Sunday, October 5, 2003

Less is plenty for A's, Twins

Analysis: Rebuilding the Reds

By John Erardi and John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When Reds chief operating officer John Allen said this week that one of the main criteria for hiring the next Reds general manager would be to find the person who can find "baseball players," he was speaking in code.

And the "code" can be broken by anybody who has read the best-selling book Moneyball about the Oakland A's methodology for winning games with a comparatively small payroll.

Allen is looking for a general manager capable of applying the Oakland A's and Minnesota Twins models of being able to do more (i.e. win) with less (i.e. a bottom-quartile payroll).

Both teams have moderate payrolls, in line with the Reds' 2003 payroll when the season started. And both have been successful, though using slightly different strategies.

The question: What can the Reds take from those organizations and apply in Cincinnati?

Allen didn't return a call for the portion of this story about Oakland, but conversations between the Enquirer and Reds insiders Johnny Almaraz and Brad Kullman indicate the Reds already had begun guiding themselves toward being a leaner, smarter organization before general manager Jim Bowden and manager Bob Boone were fired in July.

In the June draft, and months subsequent, the Reds went after collegiate pitchers (witness Ryan Wagner) and paid special attention to protecting their young arms.

Almaraz and Kullman don't come out and say it, but this is right off the Oakland A's blueprint:

• Draft and develop young talent (with an emphasis on college players, especially pitchers);

• Evaluate and procure producers via trades and relatively small-time free agent signings; and

• Don't immediately commit to locking up high-priced talent on long-term contracts. There are no Ken Griffeys, Sean Caseys or Danny Graveses on the Oakland A's.

No secret to A's success

Oakland's philosophies are laid out in Moneyball by author Michael Lewis, and its strategies are influencing other teams.

A's GM Billy Beane already has two disciples running other ballclubs: Theo Epstein in Boston and J.P. Ricciardi in Toronto. He probably would have a third - A's assistant GM Paul DePodesta was hinted to be an early favorite for the Reds job - but Baseball America cautioned (correctly, as it turned out) that DePodesta and Beane would not be separated for the Reds job.

The A's are devotees of the importance of on-base percentage, and they don't concern themselves with rating hitters by batting average and RBI. They do, however, give considerable weight to slugging percentage, which is a reflection of extra-base-hitting ability.

In the eyes of the A's, the value of stolen bases and sacrifice bunts - i.e. "small ball" or "manufacturing runs" - have been terribly, woefully, exaggerated. The A's prefer to get on base and not run themselves into outs. This year, they once again have ridden that station-to-station philosophy into the postseason, despite having (also, once again) a bottom-quartile payroll.

And perhaps above all else, they don't rely on scouts to tell them who the good players are. Forget "face" and "body" and "projections." Study the numbers; they'll tell you who the players are, and the fact is, you can't do a whole heck of a lot to change it.

The Reds' well-chronicled love for four- and five-tool players - those who can run, throw, hit, hit with power and field - has gotten the Reds nowhere in the past four years. Their success in '99 had to do with players who had good baseball instincts and a good clubhouse chemistry (led by the lunch bucket-carrying Greg Vaughn), and avoiding the disabled list (see Barry Larkin, who while a four-tool guy, has had the best baseball instincts on the team for the past 18 years).

Power of pitching

Here is Oakland's model on pitching, in a nutshell: Seek out pitchers who keep batters off base, even if the pitchers don't pop your radar guns.

There were some who criticized the A's when they drafted Barry Zito with the ninth overall pick in 1999, because he never topped 88 mph on the gun. But all Zito does is get batters out (witness the way, most recently, he handcuffed the Boston Red Sox to put the A's up 2-0 in that American League division series).

The A's Game 1 starter, Tim Hudson, didn't get drafted after his third year of college, and finally went in the sixth round after his senior year. Of the A's studs, only Mark Mulder had been widely touted. Ted Lilly, the A's Game 3 starter, was only 3-6 with the New York Yankees last year.

