[Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles Andrew will be writing on MLB front office difference makers. Andrew will be interviewing front office folks from a number of MLB teams to give readers a unique perspective on how and why personnel and other decisions are made at the big league level.]
Do you fancy yourself an “aspiring baseball executive?” Are you looking for a new challenge beyond building fantasy baseball dynasties?
If so, I suggest you take a look at a nifty website called baseballplayersalaries.com, which gauges every MLB team’s value based on their amount of wins, relative to their aggregate salaries.
Using this formula, building a valuable franchise seems simple enough: pay as little as possible and win as much as possible.
Easy right? Not quite.
As common logic would suggest, the corollary that exists between wins and aggregate dollars spent is inescapable. In short, the more money you spend, the more you’re going to win.
And if you’re willing to pay enough, you can have a team that isn’t very cost effective with regard to dollars-per-win, and yet is very effective on the field of play.
No franchise illustrates this better than the New York Yankees, who, over the past decade, rostered 6 of the 10 least efficient teams in major league history, yet saw 5 of those 6 teams make it to the playoffs.
On the other end of the cost-per-win efficiency spectrum are the teams that have squeezed blood out of a turnip. The teams that, either by virtue of a strong minor league system, effective trades, or savvy free agent signings, have produced a cost effective product that out-rivaled its more expensive counterparts.
According to Gregory Lynn of baseballplayersalaries.com, the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays were the most efficient team to reach the World Series and one of the most efficient major league teams of all time. In analyzing those 2008 Rays, Lynn ultimately concluded that the team’s overwhelming success was primarily attributable to “drafting well, developing well, making good trades, and managing their roster efficiently.”
If we fast forward to 2012, an analysis of this year’s most efficient teams finds the Oakland Athletics ranked 2nd overall in the context of cost-per-win. So besides the abstract notion of “economic efficiency,” what is the connection between the 2008 Rays and the 2012 A’s?
The answer is Dan Feinstein–the current director of professional scouting and baseball development for the Oakland A’s.
From 2006 through 2011, Feinstein served as the director of baseball operations for the Rays and therefore had a significant hand in building the historically efficient 2008 Rays roster. Four years later, he remains the unsung hero of an Oakland franchise that is currently 8 games over .500 after being 13 games BELOW .500 at this time last year.
Over the weekend, I had a chance to speak with Feinstein about his experiences with the A’s organization over the past year and his thoughts on the current A’s roster.
Feinstein, who grew up in the Bay area and attended college at UC Davis, told me that he couldn’t be happier to be back with the Athletics franchise after previously spending a decade with them from 1994 to 2004. And given the A’s quick reversal of fortune with Feinstein back on board, the feeling is undoubtedly mutual.
So with no further ado, here are some of the players making headlines in Oakland as seen through the eyes of a man who helped to bring them there.
Coming into the 2012 season, Dan Straily was hardly a top prospect.
A former 24th round draft pick out of Marshall, Straily’s 3 years of professional baseball experience, all spent in class-A ball, were hardly noteworthy.
However, after a four month period in which Straily struck out 175 batters in just 138 innings between stints in AA and AAA, Oakland recently decided to make Straily the latest addition to their starting rotation. The early returns have been promising.
This past Friday, Straily looked excellent in his MLB debut, giving up only 1 run through 6 innings and striking out 6.
But while most of the baseball world continues to marvel at the sheer unexpectedness of Straily’s rapid ascension to prominence, Dan Feinstein is not nearly as surprised.
Feinstein recalls that his interest in Straily dates back to 2008 when Straily was a sophomore starter at Marshall University with a “good-looking change up.” Given that Straily’s Marshall career included an ERA over 4.25 and a WHIP over 1.45, I can only assume that it was the Kate Upton of change-ups.
So how did a guy who posted under 7 strikeouts per 9 innings throughout his college career go on to lead the minor leagues in strikeouts just 3 years later? According to Feinstein, it is because Straily has “developed very good secondary pitches” to complement his plus change-up and a fastball with good movement.
When I spoke with Feinstein last Thursday, he conveyed how “excited” he was to see Straily’s major league debut the following day. And with the way Straily pitched, Feinstein got his money’s worth (figuratively and literally.
