they rank in the middle of the AL pack with just a .320 OBP. Still, the lineup can be treacherous for opposing pitchers, as four A’s – Matt Olson, Jed Lowrie, Marcus Semien and Matt Chapman – rank in the AL’s top 25 for pitches per plate appearance.

Despite their homer-unfriendly ballpark and middling payroll, the A’s have hit 166 home runs, trailing only the Yankees, Angels, Red Sox and Indians in the AL; DH Khris Davis has ripped 36 home runs – including two Sunday off Justin Verlander – to rank third in the AL.

These A’s, then, have power and a dose of patience, but are far from passive.

Jumpman

Beane’s trade of Donaldson after the A’s 2014 wild-card loss was a bridge too far for many A’s fans who previously accepted such broadside blows from cost-conscious management. Donaldson won the 2015 AL MVP with Toronto; attendance in Oakland plummeted to 1.47 million in 2017, an eight-year low.

That deal seemed to come full circle when Chapman, drafted six months before the Donaldson trade, pleaded with fans in a live TV interview to come to the Coliseum for big games this week with Seattle and Houston.

Now, Chapman is the club’s marquee attraction, a certain Gold Glove winner at third base and a developing force with the bat. He has 17 home runs, a robust .362 OBP and a growing highlight reel of plays at the hot corner, underlined this week by a dive onto the Coliseum tarp for a foul pop.

Chapman ranks fifth among AL players in Wins Above Replacement. He’s also not eligible for free agency until after the 2023 season, by which time the A’s - stop if you've heard this before - hope to show off a new stadium.

Bob’s plans

For the eighth consecutive year, the A’s will finish the season with Bob Melvin as their manager, their longest run of stability in that role since Tony La Russa’s departure in 1995.

Come 2019, Melvin may be showing off his third AL Manager of the Year award, a testament to his steady leadership and ability to connect with players. And he may be coming off his fourth playoff appearance in seven full seasons at the helm.

This one, however, would be the most unlikely.

Related slideshow:  Players traded after deadline

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