And, again, the A's believe in what their numbers show. They liked submarine-throwing Chad Bradford, even though he was wallowing at Triple-A for the Chicago White Sox. They also liked Keith Foulke of the White Sox, and now he's the A's closer. He doesn't look like one, but he gets the results of one.

Twins' strategy: Patience

As for the Minnesota Twins, their recent success can be summed up in one word: patience.

The Twins had a plan and stuck with it. The plan was to build the club through player development, and they've done that.

Fourteen of the 25 players on the playoff roster are homegrown, including five of the starting eight position players, the No. 1 starting pitcher, the closer, and the No. 1 setup man.

"They're a classic example of quality over quantity," Allen said. "Each successful team has their own secret. A little luck is involved. Your young players have to stay healthy."

The Twins took their lumps to get into their current position. They finished last or second-last for eight straight years, beginning in 1993.

"They paid the price to consistently get those high draft picks," Allen said.

The Twins, like the A's, have drafted well. Minnesota made the most of its high picks, drafting the nucleus of its club from 1991-96. In 1991, the Twins took top setup man LaTroy Hawkins in the seventh round and No. 1 starter Brad Radke in the eighth round. In 1993, center fielder Torii Hunter was the first-round pick. They chose catcher A.J. Pierzynski in the second round and third baseman Corey Koskie in the 26th round. In 1995, they picked first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz in the fifth round, and second baseman Luis Rivas signed as a free agent out of Venezuela. In '96, they picked left fielder Jacque Jones in the second round.

Through the building, the Twins stuck by their staff and system. Their director of minor-league operations, Jim Rantz, has been with the Twins since their inception in 1961 and has been in his current job since 1986. Mike Radcliff has been with the Twins for 16 years and has been director of scouting for 10.

Trading for quality

The Twins also showed patience in allowing the players to develop. From 2000-02, the Twins made seven trades. The Reds made 32 trades in that time.

It's a classic example of quality over quantity.

The Twins traded Chuck Knoblauch to the Yankees for four players, including Cristian Guzman and Eric Milton, in 1998. The Reds, in contrast, have made five trades with the Yankees since 1998 and got a total of eight players in those deals. Only Brian Reith and Wily Mo Pena ended the season on the 25-man roster.

This year, when the Twins needed a boost, they traded homegrown player Bobby Kielty to Toronto for Shannon Stewart.

Overall, the methods pioneered by the A's are more unorthodox when compared to the Twins.

But rest assured that Allen likes what the A's have accomplished for two reasons: They win, and they do it without spending a lot of money.

Whoever is going to get the Reds' GM job is going to have to convince Allen that Cincinnati's team can win 100 games some year soon without having to break Carl Lindner's bottom line to do it.

Minnesota Twins

2003 record: 90-72

Composite 3-year record: 269-216

Player payroll: $55.5 million

TV market ranking: 15th

Average attendance in '03: 24,025

Age of stadium: Opened in 1982, shared with the Minnesota Vikings

Key to success:

• Drafting and developing players. Five of the starting eight and the top two relievers are homegrown.

• Making key trades to fill holes. Four of the five starting pitchers were obtained through trades.

Oakland Athletics

2003 record: 96-66

Composite 3-year record: 301-185

Player payroll: $50.1 million

TV market ranking: 5th (market includes San Francisco and San Jose)

Average attendance in '03: 27,365

Age of stadium: Opened in 1968, shared with the Oakland Raiders

Keys to success:

• Placing an emphasis on on-base percentage as the key offensive stat.

• Drafting college players based on successful careers, rather than relying on scouts' evaluations.

• Being careful with long-term contracts.

Cincinnati Reds

2003 record: 69-93

Composite 3-year record: 213-273

Player payroll: $59.3 million

TV market ranking: 32nd

Average attendance in '03: 29,077

Age of stadium: Opened in 2003

(Player payroll is the number published by USA Today at the beginning of the 2003 season.)

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