The Oakland Athletics have many reasons not to be where they are. They have the second-lowest payroll in baseball at $55.4 million, missing the last-place distinction by $130,000. They have the second-youngest roster in the American League. They have one of the lowest-scoring offenses in the league, with their best hitter being a rookie from Cuba. Before this season, they traded away their past three all-stars for other teams’ prospects, including a trade that brought Gio Gonzalez to Washington this past winter.
Yet, the Oakland Athletics sit eight games above .500 as the season approaches the two-thirds mark in one of the highest-spending divisions in baseball, the AL West. They posted the best July in baseball, an impressive 19-5 record. They have the best pitching staff in the American League. They have 12 walk-off wins, the most in the majors. And, if you dare to dream: If the playoffs began now, this low-cost organization, whose innovative philosophy was depicted in the book and movie “Moneyball,” and its potpourri of players would make the playoffs as a wild card.
“We’re winning games the way we were losing games,” said Oakland outfielder-designated hitter Jonny Gomes, who played for the Nationals last season. “We’d make an error, throw the ball to the wrong base or something, and the other team would just totally capitalize on it. Now that’s what we’re doing.”
At the heart of the success of one of baseball’s most frugal teams is that trade that sent Gonzalez and a minor league pitcher to Washington for four of their best prospects — all drafted and developed by the Nationals. Washington felt it was a front-line starter away from contending, and Oakland could unload salary and bolster its farm system with young arms.
Two of those players have been in the majors this season, and none has contributed more to Oakland’s surge more than starter Tommy Milone, who made his major league debut last season with Washington. Gonzalez has been stellar for the Nationals, earning his second all-star selection and helping propel Washington into first place. It’s a trade that, for the moment, appears to have benefited both teams.
“At the time, it’s difficult to let guys like that go,” Oakland Manager Bob Melvin said. “And then you come to spring training and see what we got, and you’re pretty happy about that trade. I think both sides are very happy about that trade. That’s a little unusual, especially for the younger guys that we got. It usually takes a little more time. But we’re getting production out of some guys right now."
Oakland has risen to contention in the AL West against the Los Angeles Angels ($154 million payroll) and two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers ($120 million) because of the strength of its pitching. Its meager offense, limited by its cavernous home stadium, has been boosted by Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, a power-hitting 26-year-old who signed with the team for $36 million over four years and has been one of baseball’s most pleasant surprises.