Given the A’s incredible depth at starting pitcher, many analysts were surprised that the team refused to trade veteran starter Bartolo Colon before last week’s non-waiver trade deadline.
But while these analysts primarily focused upon the reasons that Colon was a strong candidate to be traded (i.e. his age, his 1-year contract, the A’s pitching depth), Feinstein instead focused upon why Colon was too valuable to be traded.
No Oakland starting pitcher has been more consistently effective than Colon throughout the 2012 season. Colon, who is on pace to throw roughly 200 total innings, currently sports a 3.55 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, which puts him on pace to have his lowest ERA and WHIP along with his most innings pitched since his 2005 Cy Young campaign.
None of this, however, comes as a surprise to Feinstein, who suggested that Colon was performing at a level that the A’s believed him to be capable of when they signed him this past offseason. And it is worth noting that Colon has been especially impressive as of late, as he’s posted a 2.14 ERA in his 6 starts since the beginning of July.
But Colon hasn’t only been a leader on the field for the A’s–he’s been a leader in the clubhouse as well.
Feinstein told me that Colon has emerged as a mentor for many of the team’s younger players and called him a “great clubhouse presence.” Thus, in the midst of one of the tightest AL playoff races in recent memory, it is hardly surprising that Feinstein was reluctant to trade away a clubhouse leader who has been his most effective and reliable starter.
Feinstein also deserves credit for signing Colon to a 1-year, $2 million dollar contract in the offseason when most other teams were reluctant to offer Colon a penny above the veteran’s minimum. Feinstein called the signing “a classic low risk, high reward situation.” I call it the steal of the offseason.
Coming into the season, things weren’t looking up for Chris Carter.
A former top prospect and prolific minor league hitter, Carter had flamed out during his brief auditions with the major league club during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Already 25, Carter was beginning to be labeled as a quadruple-A player–someone who consistently dominates in the minor leagues but is unable to translate that success into the major leagues.
Only 80 major league at bats later, Chris Carter finally appears ready to shed the AAAA label.
After being called up in late June, Carter has given the A’s a consistent source of power in the bottom half of their lineup, mashing 9 home runs.
But while the home runs might have been expected, Carter’s current .400 on base percentage (OBP) was not. Despite only hitting .250, Carter maintains a current .400 OBP aided largely by his 20 walks through his first 100 plate appearances.
In discussing Carter’s breakout season, Feinstein affirmed that both he and the A’s scouting department have always had confidence in Carter’s abilities.
Feinstein explained that he refused to read very far into Carter’s previous hiccups at the Major League level because of his longstanding belief that “first-year players will not always immediately produce” after their initial call ups.
Feinstein also believes that Carter’s recent success is attributable to his “increased confidence” and that Carter’s recent offensive production is a sign of things to come.
Perhaps the best evidence that Carter’s hot start has not been a fluke, is Carter’s newfound patience at the plate. At the time of his midsummer call-up, Carter sported a career strike out-to-walk ratio of nearly 2/1 (898/451). In his 100 big league plate appearances since, that ratio has evened out considerably (to 25/20).
By working deeper counts, and not giving away as many strikes, Carter is seeing better pitches to hit. The results speak for themselves.
Another topic I briefly discussed with Feinstein was the “potential logjam” of starting pitchers for the A’s.
With Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson each set to return within the next couple of weeks, the A’s have no less than 8 pitchers who are capable of being productive starters: Colon, Straily, AJ Griffin, Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy, and Travis Blackley. A 9th potential starting option–Dallas Braden–could return from Tommy John surgery at some point in September.
While Feinstein acknowledged the inevitable reality that as many as four of these pitchers will not be starting for the A’s in September, he didn’t seem particularly bothered by this dilemma, calling it “the best sort of problem to have.”
And thus, it should come as no surprise that with A.J. Griffin headed to the disabled list after straining his shoulder over the weekend, the A’s will be able to replace Griffin’s 2.42 ERA with McCarthy’s 2.54 ERA. That epitomizes the significance of having someone like Dan Feinstein to build and manage your roster.
My hat is off to one of the best in the business, and my money is on him to help lead the A’s into the playoffs.