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Yankees vs. A's: A difference of philosophy

Different approaches to team-building are on display in the series between New York and Oakland.

Thearon W. Henderson

The folks at Athletics Nation were nice enough to ask me to answer some questions and in return proposed to answer some questions of mine. The first thing that occurred to me was a quality of the A's roster that I found really appealing:

Because of "Moneyball," there always seems to be the perception that the A's win through some kind of sleight of hand -- a trick. It seems to me, though, that this team has won by virtue of a very unmystical emphasis on players that, looked at on some other team's depth chart, might always have been their second or third choice for a position, but put them together on one roster and they make a very competitive team. Is that a correct way of appraising the way this roster has been constructed?

Presumably you'll read Alex Hall's answers later today, but at the risk of his saying that the above is pure banana oil, allow me to say that this is the kind of team-building that a team in straitened circumstances like the Yankees could benefit from. Those circumstances are, in any order you want to take them, (1) Steinbrennerian austerity, (2) declining veterans with immovable contracts, (3) a farm system not yet ready to give up its young, and (4) a free-agent market increasingly devoid of the best talent.

That last is terribly important. During the MLB network's draft coverage, Harold Reynolds said something like, "The Yankees tend to screw up the draft, but it doesn't matter because they can always buy more free agents." Harold, that is so last year -- with so much new TV money in the game, teams are locking up their best players, and the chances of a Clayton Kershaw wandering his way to the Bronx have become relatively small. That means building through the draft and being very smart about acquiring those players who do become available.

Which is to say, not Vernon Wells.

None of the players on the A's have Wells' profile or price tag, but with the possible exception of Yoenis Cespedes, they weren't anyone's first choice, either. The Mariners, though desperate for OBP, made John Jaso part of the Mike Morse trade. Brandon Moss was a middling Red Sox prospect who couldn't break through with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Jed Lowrie can hit well for a middle-infielder, but only from one side of the plate, and perhaps cannot field well for a middle infielder, normally a disqualifier. Josh Donaldson wasn't even the A's' first choice at third initially -- he was an uncomfortable catcher who didn't look to hit much, but when Brandon Inge got hurt late last summer, he became a two-way star at the hot corner. Seth Smith always seemed like an afterthought with the Rockies, but with the A's he's another positive piece of the puzzle, a player who does a lot of things well without excelling in any single department.

You can keep going down the list and through the pitching staff. With the possible exception of Cespedes and Donaldson , none of these players would be a star on any other contender, and maybe they aren't exactly stars here either. That's not to say that they don't have a star-like following among the team's fans, but rather that calling them stars would be missing the point: the A's are not going for wattage, but basic overall competency -- it would be nice to have Superman in the middle of your order, but if he's either unaffordable or unavailable, maybe you go for depth and just try to be pretty good across the board. They haven't quite achieved that -- Derek Norris hasn't done much except walk, so his part of the catching tandem has been soft, and thanks to Josh Reddick's extended trip to the Twilight Zone (since last September he's hit .177/.252/.297) they're bleeding out in right field -- but in this case the aspiration is more important than the results -- a team doesn't need names, it needs production.

(In this, I am reminded of the key insight by Generals Sherman and Grant in the Civil War. While everyone else was shouting "On to Richmond" and chasing their own tails, they realized that taking the enemy's cities wasn't half as important as destroying his ability to make war.)

I mocked the Vernon Wells acquisition before, but in a sense it was understandable given the way things were falling apart for the Yankees -- Brian Cashman just reached for the first readily available name, one who at least had some history of high-level production, and for a month or so it looked like he had gambled brilliantly. The time for making the kind of measured acquisitions the A's have is largely in the offseason, and in the offseason the Yankees slept, apparently by executive order.

Going forward, that will have to change, but the difference can't come from a reversion to high-spending form. After all, you can't buy what's not there. Rather, success in the future will come from being canny when it comes to those no-frills players who typically crowd the minor league free agent market. The difference between the Yankees' and A's' approaches can be summed up in the difference between Brandon Moss and Ben Francisco. You can argue about whether that difference is luck or design -- I'd argue design given what Moss had accomplished at Triple-A from 2010 through the first third of 2012, as well as all that Francisco hasn't accomplished in recent years. It's also the difference between giving Brennan Boesch more than a handful of at-bats and letting him rot at Triple-A. Not that Boesch is Charlie Keller, but he's also not 39.

The Yankees haven't been totally inflexible; they've given David Adams an extended trial and it hasn't paid off. His is just the first of what has to be many trials. What the Oakland experience suggests is that if you keep trying to catch lightning in a bottle you eventually will, so long as you make informed choices. You can be good without being expensive, and it doesn't take anything like a new-age philosophy either. We knew that, but it's a pleasure to see it being done so well in Oakland.

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